A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors



The term "dhimmitude" originally referred to the second-class status of non-Muslims living in any Muslim-majority country whose laws officially favor Islamic norms and practices. Religious minorities, such as Christian and Jews, may be tolerated in such a country, but they are also discriminated against. In exchange for security they must accept special cultural and legal constraints from which their Muslim neighbors are free. The term is of recent vintage—though its Arab root, dhimmi,is not—and it remains controversial among historians. But in the past decade it has become popular with social conservatives as a metaphor for the condition of Christians living in the secular West: they, too, are tolerated and protected, but also despised by the secularist elites who control our cultural and legal norms. Or so it is said.

This story is not altogether false. The gap between the teachings of the Catholic Church, especially on questions of sexual morality, and the beliefs, customs, and laws of the "surrounding culture" continues to grow; and this makes it harder to follow those teachings, or to be associated with them. There is no point in denying this, whatever one thinks of the teachings in question. Not that many would deny it. It is obviously easier to do or believe what most other people do or believe. It is obviously difficult, psychologically and socially, to uphold beliefs most of one's neighbors disapprove of (though that difficulty may end up being a source of strength for a religious community).

A few days ago my friend Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, wrote a blog post about the "dhimmitude of sorts" that faithful Catholics face in a country whose government is pursuing policies starkly at odds with the teachings of their Church:

I think we're heading into dhimmitude of sorts. Our culture is becoming more and more dominated by post-religious attitudes that dictate the terms of the social contract. We've seen that very clearly in the university where religious voices have learned to obey rules set by the secular academy. The rules are sometimes cruel (Stephen Pinker), or sometimes sympathetic as long as certain liberal dogmas are respected (Martha Nussbaum), or even permissive (faith as part of the great pluralist postmodern conversation). The culture of the secular university is now becoming the norm for society as a whole, at least in part, which is why were feeling the pressure.

Rusty is describing a real predicament here. It is no doubt uncomfortable to find oneself alienated from one's own society because one continues to believe what most of that society seemed to believe until just yesterday; to be told, because of this belief, that one is on the "wrong side of history" (one of the most overused phrases in our political discourse); to be shamed and shunned for what one regards as fidelity by people who are congratulating themselves for having evolved. Yes, this is bound to be felt as a predicament, whether one considers it the hard honor of a lost cause, the onset of winter before another spring, or just the tough love that history administers to the most intransigent reactionaries.

What it's not is dhimmitude. Dhimmitude is only possible where there are two sets of rules: one for the majority and one for a minority. In the case of the HHS mandate, which was the occasion of Rusty's post, Catholics are being required to do only what everyone else is being required to do. The Obama administration has not imposed a special set of rules on Catholics or other Christians who believe contraception to be immoral. The administration has simply declined to extend an exemption from those rules to everyone who disagrees with them, which is a very different thing. Insofar as there has been a double standard, it is to the advantage of Catholics, not to their disadvantage. Precisely because of the Church's opposition to contraception, parishes are exempt from the mandate and other Catholic institutions are accommodated.

One may think this accommodation should be extended to every Catholic employer. One may oppose the mandate, root and branch, and work to see it reversed by a future administration. But one should avoid using language that suggests that any law or regulation felt as a burden by some religious minority is a case of oppression. Catholics in eighteenth-century England—that's dhimmitude. Catholics in twenty-first-century America, not so much.

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Matthew, I grew up when we lived in "the Catholic ghetto," which was partly self-imposed. Oh, how the discussions did go on over the extent to which the ghetto -- or dhimmitude, if we must -- was by choice or forced on us. So I am neither as surprised nor as discomfited as you and Rusty seem to be. I don't think there ever was a time in my life, much less as recently as yesterday, when society and I believed the same thing.Your citation of Prof. Reno was limited to the academy. Yes, and in my dim youth before he was born, there was much wailing within the society about how irreligious the prestige schools had become and how they would disappoint the churches that founded them. Think of William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale (1951).There seems to be a recent urge toward martyrdom among some alienated American Catholics, but you won't find any bears or lions, I'm afraid. You won't meet gory death in this country; they simply try to buy you off.

There are two things here. First are the questions like contraception and recognition of homosexual unions. Those are questions where, at least to me, the claims of exclusion from the public square are baffling. They baffle me at least in part because, in the case of contraception, the problem is not the world around us but, rather, a pastoral problem of a teaching that is not accepted even by most Catholics. Rather than deal with the people in the pews, the bishops fixated on the mandate. It has been an enormous case of psychological projection. In the case of marriage, it is frankly even more baffling given the number of non-sacramental, civil marriages the Church never speaks against. How many such spouses does the Church insure today without complaint?But the other thing simply is this: Are Christians not supposed to be a sign of contradiction? Ought temporal living not to pose us with grave difficulties? See Acts 28:22 and the words of Simeon in Luke. It is a sickness in the soul of Christianity to believe that Christians ever should not feel themselves somehow apart from the world. All hopes for a Christian civilization are, really, not Christian. It is the same tainted Christianity that saw Eusebius praise the imperial unity of Church and state in Emperor Constantine that today would prefer that we Christians should "dictate the terms of the social contract" (a metaphor drawn from the Enlightenment, anyway). This is eschatological confusion. The Kingdom is not here. The world is supposed to challenge us, as we are supposed to challenge the world.

"Secular" doesn't mean "not Catholic," it means "not religious." Ours is by no means a secular society. There are many, many religious denominations in this country whose members sincerely believe that they live in accordance with the will of God--some of them aren't even Christian. Then there are agnostics and atheists who believe with equal sincerity that they can live moral lives without professing belief in any God. That, fortunately--or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint--is the price of living in a pluralistic democracy where there is no state church and religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution.

First, thumbs up to Mr Millies."To bear with patience wrongs done to oneself is a mark of perfection, but to bear with patience wrongs done to someone else is a mark of imperfection and even of actual sin."St Thomas Aquinas shows us the way, I think. It is also part of the secular culture to belabor persecution and indulge a sense of personal victimhood.Where this Doctor points is for Christians and Catholics to set aside the self-absorption and focus instead on others who are downtrodden and deeply persecuted in our nation: Latinos, children in foster care, the uninsured, single mothers, and so on. We should tread cautiously in this area: no need to see our sister and brother believers get stepped on or steamrolled. On the other hand, when Archbishops Chaput and Dolan start acting like an Oprah guest, it's not inspiring. It's cringeworthy.Mr Reno needs to take a step back from campusville. Corporations rule in the West. Whatever sells ...

No one is preventing Catholics of any/all stripes from believing what they wish to believe and living it out as they see fit. No one is forcing anyone to contracept or abort. No one is forcing 2 males/females to marry each other if they don't want to do so.The rub comes when those beliefs and practices impinge on the same but dissimlar rights of other people.A secular - plural - society is necessary for the beliefs rights of all to be protected to the point that they are not imposed on those who do not share those beliefs. As Todd put it: "no need to see our sister and brother believers get stepped on or steamrolled."

There's another meaning to secular. The Lord Jesus was born into our saeculum. Please recall the phrase per omnia saecula saeculorum at the end of the Canon. He was born into our age, and the Incarnation makes him and things "secular" changed by His mighty work. Also, please recall that the ordained were for a period of time named by the words religious (or regular) and secular (diocesan). ----Because we are all in an Age (saeculum), we cannot avoid having stupidities such as the Cappa Magna and Your Grace titles. The lure of pomp will always be at work. But, I beg, do not decry things as secular if you believe in the Incarnation.

Thanks, Matthew - interesting analysis and opinions. Following up on Mr. Flowerday and Mr. Millies, here is something I posted earlier on Grant's What Do the Bishops Want?Find this whole reply to be interesting because it reflects much of the debate in the 4th session of VII over Dignitatis Humanae. From John OMalley,SJs book and paraphrasing: John Courtney Murray,SJ as the council was closing put his finger on a *the issue under the issue* development of doctrine. In his words, it was the problem of elaborations of church teachings that went beyond, or even contradict, previous teachings. i.e. the problem of change. Murray went on to elucidate the repeated condemnations of *the separation of church and state*; *conscience*; *religious liberty*; etc. as pronounced by popes since the 18th century. And this topic was a bitter struggle and yet, Murrays ideas prevailed. He noted that in this council struggle on *religous liberty* the US bishops came in full force. Yet, this support echoed the American experience US church did not live in the 19th century European mindset which can be summarized as if the majority of a states citizens are Catholic, then the state must profess being Catholic and was duty bound to suppress other religions; even denying their civil rights. If Catholics are a minority, then the state mus tolerate and guarantee free practice of religion. His views prevailed and can be summarized as religious liberty and the rights of religious bodies in society; as well as the legitimate limits to expression of religious liberty, must be made evident and as appropriate for the good of society. It is interesting to note the change via the current USCCB on this issue. In tone and approach, the USCCB appears to reach back to the 19th century mindset; to echo the fierce objections about Murrays ideas from Rev. Joseph Fenton. Why? Because Dignitatis Humanae lays down two basic foundational principles the every individual has the right to use conscience to choose and that no government has the right to obstruct this so long as it does not infringe on the right of others or hinder the common good; second, that this human dignity can not be coerced. Realize that terms such as common good and access to contraception can be argued but my point is that the USCCB appears to be operating with a new foundational principle US government must allow the Catholic Church its preferences and anything less will be a loss of religious liberty. Appears to ignore the foundational principles of Dignitatis Humanae fact that in a civil society there are diverse and multiple religious bodies or secular views that must be respected and protected. Sorry, USCCB seems to be recycling Fr. Fenton.

"The gap between the teachings of the Catholic Church, especially on questions of sexual morality, and the beliefs, customs, and laws of the surrounding culture continues to grow"I think that the actual gap is not just between what the church teaches and what non-Catholics believe, but between what the church teaches and what Catholics believe. Most Catholics believe same-sex marriage is ok, most Catholics use contraception, etc.And the surrounding culture is *not* anti-Christian ... the president is a Christian, so are most legislators and most of those on the supreme court. So are most Americans, even if they don't all go to church. I don't think there's a real dhimmitude of Christian values in our society. There is a dhimmitude of is extremely conservative religious views that most believers don't hold but only the hierarchy and a small minority seem to hold.

Tocqueville on how "soft despotism" might operate:"The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."See John Stuart Mill for similar warnings.

Some further recollections: In the 1970s there was much talk -- and possibly consensus among those who knew of the talk -- about Robert Bellah's concept of American "civil religion." Oversimplifying, it posited the president as a sort of preacher-in-chief (a construct that falls apart when the president of the moment is rejected a priori by a sizable portion of his flock). It was the source of "In God We Trust" (you got the memo about how Obama is removing that from our coins, didn't you?) and the Regents' non-denominational (in a Protestant way) prayer to open the day in New York schools, the removal of which prayer turned out (who knew?) to be tantamount to driving God from "our" schools.My point: After we got out of the "Catholic ghetto" (my earlier comment) we landed in this world of a sort-of religion with a kind-of Protestant patina that was more of the lip than of the heart but which would be internalized in ways that don't line up with Catholic catechetics of those days or these.

What you describe, Patrick, seems to me to be the working of modern capitalism, and the incessant Selling of Product.Does the Church possess within its means and traditions the answer to that? The answer to the human longing for meaning? Optimistically, I would say yes. But somehow I think many of my bishops are timid on that front. (But they do hire people to do public relations, don't they? Even the Vatican.)They too have been infected with aspects of contemporary culture. Perhaps they would like to lead a confrontation. But unfortunately, they have largely rejected the "first signs" of their brother bishops of the last two generations. Instead, they acquire new episcopal digs but protest that they have to be big and ritzy to attract/host seminarians. They point out the specks in the eyes of the press, the medical establishment, and the disinvited. But they persist in blindness to their own planks: the mismanagement of predators and material resources. There is a profound gap between the teachings of Christ and the actions of bishops on behalf of their wayward clergy.As a person who lives with one foot in the church and one in the world, I see precious little leadership from those who would be shepherds. Indeed, it seems sometimes to be all too similar with that final shocking image in the book portraying pigs and humans sharing drinks, cigars, and laughs.

The refrain that the bishops cannot police their own house must be repeated. The umbrage about this policy enables them psychologically to turn away from their own very compromised and uninspired ranks with frenetic energies fueled by avoidance. Rahner's prediction of a "long winter" continues to be true.

"The refrain that the bishops cannot police their own house must be repeated."The bishops seem disinclined to listen to this refrain. Honestly, I wish there were a clearer route to break this deadlock. We do need the ministry of bishops. The Church is adrift without them. Maybe we should be thankful the dhimmitude is largely a phantom.

So, is "the Catholic moment" over? ;)

What its not is dhimmitude. Dhimmitude is only possible where there are two sets of rules: one for the majority and one for a minority.I do not think Mr. Reno claimed it was dhimmitude. To of sorts, attention must be paid. Nevertheless there is a logic to Matthews argument. The thing is, this argument would thwart any claim that laws for traditional marriage/against same sex marriage would impose two sets of rules: one for the majority and one for the minority.

Mark --Yes, indeed there *are* two sets of rules. In fact, there are as many sets of rules as there are religions here - plus one more set, that of the government''s legislation. The religious groups set their own rules for their members, but those rules do not have any sort of jurisdiction over non-members. The government's set of rules, on the other hand, establish what is *allowable* under its jurisdiction, and in doing so it permits the members of the religions to follow their own rules/consciences as well as permitting non-members to follow their own rules/consciences.Granted, in an ideal world the government's rules would be perfect ones. But this isn't an ideal world, so the less than perfect must be tolerated if it doesn't seriously weaken the common good. You might think that gay marriage does weaken the common good and very badly. However, I can't help but think that view is usually disingenuous. Why? Because there are vastly more divorced people in this country thn there are gays who want to marry, and it can easily be argued that divorce is the very worst possible enemy of marriage, being by its very nature a direct destruction of it. Yet the anti-gay marriage people never say a peep against straight divorce. Hmmm :-( in other words, what we have are conflicts of systems, PLUS yet another system, a meta-system (the U. S. Constitution) which gets to say which of the systems will prevail.

Ann--I think you've read too much into my comment. Be that as it may, if you believe there are two sets of rules, even more, I assume you take issue with Matthew's contention that there not two sets of rules with the current version of the HHS mandate?As for your blanket assertion that the "anti-gay marriage people never say a peep against straight divorce," how can you make such a false statement when you know that the Catholic Church say much more than a peep against divorce?

how can you make such a false statement when you know that the Catholic Church say much more than a peep against divorce?Mark Proska,Do you know if the Catholic Church (say, through Catholic Charities) has ever denied spousal benefits because an employee was divorced and remarried? Has Catholic Charities ever declared they will not allow a divorced and remarried couple to adopt a child? As far as I know, the Catholic Church in these kinds of situations considered a divorced and remarried couple to be legally married and treats them as such. This is not the case with same-sex couples who are legally married. The situation is similar with in vitro fertilization and fertility clinics. We know the position of the Church on in vitro fertilization. But do they campaign against in vitro fertilization and fertility clinics with the same loud voice they campaign against government funded stem-cell research? And yet government-funded stem-cell research is limited to using stem cells derived from donated embryos from fertility clinics. Why isn't there vocal opposition to creating the embryos in the first place?

Mark --I agree what David N. says about the hierarchy and divorce. The point is they don't campaign against it, and I don't even know of any anti-divorce Catholic groups such as thee Right-to-Life people against all abortion.It is not that I think that divorce is never justified, but I'm quite certain that the common laissez-faire attitude towards divorce is terrible for this country. Children are affected dreadfully by it, even in the cases when it is necessary.

Ann--I agree with you that divorce is terrible for this country; I disagree that the Catholic Church has not consistently taken a strong stand against it. In fact, I think the Church's position has been so strong that it has kept some people away.But, returning to my initial point, I think there is a logical similarity in laws that support traditional marriage and Matthew's argument that "all are being required to do the same thing."

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment