Magisterial Liberalism by Ed Condon

Pride month has once again come and gone. As in previous years, entire sections of major cities were given over to parades and festivals celebrating the rainbow of sexual preferences, complete with corporate backing and municipal blessing.

Any quick survey of images from the Pride parades will show, among the leather daddies and drag queens, a number of revelers wearing miters, wielding rosaries, and cloaking their cause in satirical imagery of the Church. Indeed, it is the Church that is now the last, albeit sometimes unwilling, institutional holdout against the tide of the LGBT political agenda.

On Monday, the New York Times published an opinion piece titled “How to Defy the Catholic Church,” in which Margaret Renkl explained to believers their “spiritual obligation” to oppose the bishops on LGBT issues. Renkl recounts a childhood memory in which a priest solemnly taught her “to honor the moral wisdom of my own conscience over the teaching of my church” and oppose it when necessary. (She includes the obligatory tendentious claim that Pope Francis supports her take on the primacy of a well-formed conscience, but we will leave that to one side.)

Renkl focuses her LGBT opposition to the Church through the lens of recent cases in Indianapolis, where two schools were ordered by the local archbishop to remove teachers found to be in same-sex unions. Repeating the tired canard that Church authorities only care about the public witness of its ministers when they are gay, which is demonstrably false, she reserves the brunt of her ire for the archbishop’s premise—that same-sex marriage is a public witness against the teachings and values of the Church.

Teachers, Renkl says, are supposed to be living examples of Church teaching, which emphasizes—she claims—the need “to organize community life around the institution of marriage, among other central tenets of the faith.” “In this context,” she continues, “the hypocrisy of the archbishop’s position is breathtaking. This teacher had entered into a legal marriage protected by the Constitution.”

The times have changed and the Supreme Court has ruled. Against the timeless understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman and the Church’s own magisterial authority, Renkl quotes the Holy Writ of Obergefell: “The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person,” wrote the prophet Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority, “and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.”

This decision, she argues, is much more than the morally-neutral finding of a court in a case about qualified parties to a civil contract. It is an imperative for Christians to “defend” the “moral and spiritual equality” of same-sex marriage against the close-minded and persecutory tenets of their own faith. Thanks to Kennedy’s new commandment, “Christian believers too have the opportunity to become something greater than once they were.”

Renkl unironically condemns the Church’s “current brand of pastoral authoritarianism” as she insists that her values become its values. Her conscience is free and fully formed, we must see, and cloaked in the invincible armor of a Supreme Court decision, whose orthodoxy is far better than timeless—it is relative.

Unmoored from concepts like Natural Law—which provided a common societal bedrock in previous centuries—the true, the good, and the right are now adrift, blown by the ever-stronger winds of legal positivism into whatever harbor awaits them. For a growing number of people, the Supreme Court’s decisions now make moral truths. Going beyond protection of common freedoms, they define the goods that underpin them.

Much ink has been spilled of late on the notion of the common good as the first orientation of society. Conservatives are divided by the subject, with many keeping faith that the supposedly neutral liberal order can protect the freedoms of all, whatever the prevailing cultural winds.

Those on the march with Renkl, on the other hand, have no doubts—there is a higher good, and it is shaped and defined by the courts. Freedom is a zero-sum equation: Those who dispute or dissent are not coequal members of a society that values diversity of opinion, they are obstacles to progress, hypocrites against love. They are heretics.

Some have observed that “liberalism is liturgical,” and the annual liturgy of Pride illustrates the point well. But liberalism is, above all, magisterial. The Pride marchers do not want, nor do they intend to stop at, mere freedom or equality. What they would command is what the Church rightfully claims for its own teachings: the religious submission of intellect and will. According to the new progressive orthodoxy, every knee must bend. The recognition of civil authority matters because it can shape the permissive into the coercive: Obergefell is not just law, it is moral doctrine.

It is not enough that the White House be bathed in a rainbow; until the Pride flag flies from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the struggle goes on.