Political theorist Patrick Deneen, who is a practicing Catholic, contends that by framing the HHS controversy as a matter of religious liberty, the Catholic Church and its allies concede too much. Excerpts from his philosophically rich post:

Liberalism holds that the State must be indifferent to the personal choices of individuals; Catholicism holds certain choices not only to be inherently wrong (even if they do not result in the immediate and evident harm of others), but, over time and cumulatively, socially destructive.

The last area of concern is perhaps even more difficult to grasp in an intuitive fashion than the first three. The last claims that the widespread adoption of birth control will eventually entail government coercion in support of its use. The Church understood – long before this tendency became evident – that liberalism was finally incapable of “indifference” toward the choices of individuals, particularly when those choices involved the limitation of individual autonomy, and particularly when any such limitation occurred in the context not of organizations that stressed individual choice, but rather asserted the preeminence of conceptions of the Good that commended practices of self-limitation. In short, liberalism would finally reveal its “partiality” toward autonomy by forcing institutions with an opposing worldview to conform to liberalism’s assumptions. Liberalism would seek actively to “liberate” individuals from oppressive structures, even at the point of requiring such liberalism at the point of a legal mandate and even a gun.


But, the real debate is not over religious freedom, in fact: it is over the very nature of humanity and the way in which we order our polities and societies. Catholicism is one of the few remaining voices of principle and depth that can articulate an forceful and learned alternative to today’s dominant liberal worldview. That it truncates those arguments for the sake of prudential engagement in a contemporary skirmish should not shroud the nature of the deeper conflict. That conflict will continue apace, and Catholics do themselves no favors if they do not understand the true nature of the battle, and the fact that current arguments aid and abet their opponent.

To clarify, Patrick says that Catholics and others arguing this issue from a religious liberty standpoint — as they must, given the nature of the public square in which they present their argument — are going to lose because they have conceded from the beginning the premises of liberalism. I think I see what he’s getting at, but surely there is no viable option here for protecting the Church’s liberties within a liberal political culture. Unless I’m misreading Deneen, he’s telling Catholics not to be fooled as to what’s really happening here: that the liberal state will ultimately make it impossible to be authentically Catholic.

Again, I am reminded of something an American archbishop said in the presence of a friend of mine: that his successor would be preoccupied with defending the Church from legal attacks emerging from the constitutionalization of same-sex marriage, and that his successor’s successor would have to go to jail for the same reason. It’s coming.