All the battles you’ve fought (and lost)

Rod Dreher sets forth a social conservative’s case for Donald Trump at The American Conservative. In itself, that’s an interesting argument. Dreher argues that the “real” fight is over religious liberty, and Trump has promised to protect religious liberty. Dreher also asserts that Trump is no more untrustworthy on issues like this than establishment Republicans, who have sold out social conservatives time and time again on a whole range of issues to appease their donors. Like we said, an interesting argument. However, it seems to be an argument that concedes defeat on a couple of important points.

We hasten to say, at the outset, that, while we have made made up our mind on the likely Republican and Democratic candidates this year, we do not intend with these reflections to urge you, dear reader, to vote for or against any candidate. (Just as we did not intend to urge you to vote for or against Bernie Sanders with our comments about whether Catholics can vote for a self-described socialist.) Our point, which we shall elaborate here in a second, is that Dreher, in making this case for Donald Trump, makes some assumptions that are, well, troubling. It is not clear to us, furthermore, that Dreher intended to urge his readers to vote one way or the other. (He said as much in a comment thread, in fact.)

We note, first, that Dreher’s argument seems to call upon Christians to formally cooperate in the error of religious liberty. After all, that is exactly what voting for a candidate because he supports religious liberty is. This is, perhaps, not a huge deal to many Catholics. However, to traditionally minded Catholics, especially Catholics connected with the Society of St. Pius X, religious liberty remains a live topic. Dreher argues, as we noted above, that,

Religious liberty is where the real fight is, specifically the degree to which religious institutions and individuals will have the freedom to practice their beliefs without running afoul of civil liberties for gay men and women. This is where having a friendly administration matters most to religious and social conservatives. And this is an area where religious and social conservatives are in the most danger of being bamboozled by the GOP Establishment.

(Emphasis supplied.) But the question of religious liberty is a tricky one for the Christian. While the Church and individual Catholics ought to be free to profess the Apostolic faith and to live in accordance with the commands of Christ, religious liberty itself is a proposition that has been condemned and condemned and condemned by good and holy popes.

By religious liberty we refer to the opinion that it is a fundamental right of man to worship, or not worship, according to the dictates of one’s conscience. Gregory XVI condemned this opinion’s close corollary, indifferentism, in 1832 in Mirari vos (DH 2731–32). Likewise, Pius IX condemned indifferentism in Qui pluribus in 1851 (DH 2785). And he definitively proscribed indifferentism and religious liberty in Syllabus Errorum, in propositions 15–18, 77, and 79 (DH 2915–18, 2977, 2979).  Leo XIII condemned so-called liberty of conscience in stringent terms in his 1888 encyclical Libertas praestantissimum (DH 3250–51). Indeed, that great Pope held that the civil authority can tolerate false sects only in furtherance of the common good, always taking care not to approve the false sect itself (ibid., 3251). In other words, the teaching of the Church is clear: religious liberty is an error. Finally, we note that Dignitatis humanae left “untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” Thus, to some extent, it is unclear whether or not the Council changed the Church’s venerable teaching on indifferentism and religious liberty in Dignitatis humanae. For our purposes, we will assume that the Council did not.

And this leads us to an interesting question: can one support a candidate because he supports religious liberty? As shown above, religious liberty is an error, condemned by the Church; therefore, one would be supporting a candidate because the candidate supports an error, condemned by the Church. At some level, such support would be formal cooperation in error. (Whether it is subjectively culpable as a sin is another question, though heresy is a grave sin.) Now, one might say that the Church would benefit from this error, as indeed it might, but that does not redeem the erroneous proposition itself. Furthermore, such cooperation is not as grave as, say, supporting a candidate because she supports abortion, which is strictly impermissible. But it is not clear to us that the gravity is nonexistent, either. Thus, we have some doubts that it would be appropriate to support a candidate because of his stance on religious liberty, though one could support a candidate despite his stance on religious liberty if there were proportionately serious reasons to support him.

That’s one issue we have with Dreher’s column. It’s not the only one.

The bigger issue is Dreher’s willingness to concede defeat on abortion. While the question of religious liberty is perhaps a little obscure to many Catholics, there is not a Catholic in the United States today who does not understand the issue of abortion and the stakes involved. In order to make the case that religious liberty is where the real action is these days, Dreher asserts:

On abortion, unless the Supreme Court were to revisit Roe v. Wade — something nobody foresees happening — the right to legal abortion is here to stay. Even if the Court overturned Roe, all that would mean is that the right to regulate abortion would return to the states. Most states would unhesitatingly protect abortion rights. Some would impose restrictions. In no state would it likely be banned outright. The possibility of there being an end to abortion achieved through judicial and legislative means is remote. That does not mean that having a pro-life president is unimportant, but it does mean that its importance has to be judged relative to other factors.

Anybody who thinks Obergefell is going to be overturned is dreaming. It won’t happenRoe was less popular in 1973 than Obergefell is today, and we all know by now that the generation most opposed to same-sex marriage is passing away. Gay marriage is here to stay. Our side lost that battle, and we waste time and resources trying to re-fight it. The candidates who say they’re going to work to overturn Obergefell are either pandering or deluded. And socially conservative voters who are in touch with reality know that what’s done is done. Fighting same-sex marriage in the courts is the most lost of lost causes.

(Enumeration and hyperlink omitted, emphasis supplied, and italics in original.) This is, frankly, astounding. Dreher’s argument appears to be that Christians have lost, irretrievably, the battles over abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

If this is the case, then what’s the point fighting any more battles? It is not as though abortion in particular has been some trivial issue in the life of the Church, a defeat over which Catholics can laugh off lightly. Far from it! For forty years, the political choices of serious Christians have been driven, for the most part, by the questions of abortion and same-sex “marriage.” (Perhaps longer, since Griswold v. Connecticut was the real beginning of the movement toward widespread abortion.) During that time, for American Catholics, abortion has been, quite rightly, the number-one question. Indeed, there are not a few Catholics who have written off, not unjustifiably, a major political party solely on the issue of abortion. Moreover, prelates have threatened to deny communion to politicians who support abortion. And, in his 2004 memorandum, which we have cited here previously, Cardinal Ratzinger stated (or strongly implied or whatever) that abortion was perhaps the most important moral issue facing Catholics. Same-sex “marriage” has been, in recent years, a major battleground, especially in state elections and referenda. But, according to Dreher, they’ve lost. Why would anyone think that they’re more likely to win on religious liberty or any other fight after they lost their number-one fight?

Dreher’s point also raises an interesting issue as far as voting goes. If no politician can make a difference on the questions of abortion or same-sex “marriage,” and that is precisely what Dreher implies when he says that those fights are over, then is it appropriate to consider those points when casting one’s vote? That is to say, does it really matter if, in the race for president, John Johnson is ardently pro-abortion and Jane Jones is ardently pro-life? If “[t]he possibility of there being an end to abortion achieved through judicial and legislative means is remote,” then does it really matter who you vote for? And when Dreher says that the importance of a pro-life candidate “has to be judged relative to other factors,” what other factors are there? Aside from the question of life and the question of marriage, the two major American political parties are not hugely different.

That said, is there any principled reason for a serious Christian to engage politically after the defeat on abortion and same-sex “marriage”? If the two most important battles in living memory have ended in irretrievable defeat, as Dreher says, then why should a Christian continue to fight the fight with weapons that manifestly do not work? In the context of another discussion, we were politely corrected by an acquaintance of ours for excluding the possibility of divine intervention in a particular situation. (We cannot remember just now what it was, though.) If the political battle is truly lost, then perhaps it is time to set aside political weapons. So what if the ballot box cannot stem the tide of this world and the ruler of this world? The Mass and the Rosary can. So what if politicians fail to keep their promises? Our Lord keeps his promises. It would perhaps make more sense to devote one’s energies where they can do some good: in imploring the Lord to intervene and put things right.  One may argue that such an approach is resignation (or fatalism or worse), but it seems to us that Dreher’s approach is the approach of resignation, insofar as he urges us to accept that the battles over abortion and same-sex “marriage” are lost. Dreher says “what’s done is done.”

And, of course, we are reminded of the Holy Father’s recent homily to the clergy of Mexico just this past Tuesday:

What temptation can come to us from places often dominated by violence, corruption, drug trafficking, disregard for human dignity, and indifference in the face of suffering and vulnerability? What temptation might we suffer over and over again – we who are called to the consecrated life, to the presbyterate, to the episcopate – what temptation could might we endure in the face of all this, in the face of this reality which seems to have become a permanent system? 

I think that we could sum it up in a single word: “resignation”. And faced with this reality, the devil can overcome us with one of his favourite weapons: resignation. “And what are you going to do about it? Life is like that”. A resignation which paralyzes us and prevents us not only from walking, but also from making the journey; a resignation which not only terrifies us, but which also entrenches us in our “sacristies” and false securities; a resignation which not only prevents us from proclaiming, but also inhibits our giving praise and takes away the joy, the joy of giving praise. A resignation which not only hinders our looking to the future, but also stifles our desire to take risks and to change. And so, “Our Father, lead us not into temptation”.

(Emphasis supplied.)