Whose Religious Liberty? The USCCB and its ‘New Issue’
Perhaps the most anticipated discussion, and subsequently the most reported, of the annual fall meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was the presentation on the theme of “religious liberty” to the assembly of bishops by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. Additionally, a committee of the USCCB tasked with addressing the issue of “religious liberty” was announced (for information see this USCCB press release). The National Catholic Reporter covered this matter in a November 15 article with a rather telling headline, “Bishop Says Religious Freedom Under Attack in America.” The basic thrust of Lori’s presentation focused on what he (and some other bishops) have observed as a “threat to religious freedom” present in the legislative and executive actions of the United States government. The NCR article reports:
“There is no religious liberty if we are not free to express our faith in the public square and if we are not free to act on that faith through works of education, health care and charity,” Lori said in his first address to the bishops as chairman of the newly formed Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In sum, this statement is not at all problematic. Lori is correct in the assertion that, by virtue of the protected rights guaranteed in the US by the Constitution’s First Amendment, women and men of any faith tradition ought to be able to express her or his faith in public without fear of reprisal. And if that was really what this matter was about, then I don’t think there would be such incredulity among those — including myself — who have been following this particular discussion.
There are a host of contradictions and ill-fitting arguments that accompany the announcement of this new issue taken up by the USCCB with the founding of an Ad Hoc committee to respond to this seeming threat.
First among them is the ostensible misnomer of the entire enterprise. What is being billed as a response to “the attack on religious liberty” in the United States (which is, of course, a serious and constitutional accusation) is really a repackaging of a particular anti-abortion/anti-contraception (commonly referred to as “Pro-Life” in the narrow sense) agenda. I’m not about to say that the Church in the US must kowtow to positions it sees as systemically sinful or evil, but I do think we should name things accordingly and be forthright about real issues.
The would-be impetus for these new discussions, as Lori and others claim, is the explicit violation of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Yet, in reality what is presented resembles something more like a nebulous infringement on First-Amendment rights of US Catholics — particularly Catholic employees in NGOs and health-care organizations — rooted primarily in matters related to contraception and abortion. The truth is that one will find it very difficult to adjudicate the issues in favor of Lori’s committee and others who claim that, according to the law, the Church’s right to restrict other constitutional rights guaranteed to others by virtue of Catholics’ right to religious freedom, in this case access to the full range of modern health care procedures, medications and consultations.
Religious liberty is not a theme that is appropriately invoked to justify denial of other rights, which is what the USCCB argument under the guise of “religious liberty” is all about. Church leaders should, then, focus their attention on public education and moral formation in order to explain why individual moral agents (people themselves) should not use contraception or seek abortion and so on. But what I see this committee eventually doing is trying to again approach the legislative process with yet another plan of attack to overturn Roe v. Wade and perhaps go farther to criminalize currently legal practices and health-care options (think of the recently overturned legislation in Mississippi). Like the Mississippi legislation, this religious-liberty business will also not work, because it is in no way judicially tenable.
The Church leaders here are fixated on legislating morality instead of working to both address the more systemic issue of injustice in our society and help the faithful develop a well-informed conscience. The way that the United States political and legislative system works (and nowhere in the founding documents or principles of this nation is there the faintest claim that it is or should be a “Christian nation”), the Catholic tradition’s emphasis on the freedom of conscience can play freely in a constructive and helpful way. I am not the most qualified to talk about political theory and religious expression, someone like my friend David Golemboski — former employee of NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby, and a current doctoral student at Georgetown studying political theory and Catholic social teaching — is better suited to respond to the technical issues present in the bishops’ latest discussion, but my sense is that there is an inherently flawed notion of what the relationship between the Church and the US government, specifically, and the Church and any government, more generally, really should be.
I’m not at all convinced that religious liberty is really at stake here. If it were, I would expect to see other matters playing more prominently in the USCCB’s discourse, issues like violence, war, economic injustice, prophetic preaching, and other issues that explicitly relate to our faith, our expression of that faith and the actions of the government. Yet, it is abortion and contraception that is the single focus of this matter of “religious liberty.” Where is the cry on the bishops part that Catholics should not serve in the military? Where is the reaction to the tax cuts for the wealthy and the increasing gap between wealthy and poor? Where are our foreign-policy concerns from a Catholic perspective?
Another problem with this particular iteration of the anti-abortion/anti-contraception campaign is that the government is in no way overstepping its bounds to interfere with the individual exercise of a religious institution’s right to practice (or not practice) what it believes, as Lori and others claim. What is really at stake is money. As I understand it, all the Catholic hospitals in the country can refuse to offer certain procedures that do not reflect the mission of the institution, but that refusal to provide constitutionally protected rights for others will result in the end of government funding. The institution is entirely free to continue operating and offering service, but must do so with private funds — just as in the case with individual churches and places of worship, the government will not support the confessional or religiously partisan institutions (that is a matter of the establishment clause!).
If religious liberty was truly at stake, the funding concern wouldn’t be privative as it is in this instance, but instead be made manifest in overt efforts to interfere or suppress the institutions proper.
Another matter, this one of logical contradiction, is the claim that Loris makes that secularism should be seen as system of belief. NCR reports: “‘Let us make no mistake. Aggressive secularism is also a system of belief,’ he commented.” Lori’s point is that the US government seems to be promoting (“establishing”) so-called “aggressive secularism” as a particular faith tradition in the public sphere. I’m not sure that I buy this argument, to begin with, but one should follow the trajectory Lori outlines to its logical conclusion. If what he’s saying is true, that “aggressive secularism” is a belief system, then it has just as much right to exist and for its practitioners to live according to its principles (whatever those might be) as do the Catholics in this country. That is, Lori is arguing for the infringement on the constitutional rights of the practitioners of “aggressive secularism,” just as he claims the Catholics’ rights are infringed.
In other words, the argument used to help bolster the USCCB’s claims that religious liberties are under attack in the US actually highlights the way in which the USCCB wishes to curb the religious liberties of others. You see the problems here.
Instead of masquerading a narrowly defined “pro-life” agenda as a “new issue” — religious liberty concerns — the USCCB should be much more forthcoming about its goals and intentions. It seems that something has to change. If the US Church leadership wants to claim religious liberties are under attack by the same government that guarantees them, then there has to be more than what is presented to justify that position. Where has the government established laws to prevent the practice of Catholicism, the right to erect places of worship, the ability for religious communities to minister to others? (which, by the way, makes the immigration issue in Alabama and elsewhere much more about religious liberty than the healthcare matters).
The other option is to forego the ruse of this constitutional threat in order to focus more forthrightly on matters that Catholics see as important, and seek to educate the faithful and broader public about why these are matters we should all care about. But, as far as a threat on religious liberty is concerned, I’m not buying it. Bishop Lori and his new committee has a lot of work to do in order to make their position sensible and salient.