The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has had a rough time of it lately, and I won’t say they don’t deserve it.  Barack Obama is their President, after all, when it comes to most political issues; for example, immigration and immigrants’ rights, tax policy, economic inequality, “social justice,” peaceful internationalism, and national healthcare.  The exception, of course, is a subset of the last of these: a woman’s “reproductive right” to contraception and abortion, both endorsed by checks written on the taxpayer’s account.  One reads that, despite their approval of much of what President Obama has done, or tried to do, during his three years in office, Their Graces were hardly caught off guard by the President’s recent healthcare mandate.  They had, indeed, expected the administration’s decision to force religious institutions other than churches and parishes to pay for insurance policies covering contraceptives and abortifacients on their employees’ behalf, and were busy making plans for a political response when the directive came down from on high via a telephone call placed by the President to Archbishop Timothy (now Timothy Cardinal) Dolan of New York, whom he had only lately sought to reassure on the issue.  A sad tale of allies betrayed, one might conclude.  Still, the bishops were hoist with their own petard.  Fortunately, it proved to be a noisy one, attracting a lot of attention and thus lifting the President himself a few feet in the air behind his desk in the Oval Office.  (There is no reason to feel sorry for him.  Obama was given fair warning by sensible advisors.)

More than two decades ago, Francis Fukuyama enjoyed a major literary success when he argued, in The End of History, that Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophical theories regarding the historical evolution of the human spirit and men’s ongoing determination to realize their freedom, dignity, and autonomy for themselves led directly to modern liberal democracy—allegedly the ne plus ultra in political systems that, theoretically speaking at least, cannot be improved upon—and the concept of human rights that drives and supports it.

Among Francis Fukuyama’s major failings as an historian and a political theorist is his utter lack of interest in and attention to the subject of religion.  This uninterest caused him to concentrate exclusively on Kant’s and Hegel’s influence on the course of Western political development, while ignoring the degree to which it has shaped as well the development of modern Christianity in the past century and a half.

Robert P. Kraynak’s Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World, published in 2001, is a splendid work demonstrating, when considered with The End of History, how the slightest adjustment of focus on an intellectual problem can transform that problem completely.  Fukuyama viewed the causal relationship between metaphysics and politics from the perspective of the latter subject.  Kraynak takes the opposite approach to explain how political metaphysics has bent the Christian religious tradition in its direction and reshaped it in highly significant ways since about the end of the 19th century.  So significant, indeed, that one might amend the old Marxist political saw “Everything is political” by adding, “and everything that is political is religious.”

Professor Kraynak argues that Christian theology has passed during the past 2,000 years from the Platonic period of the early Church fathers, through the Aristotelian scholasticism of the Middle Ages, and into its Kantian era.  The first of these periods was shaped by Augustine’s formulation of the Two Cities, the City of Man and the City of God; the second by the Scholastics’ concept of the hierarchical chain of being; and the third by Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of freedom, according to which the human spirit has been impelled throughout history to assert its own dignity and autonomy.  In Kraynak’s opinion, Kant’s influence—more than that of the Conciliar movement in the Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and various other forces that have been suggested by historians—is responsible for Christianity’s acceptance of the doctrines of human dignity and natural rights that infuse modern liberal democratic institutions.  Traditional Christian doctrine teaches that human dignity derives from man’s having been made in the imago dei.  An immortal creature who forfeited his immortality by the Fall, he can nevertheless, through Christ’s redemptive self-sacrifice, be reunited with God and received into eternal life.  “Kantian Christianity,” on the other hand, attributes man’s dignity to his unique, autonomous personhood, whose nature (therefore his natural right) is to achieve personal fulfillment, and even self-transcendence.  The Catholic Church was the last of the Christian churches to embrace this dangerous misconception of man and of his relationship to his God, and to his fellow men.

The Second Vatican Council and the postconciliar Church since 1965 result directly from this error.  Three generations before, Catholicism had embarked on a program of aggiornamento that reconciled Her in the course of the 20th century with democratic government and democratic society, which She had previously resisted.  Indeed, aggiornamento ended in wholehearted conversion.  Since the pontificate of John XXIII, the Catholic Church has accepted as axiomatic the proposition that not only is liberal democracy compatible with Church doctrine, but Her inspired teachings actually imply democratic liberalism as the sole legitimate form of government, whose legitimacy derives from its grounding in the secular doctrine of human rights.  The new spirit of the Church imposes itself daily in the pages of the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, which emphasizes the modern Church’s commitment to equal rights, human rights, minority rights, women’s rights, human development, economic rights, social justice, and most of the rest of the liberal rights agenda.  The exceptions, of course, are gay rights and reproductive rights, which the Church continues to deny (as, one expects, She always will).

While the Universal Church is presently experiencing a long-standing theological confusion whose significance She has yet to grasp, the American bishops find themselves in the immediate moment on a political hot seat.  Some of these ecclesiastics are theological liberals; certainly, the large majority of them are liberal in their political views and loyalties, well accustomed to friends and allies on the left—even, as in the case of “social justice” and immigration, the far left.  From Roe v. Wade until now, it was relatively easy for the bishops’ conference to sustain a cooperative relationship with the prevailing secular liberal democratic agenda and that of the federal government under Democratic administrations, which promoted contraception and permitted abortion, while tolerating the Church’s moral disapproval, and even—up to a point—Her active resistance.  But President Obama’s January mandate, by attempting to force American Catholic institutions and individuals into complicity in child murder and other violations of the natural law, has disrupted that relationship.  This single action, by setting the bishops against their erstwhile liberal allies, is fracturing the American left, in particular that part of it that is focused on the concept of human rights that the bishops have encouraged for decades.  Their situation is the more delicate because Obama’s mandate de-emphasizes abortion—“a woman’s right to choose”—in favor of free contraception, which the government presents as a health issue.  The bishops made their first appeal for a nationalized system of healthcare in 1919.

Their Graces ought now to consider whether, if the demand for reproductive rights is a bogus moral claim, other human rights asserted by modern philosophers, politicians, and activists might also be based on faulty ethics and ungrounded philosophical speculation.  If a woman does not, in fact, have a natural right to reproductive freedom, what else does she, as a woman, not have a right to?  (Self-fulfillment, equal respect with men, sex-blindness in hiring?)  Is there really such a thing as a natural right to a job, to a good living, to education, to good health?  Does a member of a minority group have a natural right to special treatment?  Is migration a natural right of man, as Pope Benedict XVI says it is?  (If so, does a corresponding right, the right to refuse migrants entry, exist, either independently or as a subsidiary right to the recognized right of self-defense?)  Are most so-called natural rights, indeed, rights at all, or are they simply entitlements—the right to a benefit or good, as distinguishable from an immunity from a certain proceeding?  Finally, do human rights (at least as they are understood and defended by rights activists) have a substantive reality, or are they merely imaginative pseudo-moral constructs?

By acquiescing in the Kantian basis of modern liberal democracy, Christianity has embraced the liberal democratic commitment to the radical individuality of democratic man, conceived as an autonomous individual whose unassailable dignity is a function of his autonomy and his will to self-realization (the fulfillment of his “dreams,” as American politicians say), irrespective of any other individual provided only that, in this business of realizing himself, he “does no harm” to anyone else.  Obviously, this view of human beings is in diametrical opposition to that of traditional Christianity, which attributes human dignity to the divine spark each person carries within himself, and to his place in the hierarchical chain: his relationship to inorganic and inanimate objects, to the animals, to his fellow men, to the angels, and finally to the Creator.  Such a creature has no need of “rights” or of “freedom”—an illusory notion in any case—though certain liberties, recognized over the centuries by both the Church and the state, are clearly appropriate to his nature.  But these liberties are not contingent upon liberal democracy, which they precede by millennia.

Robert Kraynak concludes that mixed government, or constitutional monarchy, which the Catholic Church (as well as many Protestant churches at the time of the Reformation and after) have historically favored, is, theoretically speaking, the best of all forms of government, though he also concedes that there is no chance of its return in the foreseeable future.  (Solzhenitsyn said the same thing.)  I do not expect to see any monarchists in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops before I die, but history (Church history especially) moves in mysterious ways.  Meanwhile, I wonder: Do bishops possess the human right of independent thought?  If they didn’t before, Barack Obama may just have endowed them with it.