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The Next Pope

Benedict XVI’s resignation marks the end of the heroic generation. Writing as I am before the conclave, I can’t know who will be his successor, but I can foresee this: No longer will the chief pastor of the Catholic Church be a man who participated in the Second Vatican Council, the three years in the life of the Church that have defined so much of the past fifty. Instead, he will be shaped by the turmoil that followed.

Joseph Ratzinger was one of the young Turks at the council. Allied with Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, and others, Ratzinger wanted to give the Church a warmer, more immediate, open, and effective witness. This made him something of a radical. In a pamphlet he wrote after the council’s remarkable first session, he observed that the key question was whether the Church would “turn over a new leaf, and move into a new and positive encounter with its own origins, with its brothers, and with the world of today.” He left little doubt about the answer he preferred: historical theology, ecumenical commitment, and an openness to modern culture.

Ratzinger’s role as a theological advisor to the progressive forces at the council reflected his experiences as a young seminarian and priest. After the defeat of Nazism, some of the leading bishops, including Ratzinger’s mentor, Cardinal Frings, lent support to the Christian Democratic Union, an alliance led by Konrad Adenauer. This marked an important shift from forming a Catholic-only party, the previous approach, to participating in a broad coalition.

The Catholic Church was not only entering the political alliance that dominated Germany for two decades; she was also participating in a remarkable revival of Catholic intellectual and cultural life. Romano Guardini, Josef Pieper, Jacques Maritain, and others were widely read and influential voices of Catholic humanism. The Church of Ratzinger’s youth was engaged, relevant, and effective. Working shoulder to shoulder with Protestants and liberally minded people of no particular faith, Catholicism contributed to the rebuilding of the political and moral culture of Europe.

The long postwar decade of Catholic revival and relevance shaped Ratzinger’s youthful radicalism. At the Second Vatican Council, he wasn’t thinking about how to fix a broken Church. He was part of the heroic generation that was confident that, with the right changes, the Church’s strengths—her ability to play a central role in public life, her intellectual vitality, her moral authority and muscular sanctity—could become still more effective.

As Hans Urs von Balthasar put it in Razing the Bastions, his trumpet blast of a book in the 1950s, the Church must lift the drawbridges and open her doors, not to let modernity in but to allow the power of the gospel to stream out. This is why the older Ratzinger insisted on a “hermeneutic of continuity.” The changes at Vatican II—and there were important changes—were made for the sake of releasing the full potential of already existing strengths and achievements.

We can debate the merits, significance, and true meaning of Vatican II, as did many of the major figures in the decades following the council. But the fact remains: The heroic generation, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” experienced the council as opening an exciting new chapter in the Church’s long and noble career as the soul of Western culture.

That won’t be true for the next pope. Unlike those of Montini, Wojtyla, and Ratzinger, his formative experiences as a young seminarian and priest will correspond with the long, dolorous, disastrous decade after the council. Thousands of men left the priesthood. Paul VI issued an authoritative teaching on contraception that the clergy attacked and the laity ignored. The liturgy was debased. Catechesis collapsed. Theology faculty members reinvented themselves as cultural anthropologists, social activists, and professional dissenters.

The next pope, whoever he turns out to be, will have experienced as a young priest what the middle-aged Ratzinger learned: the foolishness of presuming that an increasingly hostile secular culture wants or even recognizes the Church’s moral witness. Because this successor will be a generation younger, his early experiences of the Church will be quite different from Ratzinger’s. He’ll know in his bones that the power of the gospel is undermined and the light of faith dimmed when the household of faith is in disarray.

The Secular Imperative

What I call “the secular imperative” has been around since the founding of First Things but is now gaining momentum. One example is the struggle over the mandate to provide free contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. Recently the Obama administration released the proposed regulations allowing that actual churches and organizations directly under the control of churches are properly religious employers. They can opt out of the morally controversial coverage. But religious colleges and charities are not and cannot. To them, the administration offers a so-called accommodation.

The details are complex, as are the moral dimensions, but we know from experience that we cannot count on accommodations. When Massachusetts and Illinois passed laws allowing gay adoptions, there was no accommodation. The Church was forced either to comply or shut down her adoption agencies.

That’s why the fundamental issue is the one Cardinal Dolan of New York identified in a statement on February 7: Who counts as a religious employer, fully protected by the Constitution? The Obama administration seeks a narrow definition. The Catholic Church and her allies want a broad definition that includes religiously inspired health care, universities, and charities.

The administration’s insistence on a narrow definition is part of a trend. In a recent Supreme Court case, Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, a religious school claimed it could invoke a religious principle to justify firing an employee, drawing on a legal doctrine known as the ministerial exception, which allows religious institutions wide latitude in hiring and firing their religious leaders. Administration lawyers argued not only that it couldn’t, but also that there should be no ministerial exception.

The Supreme Court rejected the government’s arguments in a unanimous 9–0 vote. But the administration’s basic claim remains: The government needs to have broad powers to address wrongs and ensure justice, and therefore it must minimize opportunities for people and institutions to exempt themselves from the righteous reach of the law. The same kind of thinking is behind the narrow definition of a religious employer that the administration seems determined to encode into the “compromise” over the contraceptive mandate. Establishment liberalism views free contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs as necessary for gender equality and “women’s health.” Thus the secular imperative. Religious objections must be pushed aside to expand the reach of these and other policies. I’m quite sure that the Obama administration lawyers and bureaucrats believe in religious liberty. But they want to define as secular as much of public life as possible.

The secular imperative has an intellectual pedigree. Political philosophers—led by John Rawls, whose influential book A Theory of Justice appeared in 1971—have long argued that our laws must be based on so-called public reason, an ambiguous, ill-defined concept that under the claim of neutrality gives privileged status to liberalism. In the last few years, we’ve seen this idea used by the courts to dismiss religious voices from public debate.

In 2010, Federal District Court Judge Vaughn Walker overturned Proposition 8, the ballot measure that reversed the California Supreme Court’s 2006 decision that homosexuals have a right to marry. In his opinion, he cited the lack of a rational basis for thinking that only a man and a woman can marry: “The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples.” He continues by observing that many supporters of Proposition 8 were motivated by their religious convictions, which, following Rawls, he presumes should not be allowed to influence public law. Seven years earlier in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down Texas sodomy laws, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that moral censure of homosexuality has “been shaped by religious beliefs.”

The idea seems to be that moral views historically supported by religion—which of course means all moral views other than modern secular ones—are constitutionally suspect. Under a legal regime influenced by the concept of public reason, religious people are free to speak, but they should not expect to be heard when their voices contradict the secular consensus. The secular imperative keeps religious people and their reasons bottled up so that the field is open for the benevolent operations of progress.

And so our present clashes over religious liberty. The Constitution protects religious liberty in two ways. In the first instance, it prohibits laws establishing a religion. This prevents the dominant religion from using political power to privilege its own doctrines to the disadvantage of others. The second dimension prohibits laws that limit the free exercise of religion. What we’re seeing today is a secular imperative that wants to transform our understanding of these two protections of religious liberty. It wants to expand the prohibition of establishment to silence articulate religious voices and disenfranchise religiously motivated voters. And it hopes to narrow the scope of free exercise so that the progressive consensus can reign over American society unimpeded.

The New Dhimmitude

When people talk about religion in America, they almost always mean Christianity. The desire of many on the left to restrict religious freedom reflects their commitment to limiting the influence of Christianity over American society, especially in the fraught area of sexual morality, which has become a preoccupation of contemporary liberalism.

Today elite institutions can be relied upon to provide anti-Christian propaganda. Steven Pinker and Stephen Greenblatt at Harvard publish books that show how Christianity pretty much ruined, and ruins, everything, as Christopher Hitchens put it so bluntly. The major presses put out books by scholars like Elaine Pagels at Princeton that argue that Christianity is for the most part an invention of power-hungry bishops who suppressed the genuine diversity and spiritual richness of early followers of Jesus. Journalists like Garry Wills reprocess and reassemble this sort of scholarship to show that Christianity is a tissue of lies. They can count on the New York Times to praise their books.

We can dispute the accuracy of these works, and generally there’s a great deal to be criticized on scholarly grounds. This is necessary, but unlikely to be effective in altering the influence of someone like Greenblatt, whose recent book The Swerve was panned by scholars but nevertheless received the National Book Award for nonfiction. That’s not surprising, because he and others serve an important ideological purpose. Many liberals today want Christianity to be discredited, because Christianity and Christians are in the way. This is clearest in fights over abortion and gay marriage, but we can see it elsewhere. We’re in the way of medical research unrestricted by moral concerns about the use of fetal tissue. We’re in the way of new reproductive technologies and genetic experimentation. We’re in the way of doctor-assisted suicide. In other words, we’re in the way of liquefying traditional moral limits so that they can be reconstructed to accord with the desires and needs of the powerful people who don’t like being hindered.

Ideological attacks on Christianity delivered with the trappings of academic scholarship are playing and will continue to play a hidden but fundamental role in legal debates about religious freedom. The Constitution accords us rights, and the courts cannot void them willy-nilly. But history shows that it is a plastic document. When our elite culture thinks something is bad for society as a whole, legislators, bureaucrats, and judges find ways to suppress it.

The First Amendment offered no protection to the Mormons. In 1890, the Supreme Court upheld the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which was designed to stamp out polygamy. The legislation dissolved the LDS Church and confiscated its property. The First Amendment also offered no protection to Bob Jones University, which lost its tax-exempt status because of a policy that prohibited interracial dating. The Supreme Court majority in 1983 wrote: “Government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education . . . which substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on [the university’s] exercise of [its] religious beliefs.”

In recent years, the Supreme Court has been largely solicitous of religious freedom, sensing perhaps that our cultural conflicts over religion and morality need to be kept within bounds. But there are plenty of law professors who would like to see that change. Martha Nussbaum teaches at the University of Chicago Law School. Drawing on the logic of the Bob Jones case, she has opined that the colleges and universities run by Catholic religious orders that require their presidents or other leaders to be members of the order should (if the order is a male order) lose their tax-exempt status because they discriminate against women.

Chai Feldblum, former Georgetown law professor and current Obama appointee to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has thought and written about the coming conflicts between gay rights and religious liberty. With an admirable frankness, she admits, “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win.” When religious individuals and institutions don’t conform to the new consensus about sexual morality, their freedoms should be limited.

I have little doubt that it’s precisely the possibilities evoked by Nussbaum and Feldblum that now motivate the Obama administration’s intransigence about allowing places like Notre Dame to be classified as religious employers. By “accommodating” Notre Dame and other educational and charitable organizations rather than treating them as religious employers protected by the First Amendment, secular liberalism can restrict their freedom in the future.

A recent book by another University of Chicago law professor, Brian Leiter, outlines what may well become the theoretical consensus used to reinterpret the First Amendment. “There is no principled reason,” he writes in Why Tolerate Religion?, “for legal or constitutional regimes to single out religion for protection.” He buys the ideological attacks on religion, describing religious belief as a uniquely bad combination of moral fervor and mental blindness. It serves no public good that justifies special protection. More significant—and this is his main thesis—it is patently unfair to provide it with such. Why should a Catholic or Jew have a special right while Peter Singer, a committed utilitarian, doesn’t? Evoking the principle of fairness, Leiter argues that everybody’s conscience should be accorded the same legal protections. Thus he proposes to replace religious liberty with a plenary “liberty of conscience.”

Leiter’s argument is libertarian. He wants to get the government out of the business of deciding whose conscience is worth protecting. This seems to expand freedom, but that’s an illusion. In practice, it will lead to diminished freedom.

For example, the urban high school my son attended strictly prohibits hats and headgear. It does so in order to keep gang-related symbols and regalia out of the school. However, the school recognizes a special right of religious freedom, and my son, whose mother is Jewish and who was raised as a Jew, was permitted to wear a yarmulke. Leiter’s argument prohibits this special right. Why should a Jewish child get to do something others can’t? But his alternative is unworkable. The gang members can claim that their deep commitments of loyalty to each other create a conscientious duty to wear gang regalia. Or they can defend the headgear as expressions of racial or ethnic identity. Faced with these challenges, the school administration, recognizing the need to keep order and protect the safety of all students, will do the obvious: They’ll follow Leiter’s logic and impose an evenhanded restriction on headgear with no exemptions, religious or otherwise. If everybody’s conscience must be respected, then nobody’s will.

The Arabic word dhimmi means non-Muslim. Under Muslim rule, non-Muslims were allowed to survive only insofar as they accepted Muslim dominance. Our times are not those times, and the secular imperative is not Islam. Nevertheless, I think many powerful forces in America would like to impose a soft but real dhimmitude upon religious people, especially Christians, that severely limits the public influence of religion. To some degree, they want to do so by legal means. But the larger project involves cultural intimidation.

Good legal work can be done to prevent the erosion of religious liberty in the law. But it’s also important to resist the mentality of dhimmitude. We must remember that the church, synagogue, and mosque have a tremendous solidity born of a communion of wills fused together in obedience to God. This gives communities of faith a remarkable capacity to endure and shape the future.

My wife’s ancestors lived for generations in the contested borderlands of Poland and Russia. As Jews, they were extremely vulnerable, and yet they endured in spite of discrimination, violence, and attempted genocide. This was and remains no small thing. After all, where now are the Russian and Polish aristocrats who dominated them for centuries? They have been swallowed up by history. Where now is the Thousand-Year Reich? Where now the Soviet Worker’s Paradise? They have gone into the dust. Not so the community of faith they tried to grind into oblivion. The Torah is still read in the synagogue.

Christianity has its own forms of obedience to God, and it also has extraordinary power. The early Church did not need constitutional protections in order to take root in a hostile pagan culture two thousand years ago. Catherine the Great brought Germans to Russia in the eighteenth century, and their Lutheranism sustained them as a distinct people. To this day, Amish families resist absorption into American mass culture.

Right now it seems that secularists have the upper hand, and in many parts of American society today they do. But tomorrow may bring something quite different. Over the long haul, religious faith has proven itself the most powerful and enduring force in all of human history.

Underground Sunshine

As I neared the bottom of the long escalator on a rainy, cold, dreary Saturday, I could hear bright voices. The Beatles: “Here Comes the Sun.” Weekend trains run infrequently, so I drifted over to the music. Two late-middle-aged Mexican men were playing and singing, quite well, really, and with obvious pleasure. The train rumbled in as they were finishing. Perfect timing.

Later in the day, the rain got worse. The drain on the stairway down from 42nd Street was plugged. My feet got wet as I tried to tiptoe through the pooling water. As I went through the turnstile, Aretha Franklin echoed off the tiled walls of the vast subway station. r-e-s-p-e-c-t. Down on the platform, a large, middle-aged, smiling black woman was singing. And could she sing! The downtown A train roared past. She roared back. “You know I got it.” Yes, ma’am, you do.

It’s not just a great city. It’s often a happy one. Even on rainy days in late February.

From the Editor’s Desk

First Things publishes first-rate poetry, and this we owe to our first-rate poetry editor, Paul Lake. Paul is also a very fine poet in his own right, and we’re pleased to say that his latest collection, The Republic of Virtue, has won this year’s Richard Wilbur Award. The title poem appeared in our pages a while back (March 2009). The book will be published in the fall by the University of Evansville Press. Congratulations, Paul.

How do we carry the pro-life argument forward? On April 5 and 6, the Thomistic Institute and the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture will sponsor a conference at the Catholic Center of New York University to suggest some answers. First Things writers David Novak, Mary Eberstadt, Thomas Joseph White, Paige Hochschild, and others, including your humble scribe, will be speaking. It’s an important event: formulating the pro-life message in Gotham. Please join us. For more information, look for upcoming events in New York at

R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things . He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis .