Liberty for the Church

That the film about the Cristero Rebellion, For Greater Glory, has been news to many highlights the appalling ignorance of history in our culture. That isolation from the human experience has made it easy to confuse conscience with emotion and think religion is irrational. George Neumayer has written, “In one of his memoirs, Obama uses the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac to argue that secularism equals “reason” and religion equals crazy caprice.”

Such was the distillation of President Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame University in which he said, “It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us…”  Fast forward and the same university has joined a legal action against the consequences of the presidential speechwriter’s half-baked Kantianism.

If Fidel Castro is the unwitting founder of modern Miami, so Barack Obama may be remembered for unintentionally energizing the Catholic bishops. He may even have brought some of Europe to a more sober frame of mind about his policies. The throngs in European cities welcoming the advent of Hope and Change during his campaign were unsettling enough for anyone who remembers the cheering crowds gathered in some of those same platzes in the 1930’s. In short order, the Nobel Peace Prize became the Nobel Promise Prize when it was awarded to someone who was expected to do great things even if he had not done so already. L’Osservatore Romano was pleased that the new president might bring an end to Reagan’s “neocon revolution” and hailed this election as “a choice that unites.”

Hired editors are not anointed prophets, but this became painfully obvious a year later when the foreign affairs editor of L’Osservatore, Giuseppe Fiorentino, said that Obama’s position on abortion and other life issues “have not confirmed fears of radical change.” Around the same time, the editor-in-chief of L’Osservatore, Gian Maria Vian, defended Obama’s speech at Notre Dame and added: “We have noticed that “(Obama’s) entire program prior to his election was more radical than it is revealing itself to be now that he is president. So this is what I meant when I said he didn’t sound like a pro-abortion president.”

During the mass starvation in Ukraine in 1933 Walter Duranty informed readers of the New York Times that “there is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be any.” Duranty received the Pulitzer Prize, which so far, at least, has been denied to Baghdad Bob. It does seem that editors of various journals object to the proposition that facts should take precedence over theory.  Even one United States bishop hailed the Obama election as “a great step for humanity.” But that was before reality raised its head. Some bishops projected their own virtue onto civil figures and then were shocked that a president would lie to them, rather like Neville Chamberlain, incredulous that the Germans were insincere in their protocols and ungentlemanly in starting a war on a weekend.

Until the Calles Law of 1926 “for Reforming the Penal Code” restricted the Church in Mexico, the hierarchy had hoped for some kind of accommodation. Pope Pius XI announced to the world, without apparent success, that the Cristeros persecutions were like those of the Roman Emperor Decius. Still, the heroic witness of the Mexican bishops was not monolithic in strategy. Bishop Francisco Orozco y Jimenez of Guadalajara was so outspoken that he had to go into exile three times, as far as Chicago. Saint Athanasius only had to repair to the desert. There was also the problem of opportunists exploiting a good cause for selfish motives.

As opposition to the HHS mandate now may tempt some politicians to join the fray, for personal stratagems, even if they do not share the moral issues at stake, so in 1928 some anti-clerical Freemasons joined the Christeros simply because they were on the outs with the Calles and Portes Gill governments.

In December of 1926, the bishops of the United States wrote a pastoral letter in support of the suffering Church in Mexico, written in a clear and Catholic diction which could have been a useful template for our time:

A written constitution is an instrument which enumerates and defines the rights and duties of government, distributes its powers, prescribes the manner of their exercise, and limits them to the end that the liberties of the citizens may be preserved. Since the purpose of government is to protect human rights, not to destroy them, it follows that the charter by which a government operates cannot contain a grant of unlimited power. For the exercise of such power would be tyranny, inasmuch as it would tend to destroy rights which both the natural and the positive laws of God place beyond the jurisdiction of men. Hence, in the commonly accepted American doctrine, a constitution vests the government with such rights and powers as are necessary for the proper exercise of its just functions, and at the same time forbids it to encroach upon rights of a higher order which come to men, not from the people, nor from the State, nor from any aggregation of States, but from the Creator of both men and States, almighty God. This conception is wholly in keeping with the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Then they cited the 1888 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Libertas praestantissimus:

(Liberty of conscience) may also be taken to mean that every man in the State may follow the will of God, and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey His commands. This, indeed, is true liberty, a liberty worthy of the sons of God, which nobly maintains the dignity of man, and is stronger than all violence or wrong—a liberty which the Church has always desired and held most dear. This is the kind of liberty the apostles claimed for themselves with intrepid constancy, which the apologists of Christianity confirmed by their writings, and which the martyrs in vast numbers consecrated by their blood.

An almost instinctive reflex in modern times to mortgage Mother Church to the Nanny State makes it hard in an entitlement culture to teach old bureaucrats new tricks. Recent “talking points” issued by a group hostile to the bishops’ opposition to government mandates, stress that in the past two years the federal government has given $1.5 billion to Catholic charitable organizations.  Certainly, this funding may promote the general good, but he who pays the piper still calls the tune, and the tune has now become raucous.   If it is hard to reform the instincts of church bureaucracies,  nothing is impossible with God. That is one of things we know with certainty about God, contrary to the theosophy of an honorary Doctor of Laws from Notre Dame University.

The bishops of the United States have called for daily prayer leading up to the 4th of July to safeguard freedom of religion in our country. The new style of the federal government, in speech after speech, to replace freedom of religion with freedom of worship is not innocent of calculation, for while permitting ritual acts of devotion within the walls of a building, it would limit the right to express religious beliefs in public discourse. In Orwellian semantics, soon enough even the commandment to love the sinner but hate the sin becomes “hate speech.” There are some religions, like some governments, that are intrinsically hostile to freedom of religion.

Recently, a Christian in Tunisia was martyred for converting from Islam, and his killers chanted prayers against “polytheists” as they call Christians, while slowly slicing off his head. While this happens frequently, our own federal government and much of the media are conspicuously silent, for while they may not be interested in religious creeds, they demur from what the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” called “immunity from coercion in civil society.” By way of antidote, Ronald Reagan said in his first gubernatorial inauguration speech in 1967, “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

The great crises of cultures are crises of saints. This is hard to understand if you think religion is a substitute for clear thinking. In a review of For Greater Glory, a scandalized Roger Ebert spoke of the film’s “Catholic tunnel vision:”

One important subplot involves a 12-year-old boy choosing to die for his faith. Of course the federal troops who shot him were monsters, but the film seems to approve of his decision and includes him approvingly in a long list of Cristeros who have achieved sainthood or beatification after their deaths in the war.

If, as Obama says, “It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us,” then any witness to the Faith will be at the very least in bad taste and at worst madness. Preferable would be those “useful idiots” whom Lenin played as puppets.

Not yet listed in the ranks of martyrs is the former ambassador to Wales, or rather Malta, Douglas Kmiec who said, “(Obama) is inclined to the view of the First Amendment that the government is not intended to be hostile to religion. It is intended to be accommodating when it can.”

Or Nancy Pelosi who does her religion “on Sundays and not at a press conference.” Or Kathleen Sibellius who thinks “we have a lot of reeducation to do.” And Vice President Biden who as a confessor of the Faith said, “The next Republican that tells me I’m not religious I’m going to shove my rosary beads down his throat.”

Of a different temperament was St. Justin the Martyr whose testimony before the Roman prefect under the emperor Marcus Aurelius is meticulous in its details:

The prefect Rusticus said: “Now let us come to the point at issue, which is necessary and urgent. Gather round then and with one accord offer sacrifice to the gods.” Justin said: “No one who is right thinking stoops from true worship to false worship.” The prefect Rusticus said: “If you do not do as you are commanded you will be tortured without mercy.” Justin said: “We hope to suffer torment for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so be saved. For this will bring us salvation and confidence as we stand before the more terrible and universal judgment-seat of our Lord and Saviour.” In the same way the other martyrs also said: “Do what you will. We are Christians; we do not offer sacrifice to idols.

The prefect Rusticus pronounced sentence, saying: “Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the command of the emperor be scourged and led away to suffer capital punishment according to the ruling of the laws.” Glorifying God, the holy martyrs went out to the accustomed place. They were beheaded, and so fulfilled their witness of martyrdom in confessing their faith in their Saviour.

The Fortnight of Freedom starts on the vigil of the feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More. As the latter summed it up, they died the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” They knew the difference.

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Fr. George W. Rutler is a parish priest in Manhattan who is known internationally for his programs on EWTN, including Christ in the City and The Parables of Christ. He is the author of thirty-two books including newly released, A Year with Fr. RutlerHe holds degrees from Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Rome, and Oxford.

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