Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Some tough words from the usually understated and scrupulously cautious Mark Chopko, general counsel of the U.S. bishops conference. Surveying legislative and regulative initiatives impinging upon various medical, social, and educational ministries, he says religious institutions are being “subjected to pressures to conform to the culture in ways that are contrary to their teachings. These pressures are overt and subtle, direct and indirect . . . Our institutions are under pressure to deliver services exactly as their secular counterparts do” and “the ability of religious institutions to ask that those who work for us act in harmony with the mission of the Church is under assault.”

In some places, says Chopko, the political process “is dominated by legislators and interest groups that believe Catholic ministries and practices are out of touch and should either be forced to reform through the process of law or withdraw from those ministries.” “At its core, this debate is not only about abortion or contraception or lifestyle or any particular issue; it is about an expansive government remaking religious agencies in its own image and likeness.”

In the forthcoming issue of F IRST T HINGS , which should be in the mail in the next ten days or so, I have an extensive reflection on Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). In that document, he cautions that Catholic ministries in the public square must assiduously protect their integrity against the ambitions of the modern state to subsume all social services. In the same issue, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver has a forceful article underscoring the ways in which state legislators, under the guise of “protecting children,” are working in tandem with trial lawyers and interest groups to gravely cripple the Church’s educational and social ministries.

In Boston and San Francisco, the hot issue is adoption by same-sex couples, and over that issue the Boston Archdiocese was forced out of providing adoption services. Or, as may be more accurate, it caved under pressure. In other places, anti-discrimination laws are employed to prevent church-related social services from hiring people on the basis of their sharing the mission for which such services were established. Medical services are being bullied into providing contraceptive measures and abortions, or at least referral to abortionists, in direct contradiction of the Church’s teaching.

This is not just a Catholic concern. While the Catholic Church is the largest community and has the largest network of social and educational services, the assault is against the free exercise of religion. Religious communities that do not necessarily agree with Catholic moral teaching should be taking alarm. It is past time for them to be speaking out. They, too, will sooner rather than later be targeted by those who are driven by a prejudice that is accurately described as totalitarian. I use the term advisedly. It was Mussolini who first set forth the totalitarian maxim: Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

Of course, those who are pressing religious institutions to conform to the culture (as they define the culture) and who are advancing the subordination of such institutions to state control do not think of themselves as fascists or totalitarians, and in other respects they are not. But in many circles there is a powerful mindset that views religious and other independent social services as an anomaly. In a modern, rational, well-ordered society, it is said, all such services would be coordinated under government control. In this view, there is little or no room for what Peter Berger and I described in To Empower People as the “mediating institutions” of society that stand between the isolated individual and the megastructures such as the state. The current attack is also an attack on pluralism, which includes institutional pluralism.

It is perhaps ironic that this comes at a time when the administration in Washington is enthusiastic about “faith-based initiatives.” Others would say that it is not ironic at all; that, whatever the good intentions, the faith-based initiatives program will have the result of seductively co-opting religious services by making them dependent on state funding. But that is an argument for another time.

What is disturbingly evident now is, as Mark Chopko says, the new aggressiveness in “expansive government remaking religious agencies in its own image and likeness.” The Catholic Church is the main target, in part because it is the biggest target. The efforts to increase the Church’s financial liability by, for instance, suspending statutes of limitations for sex abuse and other offenses, is also driven by legal looters who presume that the Catholic Church has the deepest pockets. That is the case if, as some courts have ruled, every Catholic institution over which a bishop has jurisdiction is deemed to be an asset that can be seized for damages. In this way, some dioceses have already been forced into bankruptcy. The patrimony built by the sacrificial offerings of generations of the faithful is now increasingly up for grabs.

There are many dimensions of this new aggression, with different players and different motives involved. What is at stake, and what is newly imperiled, is religious freedom and the diversity of institutional ways in which Americans have traditionally addressed human needs. This is not just a Catholic thing.

Picked up on Amy Welborn’s site is this item on Daniel Dennett, the author of Breaking the Spell , a polemic against religion that has been receiving considerable attention. It seems there was recently a gathering in London to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene . In his remarks, Dennett said:

And I also thought, on rereading the book, that the late Steve Gould was really right when he called Richard and me Darwinian fundamentalists. And I want to say what a Darwinian fundamentalist is. A Darwinian fundamentalist is one who recognizes that either you shun Darwinian evolution altogether, or you turn the traditional universe upside down and you accept that mind, meaning, and purpose are not the cause but the fairly recent effects of the mechanistic mill of Darwinian algorithms. It is the unexceptioned view that mind, meaning, and purpose are not the original driving engines, but recent effects that marks, I think, the true Darwinian fundamentalist.

And Dawkins insists, and I agree wholeheartedly, that there aren’t any good compromise positions. Many have tried to find a compromise position, which salvages something of the traditional right-side-up view, where meaning and purpose rain down from on high. It cannot be done. And the recognition that it cannot be done is, I would say, the mark of sane Darwinian fundamentalism.

Whether sane or not, that is indeed fundamentalism, in the pejorative sense of the term (and it is exceedingly rare to find any use of the term that is not pejorative). More accurately, it is a vulgar form of fideism based upon a simplistic forcing of a false choice. Mind, meaning, and purpose are not either the product of the mechanistic mill or rained down from on high. The story of the origins and development of life, and of human life in particular, might better be compared to a contrapuntal fugue played by Creator and creation. Reality is ever so much more wondrous than Mr. Dennett’s dismal dogmatism allows. But in these endless discussions, it is clarifying to have Mr. Dennett acknowledge that he is a fundamentalist. To paraphrase Eliot, some people can only bear so much reality.

In addition to which :

We all know about the seven year war and the hundred year war, but few are prepared for the two hundred year war. In the April issue of F IRST T HINGS , Father Richard John Neuhaus examines an important new book on the religion-driven “jihadism” of radical Muslims. In Knowing the Enemy , Mary Habeck of Johns Hopkins helps us to listen to them rather than just listening to ourselves talking about them. Americans are uncertain about whether we are at war, but the enemy has no doubts at all on that score. Isn’t it time for you to become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ?

The book is Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal says this:

"This is the story of how one priest discovered the way of grace and glory that is being Catholic. Writing with eloquence, deep intelligence and wit, Father Neuhaus guides us past all the confusion and controversy and lets the splendor of truth shine through. If you’re a serious Catholic, if you want to be a serious Catholic, if you want to know what it means to be a serious Catholic, read this book."

Catholic Matters can be ordered from Amazon by clicking here .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles