by Rev. Ronald M. Ketteler
In “HHS and soft totalitarianism,” a recent Messenger column (February 2012) George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center criticized the so-called “contraceptive mandate” issued by the Department of Health and Human Services. In effect, that regulation would require Catholic institutions to provide health insurance coverage of “‘services’ that the Catholic Church believes are objectively evil.”
In a February 10, 2012 statement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops responded that, despite a proposed modification, the HHS mandate “continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions.”
Weigel views these HHS regulations as defining “religious-freedom down” based on the ideology that can be categorized as a reductionist “soft totalitarianism.”
According to the theological encyclopedia Sacramentum Mundi, the concept of “totalitarianism” applies to “all systems of total control of individual and social life by the State.” Stalinist-Marxism in Russia or National Socialism in Germany are easily identified 20th-century systems of “hard totalitarianism.”
By contrast, the term “soft totalitarianism” may represent much more subtle mentalities which tend to enshrine “democratic totalitarianism” or the “totalitarian temptation” in Western democracies.
In this context, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church identifies the mission of the Church in the world as the “sign and defender of the transcendence of the human person.” Hence the Church stands “as a bulwark against every totalitarian temptation, as she shows man his integral and definitive vocation.” (CSDC n. 51)
The transcendent dignity of the human person grounds the foundation of social morality and human rights.
In particular, the relationship of freedom to truth or to an objective order of moral values comprises a leitmotif in Blessed John Paul II’s centenary social encyclical Centesimus Annus (“On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum,” 1991).
In an oft-quoted passage on the meaning of authentic democracy, the late Holy Father asserted:
Authentic democracy is possible only in a state ruled by law, and on the correct conception of man. … It must be observed in this regard that if there is no objective truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism. (CA n. 46)
Again, in his signature encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995), Blessed John Paul contended:
Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality. Fundamentally, democracy is a ‘system’ and as such is a means and not an end. Its ‘moral’ value is not automatic, but depends on the conformity to the moral law to which it, like every other form of human behavior, must be subject; in other words, its morality depends on the morality of the ends which it pursues and of the means it employs. …The value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes. (EV n.70)
Both Centesimus Annus and Evangelium Vitae shifted the question beyond the fall of Marxist totalitarianism to the rise of “democratic totalitarianism” in the West and the cultural hegemony of ethical relativism. This phenomenon has originated from
a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an isolated way, and gives no place to solidarity….
Such a radical concept of freedom, specifically as a justification for abortion, infanticide and euthanasia,
negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with truth. (EV n.20)
After the collapse of the Eastern bloc, Blessed John Paul II directed his prophetic criticism against the culture of freedom within democratic societies.
A philosophical fault line common to both Marxist collectivism and Western democratic liberalism lies in a denial of transcendent truth:
… totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over. (CA n.44)
In rejecting the Church and destroying religion, the Marxist totalitarian ideology eliminated the legitimate autonomy of other social units and institutions and thereby reduced society to the collectivism of the state. Centesimus Annus states:
… the totalitarian state tends to absorb within itself the nation, society, the family, religious groups and individuals themselves.
As a sidebar, already in the 1940s and 1950s, Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray (d. 1967) adopted critical metaphors similar to those of Blessed John Paul II. In his seminal work, We Hold These Truths (1960). Father Murray, an eloquent defender of a public philosophy, wrote of “making an idol of democracy” and “totalitarian democracy.”
In that study the author synthesized several telling critiques of the drift towards “totalitarian democracy.”
In E Pluribus Unum – The American Consensus (Chapter 1), Father Murray confronted the inroads of libertarian freedom as a creation of “the nineteenth century theory of the ‘outlaw conscience,’ conscientia exlex, the conscience that knows no higher law than its own subjective imperatives” rather than a theory of an “ethical, ordered liberty.”
In Are There Two or One: The Question of the Future of Freedom (Chapter 9), Father Murray observed:
In the twentieth century too, as the modern era runs out, the ancient monistic drive to a oneness of society, law and authority has also appeared in the totalitarianizing inherent in the contemporary idolatry of the democratic Process.
If the democratic monism becomes the civic philosophy, Father Murray judged that
all the issues of human life — intellectual, religious, and moral issues as well as formally political issues — are to be regarded as, or resolved into political issues and are to be settled by the single omnicompetent political technique of majority vote.
Democratic monism becomes synonymous with a “political technique of majority vote” (more recently labeled “democracy by plebiscite” by Jean Bethke Elshtain).
By the end of his life Father Murray was considered a theological architect of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae, 1965). In Civil Unity and Religious Integrity (Chapter 2), decades earlier, Father Murray underlined the difference between the American constitutional system on the free exercise of religion and the Church’s battles in the 19th century against “sectarian Liberalism” or “totalitarian democracy.”
Sectarian Liberalism upheld “the principle of the primacy of the political, the principle of ‘everything within the state, nothing above the state’.” The assumptions of sectarian Liberalism were carried to their logical extreme in the “totalitarian ‘people’s democracies’ behind the Iron Curtain.”
In the American democratic experiment, government is limited, not omnicompetent, and religion and government are distinct in the public space. Churches are immune from “interference by political authority” in a society which is marked by the “independent exercise of an authority which is not that of the state.”
In his earlier extensive theological writings and in his papal teaching, Pope Benedict XVI has prophetically denounced the “dictatorship of relativism.”
For instance, on October 5, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Vatican’s International Theological Commission at its annual plenary meeting.
In that speech, “The Primacy of the Natural Moral Law,” the Holy Father stressed the significant implications of the natural moral law for the civil and social order. The philosophy of legal positivism denies being held accountable to “a higher law”; it is an ideology which conflates morality with the civil law. In contradistinction to positive law, the moral law is the prism through which society ought to judge the rightness and justice of its civil laws, institutions, and policies.
The roots of the political trend of legal positivism can be traced to an ideology of “ethical relativism, which some see as one of the principal conditions for democracy since relativism is supposed to guarantee tolerance of a mutual respect for people.”
However, Pope Benedict XVI noted that an advocacy of “a positivist conception of law seems to dominate many thinkers.” In fact, such a mentality claims “that humanity or society or indeed the majority of citizens is becoming the ultimate source of civil law.” But, the Holy Father countered the argument that relativism serves as a guarantee for tolerance and mutual respect of citizens: “But, if this were so, the majority of the moment would become the ultimate source of law.” The search for power, then, tends to displace the search for the moral good.
Without the moral law as a foundation of rights, respect for the inherent dignity of men and women cannot be adequately defended against “all ideological manipulation and every kind of arbitrary use or abuse by the stronger.”
On January 19, 2012 Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the bishops of the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States on the ramifications of policies that threaten freedom of conscience. The Holy Father warned of “certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.”
The U.S.C.C.B.’s February 10th response to the modified federal insurance mandate reflects a sense of urgent resolve to safeguard conscience protections by calling upon the HHS to rescind the morally objectionable services being imposed.
Photo: Pat Delahanty
Tags: Commentary by Fr. Ron Ketteler, democracy, Fr. Ron Ketteler, religious liberty, totalitarian democracy, totalitarianism, USCCB