This book is a collection of largely reprinted material (with revisions in some cases) and a couple of original essays. Its nine chapters cover (according to section titles) “the Catholic human rights revolution,” “peace and economy, again,” and “the life of the mind.” The expected repetitions are sometimes distracting if one reads the book straight through, but since they are not numerous, and since each essay stands by itself, Mr. Weigel has made a wise choice in not excising them.

Catholicism is not just the particular Christian tradition to which Weigel is incorrigibly devoted; after baseball, American Catholicism is also his favorite hobby. And he is especially astute at (and fond of) pointing out the foibles of the “Catholic left.” In this volume he repeats an assertion of Sir Michael Howard of Oxford University that one of the great revolutions of this century has been “the transformation of the Roman Catholic Church from a bastion of the ancien régime into perhaps the world’s foremost institutional defender of human rights.” In the spirit of his understanding of John Courtney Murray, S.J., and the Vatican II instruction on religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), Weigel attempts a theological defense of religious liberty as a fundamental human right and points to the development of the Church in America as an example of its institutional fulfillment.

But skewing “progressives” within the Church while arguing for a theological justification of liberal democracy produces in this book a tension that has apparently gone unnoticed by its author. Weigel rightly criticizes those who want to democratize the Church, but he does not ask whether this might be the inevitable result of the Church’s having given theological sanction to liberal democracy as a political theory.

The kind of Catholic to whom Weigel objects is represented by the historian Jay Dolan. Dolan criticizes John Carroll, the first Bishop of Baltimore, for having allowed himself to be spooked by the French Revolution into rejecting “republican episcopacy.” Dolan wants a Catholic Church that understands “the importance of creating a ‘republican’ form of Catholicism in which the Church would absorb the new national experiment in democracy into its own internal life. . . . In short, Catholic Congregationalism.” Weigel thinks, correctly, that this would be (is?) bad for the Church.

Weigel criticizes Dolan and other “revisionist” Catholic historians who work “to rewrite the American Catholic story line in order to prop up the sagging cause of ‘progressive’ Catholicism today.” These revisionists celebrate the escape from the “ghetto Church” to the enlightened and progressive democratic Church of today. While a “ghettoized” attitude certainly did prevail among some Catholics, as Weigel concedes, it was never pervasive, and it presents a false choice to say that we must go from an alleged ghettoism to a trendy cosmopolitanism.

Weigel argues that this revisionist history aims to rebut vestiges of the old American nativism and its “recurring charge that Catholicism—as a body of doctrine, a matter of personal conviction, and an institution—was incompatible with American democratic republicanism.” Perhaps it was once, say the progressive Catholics, but not anymore: now, despite our reactionary pope, we American Catholics are a liberated lot who think the same way as every other progressive and enlightened American. Weigel’s response to them is that the Catholic Church, in history and in theory, is not anti-democratic, not anti-American, not anti-freedom, and not a reactionary barrier to legitimate progress. In fact, the Church is an unwavering defender of liberal democracy and religious freedom, especially as they are practiced in America. But, he also argues, the Church can and must maintain its peculiar claim to truth and its structured authoritative hierarchy, while at the same time avoiding a rigid “authoritarianism.”

Here is the rub. Weigel argues that the Roman Catholic Church has unequivocally stated and defended a human right to religious freedom, and that in fact, “religious freedom or freedom of conscience is the most fundamental of human rights.” This is a “basic claim about the essential core of dynamic human personhood.” The right to religious liberty is “most fundamental because it is the right that corresponds to man’s most fundamentally human dimension.” It is crucial to emphasize this point. Weigel does not argue merely that freedom of religion ought to be protected by the state because the state has no competence in such matters. He is making a much more basic claim: “Religious freedom or freedom of conscience can thus be considered a ‘pre-political’ human right.” Human freedom inheres in every man as a result of his humanity, without reference to any political conventions. Man has a natural. Cod-given human right of religious liberty. But curiously, Weigel also asserts that this fundamental “right of religious freedom or freedom of conscience entails an obligation to seek the truth.” The first claim is dubious; the second, though sound, contradicts the first.

If religious freedom really is a “prepolitical human right,” then it is a right. Before God we are indeed free to believe or disbelieve; to reject His law, love, and grace, or to accept them. That is how He has created us. But do we thus have a right to believe as we will? Put differently, is it “right” to make the wrong decision with regard to the commands of our Creator? Before God, is a wrong a “right”? Pope Leo XIII denounced this and similar “rights” in his 1888 encyclical Libertas. “If nature had really granted them,” the pope explained, “it would be lawful to refuse obedience to Cod.”

From a Christian point of view Weigel is correct: everyone has an obligation to seek the truth of God. But this obligation necessarily denies a fundamental right to freedom of conscience, which entails a right not to seek a particular truth, or any truth at all. We cannot be obliged to do a thing, and have a simultaneous right not to do it. The better formulation is that we have a fundamental obligation to seek truth, and therefore that the state must protect the individual in this pursuit. At best, we have a political or civic right, not a fundamental human right, to freedom of conscience. The individual is bound to seek God; the state is therefore bound not to interfere in that search.

Ironically, for John Courtney Murray, whom Weigel often invokes to support his argument, religious liberty meant that the state is bound to tolerate those who do not believe in a fundamental human right to freedom of conscience. In We Hold These Truths Murray calls the dogma of religious freedom “the first of our prejudices,” since it assumes that pluralism is the God-ordained order of the universe. While Weigel argues that religious pluralism is a positive good, Murray says that “religious pluralism is against the will of God.” America is religiously pluralist, but from a Catholic point of view this “truth is lamentable.”

For Murray, the argument for religious freedom is one of political prudence, not of theological principle. It is a “general Protestant tendency,” he explains, to say that “freedom of religion and separation of church and state are to be . . . ‘rooted in religion itself.'” But this idea is not a principle of the Catholic Church, which regards religious freedom as a reluctant concession to a sinful world. “The Catholic rejects the religious position of Protestants with regard to the nature of the Church, the meaning of faith, [and] the absolute primacy of conscience.” The absolute primacy of conscience that Murray rejected sounds very much like the “fundamental human right to freedom of conscience” that Weigel endorses. By endorsing a fundamental human right to a free conscience, Weigel supplies ammunition to those agitators within the Church whom he otherwise so effectively challenges. The problem seems to be that those who argue like Weigel assume the legitimacy of various liberal values and virtues, and then come up with theological arguments to defend them.

For instance, Weigel seeks a way for the Church to be authoritative while not appearing to be authoritarian. But “authoritarian” by whose definition? In the liberal-democratic understanding, any demand that conscience conform to a particular creed (or point of a creed) is authoritarian. If freedom of conscience is a fundamental human right, no human institution including the Church (which Weigel regrettably calls a “voluntary association”) can rightly abridge it. Authentic human rights ought to flourish, and the Church ought never to hinder that flourishing. More specifically, as a Catholic, Weigel is too eager to fit in with America, and to make Catholic theology seem as unthreatening as possible to the “American way.” Catholics are called to do all things soli Deo gloria. If by happy coincidence that is also to do good for the country, then so much the better. But there is no Catholic mandate to support the regime, and our attitude toward liberal democracy should be suspiciously neutral, at best.

George Weigel is a careful thinker and a man of Christian integrity, but I fear he ignores this sage advice of his own theological mentor, John Murray: “The question is sometimes raised, whether Catholicism is compatible with American democracy. The question is invalid as well as impertinent; for the manner of its position inverts the order of values. It must, of course, be turned round to read, whether American democracy is compatible with Catholicism. . . . The Catholic may not . . . merge his religious and his patriotic faith, or submerge one in the other.” Weigel skillfully corrects those on the left who are guilty of this error, which is no less a mistake when it occurs on the right.


[Freedom and Its Discontents: Catholicism Confronts Modernity, by George Weigel (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center) 179 pp., $19.95]