Introduction to the Series
In Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court recently elevated homosexuality to membership in the hallowed company of constitutional liberties: "[A]dults who, with full and mutual consent from each other, engage[ ] in sexual practices common to a homosexual lifestyle" are entitled to "respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime." We are accustomed to believing that the Supreme Court wages its ongoing war on traditional culture because the American legal establishment has been captivated by an alien "secular humanist" worldview that comes to us from non-Christian thinking and encourages its believers to strike vigorously at whatever tattered roots may still attach our way of life to Christianity. But by a strange coincidence, the Supreme Court's secular praise of homosexual liberty now resonates within Christianity itself; the Episcopalian Church is about to beg Sodom's pardon on God's intemperate homophobia by confirming Gene Robinson, a flagrant homosexual, as a Bishop. Accompanied by the now-predictable rhetoric of "rights" and "inclusiveness" -- and a good deal of deconstructive sneering at common law, Scripture and Tradition -- Ceasar and the Church have united in open praise of homosexuality as a legitimate bond among men and women, fit to take its place with marriage and childbearing as a crucial element of our social life. The combination of Protestant and Constitutional magisteriums to depart from the Holy Will is indeed curious, but it is not a sheer coincidence. It has all happened before.
Years before Roe v. Wade, the United Methodist Church continually approved of legalized contraception and called out for the legalization of abortion. In 1968 the Methodists preached that "responsible family planning, practiced in Christian conscience, fulfills the will of God . . . there are certain circumstances under which abortion may be justified from a Christian standpoint." In 1970 the Methodists told us that we should decriminalize abortion and make it available "upon request of the person most directly concerned." In 1968, the American Baptist Convention also agreed that abortion on demand was God's will, resolving that "abortion should be a matter of responsible, personal decision," and calling for legalized abortions at any time until the fifth month of pregnancy. Almost forty years earlier, the Anglicans "corrected" millennia of Christian thinking by proclaiming that artificial contraception was part of God's plan for a healthy, happy, and wholesome Christian life. In fact, Protestantism's enthusiastic endorsements of abortion, its "brave" rebuke of Biblical prejudices in the person of Bishop Robinson, is just a logical development of that Lambeth Conference; as one wit has put it, when sexuality is divorced from the begetting of children any orifice will do, and Christianity is left with no reasonable way to refuse men who want the church's blessings on their orifices of choice.
So it's possible, indeed probable, that modern Protestant howling about "secular humanism" invading our culture is, at best, regret over lost innocence and, at worst, a combination of alibi and anodyne. Justice Douglas didn't spend an evening with the writings of Anais Nin and suddenly imagine a "right" to artificial contraception. The Anglican fathers at Lambeth had already done it for him, thirty-five years earlier. Justice Blackmun didn't invent a right to abortion after smoking dope one afternoon with the Society of Secular Humanists Sworn to Destroy Christendom. He did what Baptists and Methodists had for years been saying was God's will which the government should obey. Do Griswold and Roe, Lawrence and Bishop Richardson represent merely another game of "Arians and Athanasians," another episode of invasive and temporary oppression of orthodoxy by an alien and ungodly trend? I don't think so. I think they represent culminating moments in a culture's self-seduction, an ongoing prostitution to the Zeitgeist made inevitable by the culture's inherently secular identity. A necessary corollary to Protestantism's "invisible Church" ecclesiology is the idea that all the visible Protestant communities are merely human institutions which, as with all other human institutions, conform themselves to the pressures, passions and prejudices of their constituencies. Catholic countries like Ireland may legalize abortion, but they don't do it with the blessings of the Church. Practically, that's a small difference. But if one is to hope for the restoration of Christian sanity to our civilization, it's the only difference that really matters.
An exploration of this phenomenon couldn't begin better than by a look at the writings of Orestes Brownson. Brownson is, in my humble estimation, the nearest rival American Catholicism can propose to the likes of Hillaire Belloc and GK Chesterton. A genuine searcher for the truth, Brownson wandered throughout the Protestant world. By turns a serious Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Unitarian, Brownson understood the dynamics of Protestant communities and their involvement with the society of their age. He became Catholic in 1844, simultaneously forfeiting his rising journalistic career to the anti-Catholic prejudices of his day and encountering an American Catholicism which is very like its modern counterpart, led by Catholics who (as the Catholic Encyclopedia explained with reference to Brownson's day) "feared to make their religion prominent", preferring to blend "liberalism, latitudinarianism, and political atheism" into a "tame and apologetic" Catholicism that was ever "labouring to soften the severities and to throw off whatever appeared exclusive or rigorous in . . . doctrine." Brownson wrote several books and edited Brownson's Quarterly Review, a journal of culture and apologetics which eventually addressed every signal topic in Catholicism's conversation with the world. He was commended for his work by the Plenary Council at Baltimore (the one which wrote the famous Catechism) and Pope Pius IX. He died in the bosom of the Church in 1876.
Brownson was a fiercely-implacable critic of Protestantism, and often employs a tone and language which we are not eager to see revived in discussions with our separated brethren. Brownson's verbal jabs and roundhouses cannot be accurately understood, however, without recalling the vicious anti-Catholicism which raged in the United States during the 19th century. Brownson intended Catholicism to give as good as it got from its Protestant critics, whose major theme was that a decent society can have no place for Catholics. But Brownson's talents were not confined to rhetorical fireworks; when he strikes, he strikes home, and in one of his essays he puts his finger on that irremediable, central aspect of Protestantism which has brought it into such close harmony with "secular humanism" on the question of sexual rights. I am therefore serializing his essay, "Catholicity Necessary to Sustain Popular Liberty" as it appeared in Brownson's Quarterly Review in October 1845. As one can easily tell, Brownson wrote it during a time when America's transformation into an industrial and commercial nation produced enormous debates about economic life and the policies of the federal government. In our day the bourgeois materialism which emerged from those decades has become so completely pervasive that we hardly notice it, and are tempted to look upon the fierce controversies which raged over the idea of a national bank, and the rise of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay's "American System," with a good deal of incomprehension at the passions and ideas displayed. Brownson's vigorous condemnation of materialism and state-sponsored graft (a/k/a "economic policy") may sound unrealistic, even bizzare, to modern readers. But the present value of his essay isn't in his economic and political predictions (correct though they were), but in his ideas about the friendliness Protestantism has -- and must have -- to worldly passions and perspectives. I have taken the liberty of rearranging three or four paragraphs of the essay (Brownson's style is not all it could have been), indicating the fact by ellipses. I have also written introductory headings for each segment. The full and entire text can be found in Volume X of Brownson's Works, published by AMS Press (New York), 1966, pp. 1-17. At the end of the series, which will take several days, I'll offer some concluding thoughts of my own.
Thesis and Introduction
By popular liberty, we mean democracy; by democracy, we mean the democratic form of government; by the democratic form of government, we mean that form of government which vests the sovereignty in the people as population, and which is administered by the people, either in person or by their delegates. By sustaining popular liberty, we mean, not the introduction or institution of democracy, but preserving it when and where it is already introduced, and securing its free, orderly, and wholesome action. By Catholicity, we mean the Roman Catholic Church, faith, morals, and worship. The thesis we propose to maintain is, therefore, that without the roman Catholic religion it is impossible to preserve a democratic government, and secure its free, orderly, and wholesome action. Infidelity, Protestantism, heathenism may institute a democracy, but only Catholicity can sustain it.
The great danger in our country is from the predominance of material interests. Democracy has a direct tendency to favor inequality and injustice. The government must obey the people; that is, it must follow the passions and interests of the people, and of course the stronger passions and interests. These with us are material, such as pertain solely to this life and this world. What our people demand of government is, that it adopt and sustain such measures as tend most directly to facilitate the acquisition of wealth. It must, then, follow the passion for wealth, and labor especially to promote worldly interests.
But among these worldly interests, some are stronger than others, and can command the government. These will take possession of the government, and wield it for their own especial advantage. They will make it the instrument of taxing all the other interests of the country for the special advancement of themselves. This leads to inequality and injustice, which are incompatible with the free, orderly, and wholesome working of the government.
Now, what is wanted is some power to prevent this, to moderate the passion for wealth, and to inspire the people with such a true and firm sense of justice, as will prevent anyone interest from struggling to advance itself at the expense of another. Without this the stronger material interests predominate, make the government the means of securing their predominance, and of extending it by the burdens which, through the government, they are able to impose on the weaker interests of the country.
Tomorrow, Part II: Why Constitutions Cannot Protect Liberty