For the fourth year in a row, the U.S. Catholic Bishops declared a “Fortnight for Freedom” from June 21st to July 4th–a time for Catholics to pray and organize to protect supposed threats to religious freedom. For the fourth year in a row, this project has failed to find an audience among Catholics in the pews, who don’t agree with the bishops that their religious liberty is threatened.
Many Catholics think that claiming religious liberty is threatened is a way for religious leaders, such as the bishops, to oppose a number of governmental initiatives, including marriage equality. By saying that marriage equality will harm the Catholic Church’s ability to practice its faith works as a red herring. As Father Thomas Reese recently pointed out in The National Catholic Reporter, the U.S. bishops have made accommodations with other civil laws that do not match their beliefs, so, morally, they can do the same with marriage equality.
It’s surprising that the bishops’ campaign did not pick up more speed this year than in the past since the Supreme Court decision for marriage equality came right in the middle of their Fortnight. But perhaps it’s not surprising, since many Catholics welcomed the decision and don’t see it threatening their freedom. As Paula Ruddy, writing at The Progressive Catholic Voice blog wrote:
“American Catholics have been formed in the values of two traditions – the value of community in the Roman Catholic tradition and the value of individual liberty in the U.S. democratic tradition. Most of us have learned to value both, to integrate the two more or less successfully. We try to avoid both the excesses of “group think” and the excesses of ‘go-it-alone’ individualism. We have to do this without the support of our institutional church.”
That sentiment was shared by Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, and Reverend Barry Lynn, president of Americans United, in an op-ed they co-authored for The Baltimore Sun at the very beginning of the Fortnight campaign. O’Brien and Lynn pointed out that American Catholics want a nation where everyone’s needs are met and everyone’s consciences are respected:
“The American public has arrived at a consensus that it’s not OK to be mean and nasty. They don’t think it’s OK to take taxpayer money to diagnose someone with HIV and not give that person — through condoms, medication and counseling — the ability to live and love as HIV positive. It’s not OK when refugees from Latin America, or those who are victims of sex trafficking or sexual abuse, are denied emergency contraception that could prevent pregnancy — especially when they are not even referred to another provider who can give survivors what they need. The American public does not agree when an employer either refuses to hire you because you want to marry your same-sex partner, you want contraceptives covered by your insurance or you would like to use IVF to have the baby you’ve always wanted.”
The real danger is that real religious freedom is threatened by the unholy alliance between pulpit and government. O’ Brien and Lynn stated:
“[T]he real threat we see is an all-time low in political commitment to, and understanding of, the idea of separation of church and state.”
O’Brien underscored this problem in a separate op-ed that he wrote for Crux:
“Real religious freedom is freedom of and freedom from religion. Neither party seems to understand that you don’t get to impose your beliefs onto somebody else — your freedom stops at the end of your nose.”
Or, as Ryan Hoffman, communications director for Call To Action, said it in a post on the organization’s website:
“Real ‘religious freedom’ upholds an individual’s decision to live in accordance with their sexual identity and religious values. Discrimination on the basis of such is not a Catholic value.”
Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow with Political Research Associates, framed the problem this way in an essay on LGBTQNation.com:
“The narrative is usually framed in terms favorable to the Christian Right: casting religious freedom versus LGBTQ rights. But there is more to it as the battle for the definition of a religiously plural society rages hotter than meets the eye. . . .
“The Christian Right, in both its evangelical and Catholic expressions, is seeking to co-opt the great tradition and constitutional doctrine of religious liberty as a front to advance their particular cultural and religious agenda at the expense of everyone else. But there is a broad-based pushback from many sectors, both religious and non-religious, to preserve and advance religious freedom for all, and not just the self-selected few.”
If Catholic bishops continue to take a narrow view of religious liberty, they will, in effect, be making the Catholic religion a more narrow and marginalized sector of society. Mark Silk, a contributing editor at Religion News Service, argued against the idea that it is beneficial for religious institutions to shrink down in order to preserve their identity in a way that is totally separate from mainstream society. In a blog post, Silk pointed out an important historical example:
“[I]t’s hard to see an American future where, as the early Christian intellectual Tertullian put it, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ What a number of latter-day Christian intellectuals are hoping for, instead, is what American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher is calling the Benedict Option, by which he proposes that Christians in America take as their model Benedictine monasticism after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. . . .
“Dreher’s idea is that just as European civilization re-emerged from these ‘islands of sanity and serenity,’ so a religious civilization can eventually re-emerge from contemporary Christian communities that hold to traditional values and beliefs.
“It’s a pretty lousy analogy, actually. The heavy business of keeping peace and order, and effecting the transition from Roman emperors to the likes of the Frankish King Clovis, was done by popes such as Gregory the Great and aristocratic (and married) Gallo-Roman bishops. Monasteries did preserve a good deal of ancient Roman culture — among other things, monks copying out enough naughty Latin literature to keep latter-day classicists in business. But the idea that people outside the cloister forgot what it meant to be a human being, while small communities of celibate men (and women) didn’t, is romantic nonsense.
“More importantly, however, the monastic model served Western Christendom badly in important ways during the era of extraordinary economic and institutional growth that began after the Viking invasions ended in the 11th century — not least by making celibacy obligatory for priests serving communities in the world, and consequently devaluing the religious lives of married folks.”
After four years of failed Fortnights, U.S. bishops should learn that Catholics in the pews do not see their religious freedom threatened. So much wasted money on a campaign which looks more like a political strategy against policies the bishops don’t like than a humanitarian effort to preserve an ideal. In other parts of the globes, people’s religious freedom is severely threatened, and they pay for it with their lives. The U.S. bishops would do better by funding programs to oppose those oppressive measures instead of trying to convince Catholics here that there is a monster under the bed.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry