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American dogma in dangerous decline

Dogma has a bad name these days, and that’s bad for the Church and for America.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (DCA) spoke for growing numbers of Americans when, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2017, she criticized Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett’s Catholic faith: “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.”

The premise is that those who hold dogmas grounded in religion are intolerant and bigoted, and should keep their religious ideas out of public life. That’s an idea both ironic and dangerous. American democracy was founded on dogmas grounded in religion. As our common assent to them diminishes, the duty of Catholics to live publicly as Catholics is increasingly threatened.

Dogmas are principles laid down by an authority as absolute truth. Some are “revealed” truths. While they are subject to reasoning, they are ultimately accepted by faith, by trust in the authority that reveals them. For example, Christians accept, on the authority of the Bible, that Jesus is God.

But Feinstein was not concerned about Barrett’s understanding of revealed dogma. She was targeting the Catholic understanding of moral truths, which for centuries have been accepted by the authority of Scripture and the authority of natural reason. For example, the Ten Commandments teach dogmas that it is always wrong intentionally to kill innocents, or to commit adultery, or to seek sexual gratification outside marriage — an institution defined by Jesus (Mt 19:4-6), and until recently by most societies, as the union of one man and one woman.

Of course, few dogmas have garnered universal assent, let alone been practiced universally by fallible human beings. But religious and non-religious people alike have generally believed that objective truths exist whether or not we apprehend them. Because they are true, we seek to discover and understand them, and to live by them.

Much has changed in recent decades. We are today witnessing the hardening of what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism” — the conviction that there are no absolute truths, that all knowledge and moral principles are the product of history and environment, or that they are constructed by the state, or by each person for himself.

That ‘relativism is itself an absolute truth’ claim is no longer an amusing irony. It has become a coercive barrier to traditional morality in American public life, a driver of judicial decisions and legislation that codify sexual freedom while silencing dissenters.

Recall, for example, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s relativist dictum justifying the abortion license: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This claim provides a constitutional basis for the killing of innocents and underlies the establishment of homosexual acts, same-sex “marriage,” and choosing one’s gender as constitutionally protected rights.

The Equality Act, passed this summer in the House, would make sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes under the Civil Rights Act, brand those with traditional moral views as bigots, and open the door to financially ruinous lawsuits against Catholic and other religious institutions. Under this law, no one could claim religious freedom as a defense.

But our founders embraced a radical religious truth claim: “all men are created equal, [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights….” The first of those rights, codified in the First Amendment, was religious freedom.

Call it the American dogma, the transcendent source of our equality and freedom. If we Catholics are to merit this gift, we must exercise it, in private and in public, as free and equal citizens of this great land.

THOMAS FARR is president of the Religious Freedom Institute, a D.C.-based non-profit that advances religious freedom for all as a source of human dignity, social and political flourishing, and international security. He was founding director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (1999-2003) and of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center (2011-18). He was an associate professor of the Practice of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service from 2007- 2018. He is a member of the Northern Virginia Chapter.