The Catholic “Ghetto” as a Last Resort

The Department of Health and Human Services has mandated that even health plans of religiously affiliated employers must include the coverage of contraception, abortifacient drugs, and sterilization. Hundreds of Catholic hospitals, colleges and universities, and social service organizations will have one of three choices:

  1. Cave in and accept what is morally repugnant;
  2. Face heavy fines that would lead to financial ruin;
  3. Close down to avoid the seemingly inevitable.

The uproar in the Catholic public and beyond is right and just. But the debate has taken this trichotomy of choices as a given and has largely ignored a fourth option that would avoid being affected by the mandate. Catholic organizations could simply retreat from the illusion of “pluralism” and return to what they once were: branches of the Church in which Catholics serve Catholics.

Even though this administration may be the most hostile to religion in the history of this country, it has not succeeded in abrogating the “ministerial exception” principle. On the contrary, the Supreme Court recently affirmed it unanimously, against the position of the Obama administration.

Having been outsiders and suffered discrimination in a largely Protestant nation since its foundation, Catholics in the United States have bought gradual acceptance into the American mainstream for the price of assimilation. Key leaders such as Archbishops John McCloskey of New York, John Ireland of St. Paul, James Gibbons of Baltimore, and George Mundelein of Chicago, urged immigrants to abandon their ethnic Catholic identities and integrate into the surrounding culture in order to move up in a society that was shaped by Protestant (and largely Calvinist) values. The process was completed around the middle of the twentieth century. American Catholics have retained their faith but abandoned the distinctive culture that nourished it. They were now thoroughly assimilated to the mainstream with its dominant ideologies of liberalism, pluralism, egalitarianism, and materialism, all creeds for which there is no foundation in the Catholic tradition.

Leo XIII foresaw exactly this development when, in his encyclical letter Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae of 1899, he condemned some of these views as “Americanism.” This heresy includes tenets such as a supposed “right” of the faithful to decide doctrine for themselves, which is now better known as “cafeteria catholicism.” The Pope derided the idea that all opinions should be aired publicly, as he felt certain speech could harm general morality. The purpose of the encyclical was to warn American Catholics of full assimilation or ecumenical overtures toward Protestantism. Rather, the growing flock should do what was necessary to preserve its culture through its own institutions, for example by refusing to expose its children to public schools wherever possible. Leo XIII advocated a path for Catholics in the United States that was in part separate from the mainstream. Although the Church developed an admirable system of institutions ministering to the faithful, the Pope’s voice was not heeded for long. In the middle of the twentieth century, spearheaded by the likes of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, the last phase of integration began. Catholic colleges and universities have abdicated their religious identity, Catholic hospitals no longer feel bound by the pastoral guidance of their bishops, and well-organized groups of dissenters from the moral teachings of the Church have gained share of public voice. Several surveys show that the opinions of Catholics on crucial issues such as the sanctity of life, marriage and the family, and other concerns of morality and culture, are indistinguishable from the mean. Maybe even worse, belief in central dogmas such as the perpetual virginity of Mary is on the decline. Those who question total integration into a secular culture are derided as advocates of wanting to return to a Catholic “ghetto.”

Now that Leo XIII’s predictions have become reality and the majority of Catholics on these shores has adopted “Americanism” as their true religion, it must indeed bewilder the media that there is still a group of faithful that resists the HHS mandate. With so many generations of Catholics having already travelled on this road for a century, why are there still those unwilling to complete the journey to a fully secular society?

The government and their pundits do not realize that some Catholics understand that one more act of acquiescence may be the death knoll for the free practice of the Catholic faith in this country. Accepting the fatal trichotomy of obeisance, destruction, or withdrawal, means the end of any recognizable Catholic identity. Without her hospitals and health centers, colleges and universities, insurance companies and charitable organizations, the Church has no voice that can even remotely compete in the cacophonic clutter that is public discourse. She would not die but she would have it much harder to live up to her call to be leaven, a mustard seed, or “salt of the earth” (Mt 5:13, 13:31-33; Mk 4:31; Lk 13:19).

Could the way back into the “ghetto” be the only alternative to the disastrous trichotomy which stands at the end of Catholic “emancipation”?

In its landmark decision Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (No. 10-553, decided January 11, 2012), the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed – for the first time – that a church enjoys a “ministerial exception” to federal, state, and local laws against virtually all legal actions based on job discrimination if the employee can be regarded as fulfilling a ministerial function. Who counts as a “minister” is a determination to be made internally by religious organizations; it could be anyone who is considered to be advancing the religious mission. The Court said that it was “reluctant to adopt a rigid formula.” With this judgment, two points were made: that churches must not be treated as any other employer, and that internal church affairs are off limits to the government.

Does this have implications for a strategy against the HHS mandate and similar encroachments? The legal reasoning in Hosanna-Tabor may at least partially apply to a challenge brought against the requirement of insurance coverage. Several court cases are pending. But more importantly, we can learn from the decision that university faculty, nurses, hospital doctors, etc., may prove to be central in forming a strategy if they could be understood as “ministers” of that religion if they would spend at least a portion of their work on spreading the faith. The Supreme Court refused to define minimum standards. In his opinion, Justice Alito suggested that to be a “minister, “an employee need not be ordained. Rather, he wrote, the exception “should apply to any ‘employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.”

What if Catholic colleges and universities train their faculty and staff in the principles of the faith and, as part of their employment contract, expect them to live (rather than benignly neglect) the respective mission statement, including the largest mission statement of all: “Therefore go and teach all nations…”  (Mt 28:19). Surely it can be expected of employees of a religiously-affiliated organization to follow its religious beliefs. If they do so actively and credibly, would this not qualify as cause for exemption?

Why should a professor of English when discussing a novel or a professor of economics when explaining the function of markets not bring to bear the richness of Catholic teaching on virtue, sin, charity, and justice? Why should a physician or nurse not also cater to the spiritual well-being of patients by spreading the Good News, even if it is only through a few words of encouragement or a short prayer? Are we not all called to give witness, according to St. Peter’s admonition: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15)?

This of course requires a major change in strategy. Catholic organizations would have to abandon their empty and facile talk about pluralism, diversity, and inclusivity and leave it to the mainstream. They might miss out on certain government grants. But they would have a unique opportunity to attract those Catholic students, professors, patients, or medical practitioners again who have forsaken Catholic institutions since the perceived differences from public ones was negligible.  In the spirit of a creative counterculturalism, they could position themselves as a true vanguard of professional competence, truth, and goodness. Pope Benedict XVI suggests exactly this when, by borrowing a phrase from the historian Arnold Toynbee, he places his hope in “creative minorities” to revive Catholicism. There may in the future be fewer Catholic hospitals, colleges, or charities, but these would at least be Catholic and (relatively) free to live their faith and mission. If they truly are a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6), as they are called to be, by the power of the Spirit they may again grow, but grow without compromises that destroy their soul. And if the direction be the “Catholic ghetto”, so be it. Let us then turn our Catholic daycare centers, schools, hospitals, and colleges into models for a society that will soon thirst for positive examples. Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” come to mind. The HHS mandate may then inadvertently have brought about not only a crisis but a krísis in the Greek sense – a turning point in which a decision must be made.

It would require extraordinary courage for our bishops to lead the Church on these shores on such a journey. For this fortitude we should all pray, and pray with fervor. What other choices do we have?

Wolfgang Grassl


Wolfgang Grassl is Professor of Business Administration at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. His research and writing is on branding, marketing strategy, the ontology of business, and the Catholic intellectual tradition.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    As a European, I would only caution against the kind of situation that prevailed in France from 1870 to 1959.

    The spiritual mission of the Church was gravely hampered, during the first 70 years of that period, by the open hostility of most Catholics to the Republic, which neatly matched the anti-clericalism of the bouffeurs de curé.  Leo XIII had exhorted Catholic to “rally to the Republic,” explaining that a distinction must be drawn between the form of government, which ought to be accepted, and its laws which ought to be improved,  only to be accused by the Catholic press of “kissing the feet of their executioners.”  In 1940, alas, too many Catholics rallied, not to the Republic, but to Vichy.  After the Liberation most of the leaders of the Catholic parties were in jail, a few were shot and the rest fled abroad.  It was De Gaulle and the Fifth Republic that began to heal the divisions.

    The state of the Church in France today owes much to this bitter legacy of turning faith into faction.

    • Wolfgang Grassl

       The comparison with France may be a sidetrack, but an interesting one. The “laïcité” prescribed by the French law of 1905 that brought about separation of Church and state never sought to expunge Catholicism from culture. Even today there are Nativity scenes in the market squares of French cities. Do try to install one on public land in an American city without being sued by ACLU or the Freedom from Religion Foundation! France never had parallel structures of Catholic institutions  —  schools and hospitals were, at least under the Second Empire and beyond, simply run by Catholic orders, because the distinction between “public” and “Catholic” was blurred. My essay refers to a situation in the U.S. where over some 150 years, a rich and largely successful structure of Catholic institutions developed that provided an alternative to public hospitals, schools, or universities. This is now being challenged, and with it the possibility of having a cultural presence outside Church buildings. In French terms, what the Obama mandate (which will now be extended to students at Catholic colleges and universities …) does is more than impose “laïcité,” for this is already in force. It imposes “laïcisme” on society as a state-sponsored ideology seeks to drive out hold-outs of Catholic culture. Even worse, it redefines “good” Catholics as those who  support the ideology of individual “choice” and pluralism (which in fact isn’t all that pluralistic …) and separates them from “intransigent” Catholics who are unwilling to abandon the moral teachings of the Church. Not even the most anti-clerical “bouffeur de curé” tried to pull this off.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        I was thinking of Catholic attitudes, rather than that of the anti-clericals.

        There really was a “Catholic  ghetto,” at least a mental one, with its Masses of Reparation on 21 January, in expiation of the “parricide” of Louis XVI, that referred to the republican symbol of Marianne as “la gueuse” [the beggar-woman], that lapped up the “Catholic atheism” of Charles Maurras and admired his Camelots du Roi thugs as defenders of the Faith.  I am old enough to remember some of this generation – they always referred to Philippe Pétain as “Le Maréchal.”

        Their brand of Catholicism was well described by one of their most trenchant critics, Maurice Blondel: “A Catholicism without Christianity, ubmissiveness without thought, an authority without love, a Church that would rejoice at the insulting tributes paid to the virtuosity of her interpretative and repressive system…  To accept all from God except God, all from Christ except His Spirit, to preserve in Catholicism only a residue that is aristocratic and soothing for the privileged and beguiling or threatening for the lower classes—is not all this, under the pretext perhaps of thinking only about religion, really a matter of pursuing only politics?”

        This is something I would never wish on the United States.

        • Brian A. Cook

           Thank you for pointing out some very sad facts about French Catholicism.   Furtheremore, here and elsewhere I have pointed out that anti-liberal Catholics piled on a Jewish captain falsely convicted of treason and, by extension, the supposedly conspiring Jews as a whole.  I have actually mentioned that affair in two of the letters that I wrote to the Pope.  I truly believe that it cemented the Church’s supposed association with the Far Right–with reaction and hatred. 

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            You should read Charles Péguy’s Notre Jeunesse, a beautiful book, which illustrates how the affair divided families and friends “And we, what did we say?  We said that a sole injustice, a sole crime, a sole illegality especially if it is officially registered, confirmed, a sole insult to humanity, a sole insult to justice and right, especially if it is universally, legally, nationally, easily accepted, a sole crime ruptures and suffices to rupture the entire social pact, the entire social contract; a sole malfeasance, a sole dishonour suffices to destroy, to dishonour an entire people.  It is a gangrenous spot that corrupts the entire body.”

            Péguy, a devout Catholic, added.  “Deep down, we were the men of eternal salvation and our adversaries were men of temporal salvation.  This is the true, the real division in the Dreyfus Affair. Deep down we did not want France to be constituted in a state of mortal sin.”

      • vox

        Whatever monies Catholic institutions and charities accept from government (sadly) must be immediately repudiated if we are to fight this thing.  I enjoyed your article very much.  Catholics assimilated with the wider culture long ago, much to our detriment.  For another penetrating analysis of this, read Carroll Quigley’s Is Georgetown University Committing “Suicide”? from 1967.

  • Robert Cheeks

    This is a brilliant analysis of the current conundrum.   And, while I’m in total agreement, my only comment would be to try to find a way to expand the ‘ghetto’ concept to the Christian Church/family in toto. The irony, of course, is that Catholics have voted heavily for baby-killing Democrats in the decades since they inserted the ‘abortion’ plank in their party platform, without the church father’s publicly condemning the Democrat Party.

  • J G

    One question to be asked is: would they allow us to live in the ghetto? I don’t think so. They allow for no dissent. You MUST agree and conform. They will leave no room in society for us, other then underground.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      That is too pessimistic.  Freedom of worship is a corner stone of secularism.

      As President Sarkozy said, last year: “Those who believe, those who pray while respecting the Republic’s laws have the right to the Republic’s respect and protection.  That is what laïcité means.  Prayer is silent; prayer offends no one; prayer attacks no one…”

      I imagine the same principle would apply in the US.

      • J G

         Religion is more then prayer. It is more then worship. Our Constitution says freedom of religion. It involves all the ministries of the Catholic Church including those now in danger.

  • Nick

    Bravo for writing this article! It seems very similar to an article that came out in the current (May 2012) Culture Wars Magazine (which everyone should subscribe to because it publishes articles exactly like this one!). Basically, it showed this whole issue has nothing to do with “religious liberty” but rather standing up for the truth, particularly Catholicism. How absurd is it to think that Catholic bishops should be more worried about getting an “exception” rather than address the real problem which is one of objective morality. A Catholic bishop should not say contraception is bad because it “violates conscience” but rather it’s bad because morally it corrupts society.

    This is actually a very good thing that Catholic institutions will get persecuted because it will (as you rightly said) force the truly faithful institutions to stand up and be counted, while the phony ones (and there are many) will dissolve away. It would mean places like Notre Dame could no longer hide.

    • Brian A. Cook

       I wish to warn you that Culture Wars Magazine–through E. Michael Jones–publishes paranoid anti-Semitic articles. 

      • Nick

         Thanks for the heads up, but all arguments should generally be evaluated on a case by case basis. The article I read wasn’t about paranoia, anti-semitism, etc, nor does one have to endorse everything a writer says.

      • vox

         Antisemitism is never ok. I agree with that.  What I’d like others to agree on is that anticatholicism is not ok either.  We have all suffered under tyrants.

  • Professoran

    I don’t think this administration will let small things like the Supreme Court or the law stop them. They need to be defeated!

  • GaryLockhart

    Choice #4 Vote Republicans into office in November so the Republic can send the immoral Kenyan communist and his band of bigots and racists along with their socialist agenda to the dung heap of history where they all belong. 

  • There is another option.  I wish it had been exercised whenever the Supreme Court essentially employed the Constitution as a weapon against the people and their customs: as if a blueprint for a governmental structure, with a Bill of Rights added to restrain the government, could be inverted so as to serve as carte blanche for certain elites to compel the people to do their bidding.  The option is massive civil disobedience.  It would require a great measure of unity among Catholics, and courage, and patience.  But we have yet to try it.  Neither to accede to the injustice, nor to retreat from it — to disobey, and to do so by calling upon those few patriots whose names are still revered: Jefferson, for example.

  • Ergoegosum

    this is an excellent idea

  • RB2


  • A Mitchell

    Thank you for the postive view on this crisis. God always opens a window and as always it leads to a stronger Church

    •  Yet did He not say something like….”when I return, will I find any faith at all?”

      Unfortunately, while God opens that door, it does not seem that many Catholics or clergy are willing to walk through it and thus ‘manifest’ that “stronger Church”. You have to be a “doer of the Word” and not just cry “Lord, Lord”.

      Part of that doing, is to convert Catholics back to Catholicism! Abandon the novelties that have been introduced into the Mass and get back to basics. Preach on adultery, preach on contraception, preach,.. preach all you Clerics and Priests, on things that will save or DAMN many souls.

  • Pingback: Convert Journal – Obama’s war on religion (update #5)()

  • Matt Landry

    Never let it be said that I was against the institutional Church’s right to refuse to participate in evil. But this proposal…indeed most such proposals, does not go nearly far enough, because it leaves the _overwhelming majority_ of us (that is, everyone who isn’t employed in a professional capacity by an organ of the Church) out in the cold.

    I’d love to see the irony quotes come off the descriptors of our nation’s “Catholic” institutions of education, medicine, and charity. It would undoubtedly commence a vast improvement in the quality of the work they do. But making such a change the centerpiece of the attempt to resist the commands from Caesar to do evil sends a dangerously myopic message to the faithful laity.

    “Ah well, as long as our _own_ employees aren’t forced to choose either martyrdom or eternal damnation by the expanding powers of a state for which most of us were actively cheerleading a couple of years ago, everything’s fine…you ordinary laymen out there in the pews paying all the bills are on your own.” Not a very pastoral attitude to urge upon our troubled nation’s bishops.