How Threatened Is Religious Liberty?

April 13, 2012

LGBT issues are central to the campaign that the U.S. bishops have been mounting to “protect” and “defend” religious liberty.  One example is their argument that laws requiring legal recognition of lesbian and gay couples impinge upon the religious liberty of our church.  One important effect of this religious freedom argument has been that some bishops have closed down adoption services because they claim their faith does not allow them to place children with families headed by a lesbian or gay couple.   Clearly, a scorched earth policy.

Catholics concerned about LGBT equality will be interested to learn that yesterday the U.S. bishops stepped up their campaign about religious liberty, as reported in a New York Times article:

‘The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops issued a proclamation on Thursday calling for every priest, parish and layperson to participate in ‘great national campaign’ to defend religious liberty, which they said is ‘under attack, both at home and abroad.’

“In particular they urged every diocese to hold a ‘Fortnight for Freedom’ during the two weeks leading up to the Fourth of July, for parishioners to study, pray and take public action to fight what they see as the government’s attempts to curtail religious freedom.’

“ ‘To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other,’ said the statement, issued by the bishops ad hoc committee on religious freedom. “

The bishops fail to recognize, however, that many, many Catholics have no problem with integrating their faith and national identities, and that they disagree strongly with the bishops’ positions on the so-called “religious liberty” issues such as LGBT equality and access to birth control.

You can read the entire text of the bishops’ statement, entitled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” by clicking on the title.

What I found most troublesome was the bishops’ attempt to identify themselves with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil disobedience movement:

“In his famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. boldly said, ‘The goal of America is freedom.’ As a Christian pastor, he argued that to call America to the full measure of that freedom was the specific contribution Christians are obliged to make. He rooted his legal and constitutional arguments about justice in the long Christian tradition:

I would agree with Saint Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.” Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

“It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.”

What is troublesome about this passage is that the bishops themselves have often not allowed any discussion of unjust laws the church maintains.  Their comparison to Dr. King rings hollow and degrades his memory.

An interesting analysis of the bishops’ statement comes from an editorial published by Commonweal magazine within hours of the statement’s release.  What makes this editorial so interesting is that the editors agree that the bishops should be concerned about religious liberty, however, they view their tactics as alarmist, misguided, and potentially perceived as partisan:

“The bishops are right to call for vigilance on behalf of religious liberty. There are influential currents of opinion today that advocate restricting the presence of religion in public life and would reduce religious liberty to the freedom of individuals or congregations to worship as they please. That is not the American way. There should be considerable room for government to cooperate with religious groups as with other non-governmental bodies in serving the common good. Unfortunately, the argument made by the bishops as well as their proposed tactics for public action undermine their case. Worse, the tenor of the bishops’ statement runs the risk of making this into a partisan issue during a presidential election in which the leaders of one party have made outlandish claims about a ‘war on religion’ or a ‘war against the Catholic Church.’

“The USCCB’s statement vastly exaggerates the extent to which American freedoms of all sorts and of religious freedom in particular are threatened. Church-state relations are complicated, requiring the careful weighing of competing moral claims. The USCCB’s statement fails to acknowledge that fact. Worse, strangely absent from the list of examples provided by the bishops is the best-documented case of growing hostility to religious presence in the United States: hostility to Islam. Unless the bishops correct that oversight, their statement will only feed the impression that this ‘campaign’ for religious freedom has been politically tailored. This silence is especially striking in view of the parallels between anti-Muslim sentiment today and the prejudice encountered by Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century. If religious freedom becomes a partisan issue, its future is sure to grow dimmer, not brighter.  Religious liberty, absolutely. Partisan politics, no.”

Let’s pray that the bishops soon recognize that this type of campaign, in which they portray themselves as victims, is not only unpersuasive, but it further erodes their moral authority and the credibility of all Catholics.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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