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The Bishops Can’t Have It Both Ways

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

There is a profound and easily spotted hypocrisy when someone, or some institution declares in favor of freedom for me, but not for thee.   The Catholic Right and and their political allies have been trying to make this hypocrisy work for them for many years. They have certainly had their moments, but the utility of this obvious hypocrisy may have finally run its course.  

This time, they have tried to frame the Obama administration’s policy of requiring that insurance cover contraception as a violation of religious freedom.  They characterize the Affordable Care Act’s original requirement that religious employers provide women with insurance coverage that pays for contraception as “a direct assault on the First Amendment, not only a direct assault on the freedom of religion, by forcing people specifically to do things that are against their religious teachings.”

As an American Catholic, I see it differently.  And I think growing numbers of Americans are see it too.

The institutional Church has been escalating the culture war on multiple fronts since the beginning of John Paul II’s papacy.  We have seen this in action in the elevation of socially conservative Cardinals, and the strengthening ties with far right Catholic groups such as Opus Dei as well as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), as well as Catholic neo-conservatives and providing at least tacit approval of the controversial views and actions of Bill Donohue and the Catholic League.

A common link among all these groups and individuals in their relative diversity, is the desire to break down the wall that separates church and state. For them, orthodox Catholic dogma is not merely something to be honored by individuals but must be embodies in law  and enforced by the government on everyone.

In 2000 when embryonic stem cell research became an issue, offering hope for the eventual cure or treatment of a myriad of ills, this alliance led the way in stifling the federal funding and oversight of the research simply because it didn’t conform to Catholic theology.  They framed their opposition as if they spoke for all people of faith despite the reality that other major faiths such as Judaism, the mainline protestant United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, and Presbyterian Church (USA) believe otherwise and supported the research.  Even a clear majority of American Catholics were supportive.

Throughout the child sex abuse crisis, the bishops and their conservative allies have fought legislation that would lengthen statutes of limitations for filing law suits against child predators and those who shielded them from being brought to justice.  In so doing, they have revealed themselves as seeking to be exempt from accountability to secular law.

When marriage equality was recently achieved in New York State, the hierarchy howled its displeasure — even though the legislation does not require religious institutions to perform same sex marriage ceremonies.  (Nor has anyone ever been required to perform any marriage ceremony,  whether same sex or opposite sex.  The right to marry belongs to individuals, but no religious institution is obliged to perform a religious ceremony just because somebody wants one.)  Once again, the Catholic Right demanded legislation that was contrary to the wishes not only of the aggregate citizenry, but also of American Catholics.

What emerges is a picture of a religious institution that has increasingly demanded that secular civil law reflect its specific theology, even when doing so may trample upon the religious freedom of others. The blow-up over birth control is but the latest example.

How tone-deaf can the hierarchy be on birth control? The Church’s history on this is illuminating.  In 1966, a pontifical panel on the subject consisting of seventy-two members that included sixteen theologians, thirteen physicians and five women without medical credentials, plus an executive committee of sixteen bishops, including seven cardinals overwhelmingly concluded that that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil.  There were only seven dissenters. And yet those dissenters heavily lobbied then-Pope Paul VI and carried the day.  One of those dissenters was the future John Paul II.

I do not pretend to speak for the Church, let alone all American Catholics.  But I do know my views are representative of a large number of my fellow congregants. We see a hierarchy that is hypocritical in its approach to the great issues of the day, taking to invoking religious freedom when it is convenient, but stomping on the religious freedom of others when it gets in the way.   Almost, as if on cue, Rick Santorum, is running for president showing how the darkness of religious intolerance is growing in the Church.

There is hardly a better example of hierarchical hypocrisy, when it extols the virtues of religious freedom to exempt itself from providing insurance coverage for birth control to employees who do not share its view on the subject, including employees who are not even Catholic.

We have seen it play out differently on the issues of stem cell research and marriage equality — two issues where they are exempt from participation — the hierarchy and its allies still seek to impose their will on those who do not share their beliefs.  That is not how the freedom of religion works.  They cannot have it both ways.

We saw their strident hypocrisy on display when the Obama administration amended its contraception policy so that it was insurers and not religious institutions that would be responsible for provision of contraception insurance, several key Catholic health organizations hailed the compromise; sadly, the bishops did not.

We now know that the bishops have been long preparing for this fight.  But do they really believe that they can win?  I guess that depends on how they define win.  If they define it as achieving a faith devoid of reason and a smaller but angrier following — which is the stated goal of some then victory may be theirs:  Pyrrhic though it may be.  But the effort to redefine religious freedom as meaning only what the bishops say that it means, has become so shockingly evident, that the image of the bishops as out of touch, hypocritical and self-serving, seems likely to deepen.

One Response

  1. Fr McCloskey’s little missive, which you link at the end of this post, is really frightening. It does give some credibility to what I think is actually part of the agenda of the USCCB, which is to take over the religious right, and in a real sense to ‘steeple jack’ it’s voice and it’s money.

    There is no bigger threat to Catholic political hegemony and numbers in South America and Africa than the New Apostolic Reformation. Co opting the NAR voice, agenda, and political power in the US is one way of taming this dynamic and real threat to Vatican supremacy in the Christian world. Unlike with communism and secularism, the Vatican can’t engage in open attack so it’s using trumped up religious freedom issues and the US culture wars. The Vatican must be quite pleased with Cardinal Dolan and company because the USCCB is making itself the loudest and most powerful voice on the US right.

    In the meantime the average American Catholic is getting steam rolled, parishes are closing, sacraments left wanting, and the Faith itself dumbed down to the level of a twelve year old brain.

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