Authority and Its Discontents

The Church’s response to the ObamaCare Mandate calls to mind this journal’s original name, Catholicism in Crisis. Today the Church confronts a crisis – “an invasion of our religious freedom,” Donald Cardinal Wuerl calls it — and the outcome is far from certain. The Mandate is only one in a flood of attacks that will confront the Church in coming years, and our response is hobbled by several problems of our own making. So we have a steep mountain to climb.

Even though the bishops have been allied with the Democrat Party for a century, and have advocated government health care reform since 1919, they never imagined that their allies of such long standing would betray them, twisting their own issue into a dagger aimed at the heart of the Church. Enter Kathleen Sebelius one of the few pro-abortion Catholic politicians actually barred from the Eucharist by her bishop, who wields the dictatorial powers that ObamaCare confers upon the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Sebelius’s Contraception-Abortifacient-Sterilization Mandate caught the bishops by surprise, but the bishops have come together to draw a line in the sand. But what weapons do they bring to the battle?

“He who frames the issue will win it,” Paul Weyrich observed years ago. So how have our bishops framed it? When rallying opposition to the ObamaCare Mandate, Timothy Cardinal Dolan underscores the principle of “religious freedom,” and the USCCB which he heads strongly supports the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act” to rectify the injustice. So to combat Obama’s Mandate, we are offered principles – “religious freedom” and “conscience rights” – principles which are indeed valid when firmly grounded on metaphysical truth. When they are uprooted, however, and emptied of their content, they can easily collapse into vapid abstractions and be hijacked by enemies of Church teaching.

Consider “conscience rights.” We know all too well that a poorly-formed conscience can cheer on all sorts of malevolent mischief. The focus on conscience invites scrutiny of the formation of the conscience, and of the teaching which that formation imparts. When my hometown Congressman, Notre Dame graduate Joe Donnelly, was dithering before the vote on ObamaCare two years ago, he received a call from former Notre Dame President Father Ted Hesburgh, C.S.C. Father Hesburgh, prompted by Nancy Pelosi, urged Donnelly to vote for ObamaCare, and told Donnelly, “just follow your conscience.” To no one’s surprise, really, Donnelly’s conscience had been quite ill-formed at Notre Dame, so he voted “Aye.” Now that his congressional district has been reconfigured, Donnelly is running for the U.S. Senate. Hayek was right, the worst do “rise to the top.” But I digress.

Who’s Boss: The Supreme Court? Or The Supreme Being?

In defense of religious freedom, Cardinal Dolan refers to the Bill of Rights, specifically to the First Amendment. But for over a century, the First Amendment applied only to the federal government; had the original intent of the Founders prevailed, any state today could impose a contraceptive mandate if it did not violate the state constitution or a specific prohibition of the federal constitution (as, say, an ex post facto law would). That states may not be able to do so now is due to the Supreme Court, which in the past century began applying the Bill of Rights to the states as well as to the federal government. Since then, a variety of justices have rewritten the Bill of Rights with frequency and impunity, altering some provisions while consigning others to oblivion. Among those in oblivion is the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

And there another problem arises. Cardinal Dolan plants his defense of Catholic conscience rights firmly in the Bill of Rights – specifically, in the First Amendment. But that puts the Catholic Church in what Karl Marx, with a wry smile, might have called a “dialectical bind.” After all, for over a century, as the federal government and both political parties have flouted the Tenth Amendment, usurping virtually all the powers once reserved for the states, and the Catholic Church has cheered them on – often, quite profitably. Through its various institutions – such as schools, hospitals, and charities – the Church receives billions of dollars a year from the federal government for activities which the Federal Government is forbidden to fund or otherwise regulate under the Tenth Amendment. Both the Church and the government find that nagging prohibition quite inconvenient – so they ignore it. Mao Tse-Tung would have called this curious posture of the Church a classical “contradiction” – and a sure sign of impending collapse.

This contradiction might escape wide notice, if the problem did not go even deeper. Having wedded themselves, often indelicately, to the political process (and even more scandalously, to a particular political party), the bishops have unconsciously delivered themselves into the ironclad embrace of postmodern America’s positivist law. We recall that Hans Kelsen, the founder of legal positivism, insisted that Auschwitz and the Soviet Gulags were valid law.  Kelsen “could not criticize them as unjust because justice, he said, is ‘an irrational ideal,’” Constitutional Law Professor Charles Rice has observed.

But “American Exceptionalism” will save us – right? Wrong. As Woodrow Wilson explains in Constitutional Government, “”The War between the States established . . . this principle, that the federal government is, through its courts, the final judge of its own powers.” And, as our beloved bishops now appear to be realizing, when leftists run the government, they will use that power to do whatever they can get away with.

So the bishops now find themselves at the mercy of a random five justices of current and future Supreme Courts regarding the survival of rights that were honored for centuries before the Constitution was even written. They have allowed their strongest weapon – metaphysical, magisterial truth – to gather dust on a shelf in the USCCB warehouse, and have placed their flocks at the mercy of the likes of Sonia Sotomayor.

How has this happened? Where is the teaching? Why aren’t our bishops fighting this battle with their strongest weapon — the flawless, timeless truth of Holy Mother Church?

Is Nancy Pelosi Right?

Pope Benedict has said on numerous occasions that “the laity need to hear the Gospel message in its fullness, to understand its implications for their personal lives and for society in general, and thus be constantly converted to the Lord.”

A lot of people in the pews are experiencing what we might call the “backstory” of the Church’s response to the Obamacare Mandate. “What’s wrong with contraception, anyway,” many people of good will ask us. Yes, we Catholics will rally for conscience rights, but what about the content of the Catholic conscience?

Humanae Vitae teaches all the truths we need to understand and to communicate clearly why the Church opposes contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization. But for forty years and more, the American Church has avoided Humanae Vitae like the plague. Nancy Pelosi, the Catholic grandmother and House Minority Leader, drove the point home before a Texas audience in February: “Ninety-eight percent of women in childbearing age that are Catholic use contraception,” she claimed (apparently, for Nancy, virginity and Catholicism don’t mix). “So, in practice the church has not enforced this and now they want the federal government and private insurance to enforce it. It just isn’t consistent to me.”

Pelosi is no dunce: it was she who crafted Sandra Fluke’s tearful plea for free contraceptives and sterilizations for sexually active students at Georgetown and other Catholic schools. Pelosi highlights what she perceives as a glaring weakness in the bishops’ defense: “you haven’t enforced it for forty years” — and she is correct. While that sad fact is disappointing, however, it does not diminish the truth of Catholic teaching, it reveals only what we already know — that Humanae Vitae has not been taught, and it has not been enforced. The sexual revolution did not sneak into the Church, it waltzed right down the center aisle.

When our bishops ask us to join them to oppose the ObamaCare Mandate, they are making a great leap of faith: they are relying on the assumption that the faithful know why artificial contraception is a grave and objective evil. They are assuming that Catholic consciences have been well-formed for the past fifty years. Are they right? Or is Pelosi? And if it’s Pelosi, what have the bishops been doing for all that time?

Father Avery Dulles, S.J., put his finger on the problem thirty years ago, when he observed that “By issuing policy statements on matters that lie beyond their specific competence, and that pertain rather to experts in secular disciplines, the bishops diminish their own credibility in speaking about matters with which they are specially charged as spiritual leaders of the church.” And about which matters are the bishops specially charged to speak? Humanae Vitae comes to mind. It has not been taught to the laity, nor have our bishops corrected those “Catholics” who publicly deride and reject it. On the other hand, on issues where the faithful are encouraged to disagree (Lumen Gentium, No. 37), the laity have been badgered with ideological agendas, parading under the tattered banner of “social justice.” Truth becomes optional, while opinion becomes mandatory. The result? Father Dulles nails it:  “By opting for certain positions on matters legitimately debated among committed Catholics, bishops tend to marginalize church members who have different social or political orientations.”

Today the bishops appeal to a positivist and undependable political authority. To acquiesce is to succumb to what Pope Leo XIII condemned as the Americanist heresy. Meanwhile, they must rally to their side an uncatechized and often marginalized laity. How should they proceed? Clearly, by exercising the authority that is truly theirs and teaching the timeless truths of the Faith, not by advocating political agendas. But how should they respond to the widespread scandal of obstinate and public support “abortion  rights” by Catholic politicians? Should they appeal to Church law, rather than positivist law? Perhaps. But if they tried today to excommunicate the Nancy Pelosi’s, Joe Bidens, John Kerry’s, Pat Leahy’s, and Lisa Murkowski’s, it would invite certain and vindictive retaliation. Of course, had the bishops of forty years ago excommunicated pro-abortion apostates – like Justice William Brennan, appointed by Republican Ike Eisenhower, or Ted Kennedy, a Democrat luminary – the stage would have been set for dealing with public scandal swiftly and routinely. But today’s bishops are constrained not only by the golden handcuffs of government funding, and by the straitjacket of positivist law on which they have staked their claim – alas, they are further burdened by the ball and chain of forty years of distraction and inaction.

These are the impediments, charitably stated, that the bishops and the laity must address as we seek to preserve the realm of freedom that the Church by right should enjoy. It is hardly a secret that the lack of focus on the teachings that are now under full-scale attack by the Culture of Death has significantly hampered the efforts of the bishops conference  to combat it. Pope Benedict recently recounted how our American bishops had told him of “the growing difficulties encountered in communicating the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family in its integrity.” And how did that come to pass? “Certainly we must acknowledge deficiencies in the catechesis of recent decades,” he observed.  He then called for a “well-formed Catholic laity” and insisted that “This teaching [on marriage and sexual morality], stated with increasing clarity by the post-conciliar magisterium and comprehensively presented in both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, needs to be restored to its proper place in preaching and catechetical instruction.”

As rallies in support of religious freedom go forward, perhaps the bishops could announce a similar public nationwide campaign for Humanae Vitae. Five Supreme Court justices cannot save us, but Christ already has. “In the world you will have trouble, but be brave, for I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33)

Christopher Manion


Christopher Manion served as a staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years. He has taught in the departments of politics, religion, and international relations at Boston University, the Catholic University of America, and Christendom College, and is the director of the Campaign for Humanae Vitae™, a project of the Bellarmine Forum Foundation. He is a Knight of Malta.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Am I alone in finding an eerie similarity between the “Truce of 1968,” as George Weigal calls it, when the Congregation for the Clergy decreed that Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington should lift canonical penalties against those priests whom he had disciplined for their public dissent from Humanae Vitae  and the “Peace of Clement IX” during the Jansenist controversy?

    In both cases, after the Church had been riven by a decade-long dispute, a papal document was issued that was intended to be definitive. In both cases, the original quarrel was immediately forgotten and argument raged over the scope of papal authority to decide the question.  In the Jansenist case, peace, of a sort, was achieved, when Pope Clement IX brokered an agreement that neither side would argue the question, at least, from the pulpit.

    The “Peace of Clement IX” lasted for about 35 years and ended in 1705 when Clement XI declared the clergy could no longer hide behind “respectful silence.”  Eventually, in 1713, he issued Unigenitus and demanded the subscription of the clergy to it.  There was enormous resistance, with bishops and priests appealing to a future Council (and being excommunicated for their pains, in 1718).  As late as 1756, dissenters were still being denied the Last Rites.

    Will the “Truce of 1968” end in a similar fashion?

  • Politically correct

    Why are the “Trinity girls”, Pelosi and Sebelius, even allowed to enter a Catholic church and not excommunicated?

    Throw the garbage out along with Donnelly, Durbin, Cuomo and Biden.  Their beliefs are the opposite of Catholic beliefs.

    • Igor Bostonovich

      Throw Wuerl out too, for he yucks it up with Pelosi and Biden. He is just putting on a show by making conservative-sounding statements regarding the Obamacare mandate. If he really believed in religious freedom, he would not be exiling a priest whose only sin is to protect the Eucharist from sacrilege, as in the recent case of Father Marcel Guarnizo. You can look it up. Of the priests in the diocese, Father Guarnizo has been on the forefront of the abortion battle, regularly seen protesting outside abortion clinics. He helped organize the Stand Up For Religious Freedom Rally against the HHS mandate. The rally took place on March 23 in 140 cities across the U.S. Did Wuerl send even one diocesan representative to the DC Rally? No!

  • Josephkelly

    One can only hope so Michael.

  • Brian A. Cook

    Wait, are you saying that Pelosi wrote Fluke’s testimony?  I thought Fluke went up to testify on behalf of a friend with an ovarian cyst by herself.  

    • Politically correct

      Georgetown and Trinity need to be closed.  These institutions produce more evil than good, while disguised as “Catholic”.  Pelosi graduated Trinity in ’62. so they’ve been troubled places to send a Catholic for half a century.   Cardianl Wuerl’s in the corner of pro-abortion pols, so there’s no hope there for dead babies. 

  • Alecto

    Thank you Mr. Manion, for clearly expressing the challenges faced by Catholics.  For many, many Catholics the past decades have been a dark night of the soul…you have no idea how dark.  Magisterium Catholics have been persecuted by many of the people now leading the American church.  I find it very difficult to now follow these people, or indeed, listen to them or even forgive them for that persecution.  They have no moral authority.

    The Wall Street Journal ran an interview with Cardinal Dolan this past weekend.  I find so much of his rhetoric well-intended but misguided.  For example, he consistently separates Catholic doctrine from Catholic action.  I don’t understand how to accomplish this as a Catholic because one begets the other.  While American bishops launch an “evangelization campaign”, they don’t notice their funding from the government prevents them from evangelizing?  I cannot help but wonder how we are to perpetuate the Catholic faith if our public action has no tie to our faith?  In my very humble opinion, accepting government funds in exchange for agreeing to remain silent about Jesus Christ is a betrayal of Christ.  Yet Dolan and many in the clergy have no problem checking their Catholicism at the rehab, soup kitchen, food pantry, hospital, school or homeless shelter door.  How do people come to Christ if we don’t tell them that Christ is the reason for everything we do or worse, if we are gagged?  Further, isn’t the primary mission of the clergy to bring as many souls to Christ as possible?  I don’t understand this at all. 

  • Colby

    It is true that the bishops seem backed into a corner, and much damage has come about by failing to make Humanae Vitae well known. But I think the issue is even larger than that. Catholic Truth encompasses so much more than one encyclical. In the Church’s wisdom about the nature of man there is a whole cohesive body of doctrine. Lust is not the only sin. Do not greed and pride also impel man, and the drive for power etc? Abortion and contraception seem more  like symptoms of an ill society that is as materialistic in its way as communism is. And until the root causes are addressed, I don’t  see us making much progress. We can’t divorce the Faith from either sexual morality (pet cause of the Right) or social justice (pet cause of the Left.) Society has removed itself from the moorings of Faith in more ways than just one. The Church really does know best about the nature of man.

  • mike mulligan

    You’re spot on Mr. Manion. 

    As an aside, I wish I would hear an American Catholic priest preach 2d Thessalonians once.  If memory serves: “If you will eat you must work.”  That’s the “social justice” message that must be preached in America today.  Bill Moyers’ promo for his cable show touts that justice only comes when a society is free of economic inequality.  He’s manic.

    • Alex

      If a priest were to do so, he would be accused of being uncaring, and to the modern mind, that’s the gravest sin of all.

  • christomlin

    Great piece, Dr. Manion!

  • Bill bannon

    Excellent but….the author does what most Catholic authors do: never criticize the Popes. The Popes also like the Bishops hijack areas where they have no special competence like the death penalty. The Popes also like the Bishops censured no great theologian for dissent on Humanae Vitae (Karl Rahner and Bernard Haring) sending the message that actually was given by Monseignor Lambrushini at the Humanae Vitae press conference i.e. that it was not infallible…repeated twice by Lambrushini as he introduced the encyclical to the world. Thereafter ensued a debate in the Jesuit journal, ” Theological Studies” where Germain Grisez and Fr. Ford debated that not HV but the topic is infallibly treated in Tradition and others debated against them but no Pope has said the simple words…”it’s infallibly settled”.
    The CDF or a Pope may use the word “definitive” but then others will note the word they’re avoiding “infallible”. Behind the scenes all the top players like the Pope know that Catholic imprimatured moral theology tomes for seminaries (which laity generally don’t read) hold that dissent is possible in the non infallible if it is accompanied by prayer, study and counsel (see Grisez’s “Christian Moral Principles” page
    854). To understand that, look at the year 1520 when Pope Leo X in Exsurge Domine condemned Luther’s position that burning heretics was against the Holy Spirit. And Leo condemned it as being “against the Catholic Faith”. Sounded infallible to laity then so none dissented but now the Church probably agrees with Luther if you combine the freedom of religion passages of Vatican II with the anti torture passages of “Splendor of the Truth”. So there must be a sincere type of dissent toward the non infallible and wording for the infallible must be consistent. Evangelium Vitae infallibly condemned abortion using wording similar to the IC and Assumption encyclicals but arriving at infallibility by polling the Bishops worldwide rather than the Pope declaring alone (see section 62 EV). Dissent is impossible as to the clearly infallible (see canon 749-3 on clarity of infallibility).

    • Alicia


      Thanks for mentioning that “magisterial Catholics” have their unfortunate blind spots.

      In fact, the current Pope and his predecessor have rarely, if ever, censured anyone who dissented from the Magisterium.

      Magisterial Catholics tend to parse the gradations of authority a document has very carefuly; is it any wonder that their liberal foes do the same?

      • Bill bannon

        Your very last observation is brand new to me and so true….thanks.

    • Padro4668

      At a higher level: in 1929 O. L. of Fatima appeared to Sr. Lucia and told her it was the time to have Russia consecrated by the Pope and all the hierarchy for the purpose of preventing a new World War.  Ten yrs later, war broke out, obviously because the Prophetic message was not acted on as requested of the Pope and Hierarchy. 

  • Stephen Sanborn,Sr.

    The Modernist Post Vatican II Bishops would go back to their sleeping positions if the Government accepted the additional cost of these mandated extras….it’s all about the money.Sadly.

  • fondatori

    Well stated.  The Bishops are really out of there league when they corporately support specific policies such as nationalized healthcare or for that matter ‘comprehensive immigration reform.’  Frankly the Bishops are clergyman who seem at times to have an utopian view of the means and ends of governmental authority (this point of view seems to be a requirement for a job in any Christian or non-Christian religious authority).

    I’d contrast the Bishop’s weakness on these issues with their frankly magnificent support of the pro-life argument against abortion over the years.  While Humanae Vitae hasn’t been taught as we know, the Bishop’s have not backed down on the important pro-life witness (whatever criticism some may have of them in individual situations).

    While the Bishops are leaders on pro-life, they are followers when supporting specific policies in so many other areas they really ought to cut it out.

    • Stephen Sanborn Sr

      Leaders in Pro Life ??? I beg to differ…….

  • I don’t believe that we could find a single case in the history of the United States, whereby someone would be compelled, in his own person, to perform an act which his faith teaches is evil.  That goes to the heart of the very legitimacy of a republican government.  That’s where the bishops should take their public stand: one cannot be compelled, in one’s own person, to violate one’s deepest convictions.  One may well be prohibited from performing actions which do not violate one’s conscience.  That is a very different matter.  One may also be required to pay taxes, some of which will be badly misused; their misuse is not one’s own lookout.  Meanwhile, it’s high time that the bishops take their ecclesiastical stand on the truth of the Church’s sexual teachings, without which her social teachings are quite incoherent.  Catholics should know that it is as stupid to believe that the sexual revolution produces happiness as it is stupid to believe that untrammelled greed produces happiness.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      “During World War I, the pacifist Hutterites suffered persecution in the United States.

      In the most severe case, four Hutterite men subjected to military draft who refused to comply were imprisoned and tortured.  Ultimately, two of the four men, the brothers Joseph and Michael Hofer, died at Leavenworth Military Prison from mistreatment, after the Armistice had been signed ending the war.”

      [ Smith, C. Henry (1981). Smith’s Story of the Mennonites. Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press. pp. 545. ISBN 0-87303-069-9.]

    • theorist

      And I recall that the early republic made prayers for the english king illegal.

  • Greyghosttoo

    The Bishops can only start by restoring Christ the King.

  • Pingback: Authority and Its Discontents | Foundation Life()

  • Pingback: POTUS, SCOTUS, Healthcare law, the HHS Mandate, the Bishops and Catholic Social Teaching. Oh My! | Why I Am Catholic()

  •  Indisputable.  

  • Poles

    I’m getting more and more comfortable with my decision to leave the church. So much hatred…..hard to believe.

  • lifelady

    Bishops could  also be grateful to the laity who have been and still are proclaiming the truths of the Church, rather than treating them like outcasts, radicals, or nagging pests.

  • James Stagg

    What an excellent article with clearly stated challenges.  Thank you!

  • Anne

    Think of a person who has always been kind to you, perhaps a colleague, a
    relative, or a neighbor. Imagine also that you are asked to describe
    that person. You will probably say he is kind. You won’t say he is kind to you, you will say he is kind, period.
    You may continue to think of him as kind even if you hear his
    employees, co-workers, or spouse call him difficult, obstinate or
    quarrelsome. There are limits, of course. If you learn that the
    kind-to-you colleague beats his daughter with a belt, for instance, you
    will most certainly reconsider the kindness attribution. But the point
    Revisions tend to lag behind the evidence because of the
    privileged perspective bias.

  •  Just began reading a book about feminism and psychoanalysis, and the author raised an interesting question: is some form of human domination necessary in human civilization?

    Freud answered this in the affirmative. He claimed that the origins of civilization lie in the struggle between father and son. The sons who overthrow the fathers authority become afraid of their own aggression and lawlessness and regret the loss of his wonderful power; and so they reinstate law and authority in the fathers image. Thus, in a seemingly unbreakable cycle, revolt is always followed by guilt and restoration of authority: “Every revolution has also been a betrayed revolution” (Herbert Marcuse).
    Cloud tag



  • Pingback: Authority and Its Discontents - Christian Forums()

  • Pingback: Convert Journal – Obama’s war on religion (update #6)()