Despite his humble origins as a baker’s son from Trastevere, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, longtime curial head of the Holy Office (“successor to the Inquisition,” in journalese) and scourge of the nouvelle théologie of the 1950s, was a formidable figure in pre-conciliar Catholicism. Ottaviani’s approach to theology was neatly summarized in the Latin motto of his cardinalatial coat of arms, Semper Idem [Always the Same], and his fierce defense of what he understood to be orthodoxy made him a not-implausible model for the character of Cardinal Leone in Morris West’s novel The Shoes of the Fisherman .

Despite the caricatures of the world press, Ottaviani was no monster; indeed, he was reputed to be a man of considerable personal charm. Nor was he a dyed-in-the-wool conservative politically; he wanted the council to condemn all forms of modern war, another cause in which Ottaviani (whose Vatican II batting average did not rise above the Mendoza Line) failed. But perhaps his greatest defeat at the council came on the question of Church and state. For before and during the Vatican II years, Cardinal Ottaviani stoutly, and, ultimately, futilely, resisted the development of doctrine that led the world’s bishops to approve the council’s “ Declaration on Religious Freedom .”

As a legal scholar considering the future of society, Ottaviani’s fear was that religious freedom would result in religious indifference and then a collapse of religious conviction, which would in turn lead to state hostility toward religious believers and religious institutions. His theological argument against religious freedom, widely held in the Roman universities of the day, rested on the proposition that “error has no rights.” The council’s response to that claim was that persons have rights, whether their religious opinions be erroneous or not, and that, in any event, states lack theological competence.

Alfredo Ottaviani lost virtually every one of the battles he fought at Vatican II, but from his present, post-mortem position he may be enjoying a last laugh (if of a subdued, even sorrowful, sort). For the notion that “error has no rights” is very much alive”and precisely in those quarters where religious indifference has indeed led to intolerance of religious conviction.

When a Canadian Evangelical pastor is levied a significant fine for advocating biblical truth about men, women, and the nature of marriage, or when a Polish priest and magazine editor is punished with even stiffer fines (these, like the Canadian fines, were later thrown out) by a Polish court for accurately describing in print what an abortion does, the forces of coercive political correctness (embodied in the gay insurgency and the global campaign for “reproductive health”) are using state power to nail down the notion that “error has no rights.”

When the present U.S. administration attempts to overturn decades of equal employment opportunity law by attacking the legal exemption that allows religious bodies to choose their religious leadership according to their own criteria, the same dynamic is at work. And that mantra”“Error has no rights!””will, inevitably, be used to punish religious bodies that do not recognize any such thing as same-sex “marriage”: by taking away their tax-exempt status, denying their ministers the legal capacity to act as witnesses of marriage under civil law, or both.

An idea long associated with the farther reaches of Catholic traditionalism has thus migrated to the opposite end of the political spectrum, where it’s become a rallying point for the lifestyle left. There are many reasons why Kathleen Sebelius, the HHS secretary responsible for the coercive contraceptive/abortifacient/sterilization mandate currently being fought by the seriously Catholic elements of American Catholicism, is ill-cast in the role of Ottaviani redivivus . But in the oddities of history, that’s what has happened. The Catholic Church in the United States, which did more than any other local church at Vatican II to disentangle the universal Church from the notion that, in the civil order, “error has no rights,” is now being hard-pressed by aggressive secularist forces arrayed under that banner.

There are many ironies in the fire.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .

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