Not-So-Strange Bedfellows

by Mark Gordon

George Weigel has a column today at National Review titled “The Catholic Betrayal of Religious Liberty.” It begins as an indictment of Democratic Catholic officeholders Nancy Pelosi, Patty Murray, Rosa DeLauro and Kathleen Sebelius, women he describes as “Catholic Lite,” and goes on to add Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, to the list.

But in an interesting twist, the column winds up as a long encomium to John Courtney Murray, the liberal Jesuit priest and political theorist whose accomplishment was to, in Weigel’s words, “midwife a new Catholic understanding of the modern state and of the democratic project, which eventually reshaped the thinking and practices of the entire Church. ” As Weigel notes, it is John Courtney Murray who is often credited with providing the intellectual inspiration for the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae).

What is strange is that John Courtney Murray is also credited as having provided the intellectual firepower for a far less well-known “council” known as the Hyannisport Conclave. In a January 2009 Wall Street Journal article (How Support For Abortion Became Kennedy Dogma), Weigel’s National Review colleage, Anne Hendershott, sketched the origin and outcome of the Hyannisport Conclave:

At a meeting at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Mass., on a hot summer day in 1964, the Kennedy family and its advisers and allies were coached by leading theologians and Catholic college professors on how to accept and promote abortion with a “clear conscience.”

The former Jesuit priest Albert Jonsen, emeritus professor of ethics at the University of Washington, recalls the meeting in his book “The Birth of Bioethics” (Oxford, 2003). He writes about how he joined with the Rev. Joseph Fuchs, a Catholic moral theologian; the Rev. Robert Drinan, then dean of Boston College Law School; and three academic theologians, the Revs. Giles Milhaven, Richard McCormick and Charles Curran, to enable the Kennedy family to redefine support for abortion.

Mr. Jonsen writes that the Hyannisport colloquium was influenced by the position of another Jesuit, the Rev. John Courtney Murray, a position that “distinguished between the moral aspects of an issue and the feasibility of enacting legislation about that issue.” It was the consensus at the Hyannisport conclave that Catholic politicians “might tolerate legislation that would permit abortion under certain circumstances if political efforts to repress this moral error led to greater perils to social peace and order.”"

What we might call the “Murray Principle” was crystallized by Father John himself in a memo to Boston’s Cardinal Spellman in 1965. Spellman had asked Murray for an opinion on the proposed decriminalization of contraception in Massachusetts. In his memo, Murray wrote, “It is not the function of civil law to prescribe everything that is morally right and to forbid everything that is morally wrong. By reason of its nature and purpose, as the instrument of order in society, the scope of law is limited to the maintenance and protection of public morality. Matters of private morality lie beyond the scope of law; they are left to the personal conscience.”

As good modern liberals, Pelosi, Sibelius, and the others accept this principle on the pelvic issues. They may be “personally opposed” to abortion, but they also believe that in a religiously diverse polity like the United States, one in which there is widespread disagreement about these issues, it is best not to blur the line between the political/legislative and the moral/religious. George Weigel, who has written approvingly of John Courtney Murray’s “American Proposition” for decades, also accepts the Murray principle. A classical liberal, he just reserves its application for issues related t0 economics, and like his brethren on the left even counsels ignoring papal teaching when it suits him.

A year ago, George Weigel published an article in First Things titled “The End of the Bernardin Era: The Rise, Dominance, and Decline of a Culturally Accommodating Catholicism.” The irony of the title is that no one represents a culturally accommodating Catholicism more than George Weigel. His project has simply been to accommodate Catholicism to right-liberalism, including laissez-faire capitalism, Republican politics, and American empire. Perhaps someday, when Catholics in the United States have recovered from their infatuations with both strands of liberalism, someone will write an article titled “The End of the Weigel Era.”