Another Perspective

As Vatican II Turns 50, Liberals Reject It

Thanks to its political commitments, liberal Catholicism has abandoned the principles it once championed.

By 10.15.12

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The 50th anniversary year of the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, celebrated on October 11, is being celebrated in America by something few would have predicted: mass rejection of its core principles by liberal Catholics.

The Council significantly developed the Church's teachings on such topics as the laity and religious liberty. Like much of the Council, these teachings tended to be championed by liberals. Until 2012.

The left's revolt arose from partisan politics. Since 2008 liberal Catholics have wedded themselves to the Obama campaign. But in January the president used Obamacare to coerce religious objectors to provide early-abortion inducing drugs and contraception.

Faced with a choice between their Council and their candidate, liberal Catholics chose the latter. After the president's February 10 press conference attempting to quell public protest, "Catholics for Obama" have not missed a beat. Vice President Biden proudly defended the mandate entirely in last week's debate. Pundits at venues like Commonweal magazine and the National Catholic Reporter have followed suit, especially in endorsing the requirement that lay Catholics provide abortifacients and contraception.

This stands in stark contrast to Vatican II. The Council not only reiterated the Church's teaching on sexuality, it also insisted on two principles irreconcilable with the Obamacare HHS Mandate: religious freedom, and the laity's identity as "the Church."

There may be no more pervasive teaching in Vatican II than that the "lay faithful" are "established among the People of God" as full members of the Church. As Pope John Paul II summarized, the laity should be aware "not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church… [they] are the Church."

Liberal Catholics once reveled in these teachings and even used them to justify lay dissent and women priests. Now they find the teachings an embarrassment, because their candidate is coercing the lay "Church" to violate Catholic teaching.

The National Catholic Reporter's Michael Sean Winters derides the bishops for insisting that lay Catholics in business must be protected from the Obamacare mandate to provide abortifacients and contraception. His rationale is that only "the Church" deserves to be accommodated -- dioceses, religious orders, and their affiliated charities and schools.

In this view, if a lay person runs a business she is not really "the Church" -- because "the Church" deserves protection, but she doesn't. When a religious business leader asks the government not to coerce her to violate her faith -- a faith she formed in accord with Church teaching -- Winters claims she is treating conscience individualistically instead of in Catholic "communio."

Winters' position is incompatible with Vatican II's "Declaration on Religious Freedom." The Council insisted that the religious freedom of "the Church" could in no way be violated by the state. And it specifically explained -- consistent with other Council documents -- that "the Church's" religious freedom includes the lay faithful, "as a society of men who have the right to live in society in accordance with the precepts of the Christian faith." To coerce the lay faithful to provide contraception is to coerce the Church herself.

Winters instead calls a mandate coercing the laity a "due limit" that states may impose. But the Council says that the Church's freedom not to violate Christian teaching stands "over and above" any "due limits" that government might generally apply.

Winters ironically accuses the bishops of "cherry-picking" the Council, even as he rejects its unified message and its repeated insistence that one cannot sever the lay faithful from the Church, nor from her religious freedom.

When Pope Benedict visited the United States, he condemned the idea that the laity could "profess our beliefs in church on Sunday," and then Monday through Friday "promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs," including "that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception." To do so would "treat religion as a private matter."

Pundits such as Winters insist that the Pope is the one treating religion as a private matter -- "feed[ing] the individualistic beast" -- by insisting that the laity act as the Church when they wish not to obey the HHS Mandate in their businesses.

Winters' weak tu quoque encapsulates what has been the most peculiar development in Vatican II's fiftieth anniversary: its rejection by liberal Catholics, in exchange for partisan pottage.

 

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About the Author

Matt Bowman is a constitutional law attorney in Washington, D.C.