Coercive Measures

Secularism is naturally coercive. That stands to reason: As the worldview of secularism has it, human fulfillment must happen in this life, or it won’t happen at all –since, practically speaking, it’s the only life there is. An advertising slogan of a few years back neatly captured the spirit: “You only go round once.”
Coercion enters the picture because whoever fails to conform to secularism’s prescriptions for fulfillment is the enemy and, considering what’s at stake, must be eliminated, either metaphorically or in cold fact. Secularists wield the rhetoric of human rights and liberation in order to whip people into line and keep them there.

Yes, certainly — mild and tolerant secularists do exist. Moreover, history’s pages are littered with instances of religious coercion (fundamentalist Islam today follows that script). But the general rule holds true: Despite the many failings of religionists, transcendent, eschatological religion isn’t innately coercive because it locates ultimate fulfillment beyond this life; whereas secularism’s dream of immanent fulfillment carries a built-in tendency to coercion like a bad gene. Utopia now — and those who won’t cooperate had better watch out.
The French and Bolshevik revolutions provide many instructive illustrations of these truisms, though hardly the only ones. Now coercive secularism is flexing its muscles in the United States. America’s churches have generally responded in two different ways: surrender (mainstream Protestantism) and resistance (evangelicals and other conservative groups). American Catholicism, internally divided during the last several decades, has waffled.
Four stages have marked the progress of the secular assault on Catholicism in this time. In the first two, Catholics themselves were the active parties in the undermining of their Church’s public posture; in the second two, aggressive secularism has directly taken advantage of self-inflicted Catholic weakness.
First stage: Houston, September 12, 1960. John F. Kennedy is addressing the Houston Ministerial Association. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for the presidency, has been buffeted for months by nativist anti-Catholicism. He and his advisors have concluded that he must address the problem head-on.
JFK’s address to the ministers in Houston was the result. It’s said to have been the work of John Cogley, Commonweal editor and later religion writer for the New York Times, who eventually quit the Catholic Church, became an Episcopalian, and was an Episcopal deacon when he died.
Although the speech’s reasoning doesn’t stand up under close examination, Kennedy’s Houston text is a superficially skillful piece of work. There’s hardly a statement in it to which, taken in isolation, a reasonable person could object. But the speech as a whole is a sustained exercise in privatizing religion. Declaring his faith to be his business and no one else’s, Kennedy puts daylight between himself and his Church and pledges that, if he’s elected, religion won’t influence his performance. The Houston speech did the trick: Kennedy was elected. But the text stands as a landmark in the process of excluding religion from the public square that’s still underway.
Stage number two finds Mario Cuomo, Catholic governor of New York, speaking at Notre Dame on September 13, 1984. That’s some eleven years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion, and the question is how a Catholic politician should respond to the post-Roe state of affairs. It’s been raised in an acute form by the performance of Geraldine Ferraro, Catholic congresswoman from New York and Walter Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate, who insists that to be pro-choice is a legitimate option.
Cuomo’s contribution is an elaborate rationale developed with help from liberal theologians, which holds that, in a pluralistic democracy, a Catholic like himself, though “personally opposed” to abortion, needn’t and indeed shouldn’t work for laws forbidding or restricting it. Needless to say, this has proved to be a big help to “personally opposed” Catholic politicians ever since.
It’s impossible to assign a precise date and place to the third stage, but the message — now, clearly, secularism’s message — is stark. Going way beyond Kennedy and Cuomo, it asserts the primacy of a right of choice, superior to all other rights and duties and empowering individuals to choose very nearly anything in the line of personal behavior (abortion, same-sex marriage, or whatever it may be), no matter what anyone else thinks. At this point we are facing the “dictatorship of relativism” that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger decried in his address to the cardinals before his election as pope.
But today we’ve moved on to a fourth stage. Beyond the privatizing of religion and the absolutizing of individual choice lies coercion. According to the logic of secularism, even people who have conscientious objections can be forced to facilitate others’ choices (abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.) under threat of being penalized and stigmatized if they don’t. As Pope Benedict XVI remarks in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, where religion is excluded from the public square, “politics takes on a domineering and aggressive character.”
Indeed it does. Currently, the United States Senate, under the rubric of health-care reform, is moving to force people who reject abortion on conscience grounds to help pay for the elective abortions of people who don’t. And in Washington, D.C., the local archdiocese may have to scale back social-service programs — a significant loss to the entire community — because it can’t accept the implications of a same-sex marriage law recently passed by the city council. (The city election board did its own coercive bit by refusing to allow D.C. voters a referendum on gay marriage.)
These things are neither accidental nor unrelated. Says Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, “Today’s growing harassment of religious charities flows out of a crisis in America’s governing philosophy.” Its name is coercive secularism.
For years, Catholic leadership in the United States has been largely passive in the face of trends like these. Now there are signs of fighting back. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has worked actively and, up to this time, with notable success to amend the health reform legislation before Congress to eliminate government funding of elective abortion. And in Maine, the Catholic diocese received financial help from nearly 60 bishops and dioceses — including $50,000 each from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Phoenix — for costs of a successful campaign to prevent the legalization of gay marriage in that state.
But the hour is late. Secularist coercion on behalf of things like abortion and gay marriage is a powerful force in the media and politics in today’s United States. There’s much that needs doing and little time left.
Image: AP

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • RB

    Good article, I dont know how many countless Catholics who are Democrat,whom I know, who have their ‘head in the sand’ over these issues. Although the article doesnt specifically mention it(the major problem with most of these similar treatises), the Democratic party in the U.S. is the standard bearer for all this ‘secularist coersion’. Atheists, Secularists, spiritual communists(everyone must have the rights of everyone else: womens equality, gay equality,etc) are all people who are sitting at the Democratic strategy table.

    The book ‘Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church’ is
    a 400 page broken record (constant replay) of 2000 years of liberalism,secularism and modernisms fight against the Catholic Church. It puts our problems into proper perspective.

  • Stephen Wise

    Perhaps it would be appropriate to add the Catholic Supreme Court Justices to your list of secular “stages” — for failing to act, in keeping with Natural Law, on a host of issues.

  • Linus

    I got an email from Notre Dame Law School yesterday wishing me “Happy Holidays.”

    Now, I’m not one of these people who gets offended by such expressions at a store or in public, and I think “War on Christmas” talk is a little silly. I realize that there are non-Christians who attend Notre Dame, and of course that’s fine.

    But coming from a Catholic school, the email did bother me a little. A Catholic school doesn’t wish people Merry Christmas? If I was considering Cardozo and they sent me an email wishing me Happy Hanukkah it wouldn’t bother me or affect my opinion of them one bit. Quite the opposite. I would have doubts about any school that tried to downplay its heritage or culture to appeal to prospective students–as indeed I now have about Notre Dame.

    I also remember when I met with a representative from the law school (ND) and I asked about the school being Catholic (without mentioning that I myself am Catholic) and the rep seemed a little embarrassed and tried to downplay it.

    Anyway, that might be a little off-topic but I had to get it off my chest. It’s been bugging me.

    The real problem starts with empty pews, and you can’t blame the colleges for that.

  • Andy

    I think you can blame the colleges for the empty pews!

    The examples you noted regarding ND make my case.

  • Rich

    I think you can blame the colleges for the empty pews!

    The examples you noted regarding ND make my case.

    I disagree. You can blame Universities Andy, but your argument wont have much merit. Only a small percentage of those who darken the doorways of our parishes have ever been graduates of Catholic Universities.

    There are many reasons that pews are emptier these days, but my guess is that it is NOT the evil “fake Catholic” universities, to coin a new idiom from Deal. Sure, secularism has an affect everywhere, but I know personally a number of once strong Catholics who no longer go, and some even have left the church due to the sex abuse scandals. That issue does not like to be talked about much, so my guess is we wont ever really get a truly definitive answer as to why there are fewer mass attendees.

    Speaking to the article: secularism will always be part of our world, but I disagree that there is some “logic” to it specifically. We live in a fallen world, that’s it.

  • Long short fund

    I think paid Catholic writers would see a falling off in income if they criticize Popes but that precise piece…what could the Pope have done but did not… is always missing in these macro Catholic commentaries. Pope Benedict’s fast and twice said congradulations of Obama on his election therefore is mentioned by no one as having affected ND’s invite to Obama inter alia. One must turn every mistep into either the normal or the brilliant when speaking of Popes.
    The Bishops after 1984 did nothing about Cuomo and Ferraro and seeing that, the Pope should have moved in on the issue and met with them or had an aide meet with them and hash out the true ideas on the Catholic in office but he did not because we have defined him the Pope as author of documents rather than as manager also, as they were during the Renaissance to a fault…hiring condottieri to fight for papal border integrity often. Popes have to re-enter the abortion and other fray in detail and not just in documents and speeches. Subsidiarity should have backup from the higher power or it is useless to the commonweal.

  • William H. Phelan

    Great piece, Mr. Shaw. I am coninually baffled by people who keep insisting that Notre Dame (and some 200 other “Catholic” universities) are Catholic. They signed a document in 1967 stating emphatically that they were instituting lay boards and removing themselves from Church authority. Google Land O’ Lakes Statement and read it. It includes the names of the signers and their schools. How did we get to where we are today? The Church removed Hell from any discussion over the last forty years. If there is no Hell (eternal punishment), WHO CARES? The Church will not tell us the Third Secret of Fatima which was to be released in 1960, for crying out loud! Are we too “delicate” to hear that grim news?

  • Linus

    The effects of the sex-abuse scandals cannot be overstated.

    The problem is that in Catholicism, unlike in politics, conservatives are afraid or unwilling to be rebellious. This was true even within civil politics until Obama got elected (although I personally was screaming long and loud all throughout the Bush administration), but now we are starting to see a little bit of backlash with the Tea Party/Ron Paul-type of movements. Nothing analogous has yet caught fire in the Church.

    You can be an activist for traditional values. In fact, for every “socially conservative” issue you can think of –from homosexual marriage to abortion–I can give 100% secular reasons why the conservative position is the correct one.

    What we need is a renaissance of intellectual, reasoned, and unwavering conservative principles as a bulwark against the universally-unwelcome changes happening in society AND in the Church, e.g. pedophile/homosexual priests. My own parish priest, God bless him and I do love the man, proclaimed during Mass that he was a registered Democrat. What on earth would possess a priest to say that in front of his entire congregation? It wouldn’t be any better if he’d announced he was a loyal Republican.

    We need to stop the madness.

  • Kevin J. Jones

    Secularism is too vague. I suspect we’re really dealing with a coalition of liberal Protestantism, liberal Catholicism, and liberal Judaism. Secularists actually take a back seat.

    Witness the D.C. same-sex “marriage” bill being signed at a Unitarian-Universalist church. And consider how the Unitarian takeover of Harvard in the 19th century influenced the country.

    How many people, Catholics included, justify abortion with a Protestant-like appeal to personal conscience and the freedom that God gives us?

    Natural law arguments rarely work for people who are convinced their stand is religiously mandated.

    Perhaps society is flailing because we’re too busy picking on fringe dopes who hate Christmas. Instead, we should confront the influential remnants of the WASP establishment and the Catholics and Jews who have been assimilated into it.

  • Susan

    ndeed the USCCB has been influential on health care, but, whether advertent or not, in a non-benign way. The bill might never have made it out of the House but for Stupak, and the USCCB functionaries who negotiated directly with Pelosi. Stupak/USCCB left us paying for rape/incest abortions, something a Catholic kindergardener could recognize for their immorality. And we are left with a bill that could consolidate government power over some of the most intimate, personal, and faith-specific, areas of our lives! If USCCB was able to get Stupak passed, surely it could have put its efforts into defeating the health care bill itself, from the beginning. What comes now may be too little, too late. Here are some supporting articles regarding Stupak/USCCB (and these say nothing of the other USCCB scandals most notably CCHD):


    In his most recent presentation,

  • BenK

    Whatever you do, don’t continue to sell the old lie that there is ‘religion’ and its good and ill, and ‘secularism’ and its good and ill. Secularism is a religion. It has the same option and opportunity for good and ill as religion as a whole. There are different religions, but there are few people – not atheists, for sure – who are without one. The people who lack a religion are people who are too simple, mentally, for self-awareness or purpose. These people may truly lack religion, and may still be beloved by God. Secularists just claim to lack religion, and thereby attempt to put themselves above all other religions.

  • Richard

    Once and for all, Christians of every denomination, have to accept the fact that it is impossible for a democrat to act as a Christian. Nelson, Casey, et al, have proven this flat out on the abortion issue, under no circumstances will a democrat ever vote against abortion. Until Christians wake up to this fact, the US will sink deeper and deeper into the abyss.