Fortnight for freedom: what are the Catholic bishops doing?

June 22, 2012

The headline above is a rhetorical question. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for two weeks of prayer and education before Independence Day in connection with its opposition to the mandates requiring employers to pay for insurance covering contraception and abortion. Sorting out the issues is a tricky proposition because so much of the supposedly objective news coverage is laced with subtle prejudice. Some of the Catholic arguments are not especially helpful either.

The presuppositions are easy to spot and they are very much present. Let me state a few. The top management of the Catholic Church is all male, therefore, it is inherently sexist and evil. The bishops of the Catholic Church have recently shown a shocking inability to manage lower level clergy and protect children, therefore, it is inherently evil (yes, total cheap shot, but a real vulnerability). All religious opinions are subjective and emotional and must never be used to make public policy (a subtle misunderstanding), therefore, the Catholic Church has no business imposing its narrow viewpoint on the rest of us by way of law and is, thus, inherently evil.

By far, the funniest presupposition goes to the suggestion that secretive big money organizations are funding the Catholic bishops. Let me try to tell you this gently, and it may be very disturbing to some of you, but it has been widely insinuated that the Knights of Columbus are footing the bill. Yes, the enemy wears a cape and a feathered hat. Yes, I am aware that the Knights is a multi-billion dollar organization and they are probably paying for some of the bishops activity. The Knights of Columbus is an organization for Catholic men and its purpose is well-known. Contributions are voluntary and they disperse money to groups that promote traditional Catholic beliefs. That may bump up against politics, but one doubts that a straight line connection could be drawn from the Knights to a political party. Yes, the leaders seem to have a particular political viewpoint, but that is not against the law. Attacking the Knights just might result in some very real and serious religious discrimination.

That is a brief summary of several notable presuppositions that creep into news coverage of the Catholic opposition to the mandates. The discussion of this important news story here is admittedly incomplete and the author should self-identify as an Anglican who takes seriously the anti-Catholic themes of the Thirty-Nine Articles. This is not the same thing as being anti-Catholic. It is one of the many distinctions one must make if this is to be talked about in a sensible manner. You should not presume that you know where the author stands on this issue. That is still up in the air. Let’s try to open up a discussion.

There are thee specific areas that should be considered in the Catholic position; the “freedom or worship” versus “freedom of religion,” the actual “mandate,” and the theological implication of the bishop’s advertising and position. Let’s dig in.

To begin with, most of us get the notion that there is a difference between “freedom of worship” and the actual ability to practice one’s beliefs to their fullest. No individual has been forcibly required to have an abortion or ingest contraceptives. The argument is that, under the government program, employers must pay for contraception by mandatory premiums. The Obama Administration, recognizing a policy misstep (hard to imagine!) offered a compromise under which the insurance companies would pick up the tab on the items deemed religiously unacceptable.

That was good enough for many people, but the USCCB was unimpressed. Now, before my own prejudices start to surface, let us observe that they may be motivated by sincere doctrinal concerns and a wholesome fear of government. One thing that seems to be lost in the discussion is what happens to those non-Catholic employees of institutions operated under the authority of the Roman Church? Are their religious rights of conscience being accommodated? It might be that the bishops have introduced what shall be called here, the Jane Fonda Position.

Of course, this would never happen, but what if the Church decided to really embrace its positions on war and social justice. We are talking about the real sacrificial love that refuses to pay for our weapons of mass destruction. This is just a rhetorical question. The bishop’s stance could create the exception that swallows the rule.

It is reported that a compromise is being floated that would allow the church to define legitimate ministries, and thus extend the Obama compromise to all charitable activities. This answers the question about religious practice. Is this a good idea? Who knows?

This does, however, expose a potential problem for the USCCB. What do they do if they should win? Is their position so hardened and so political (even if that has happened unintentionally) that they are backed in the obstructionist corner. It would take extraordinary political courage to admit victory and graciously pray for your former enemies.

Finally, there is the theological concern of the bishop’s eschatology. That is a fancy word for the last things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. The suggestion is that voting a certain way will change things. Many Evangelicals have dutifully voted for “pro-life” candidates for decades. How has that worked out for you guys?

The educational work of groups such as “Priests for Life” have been much more effective in raising public consciousness on the abortion question than the men in pointed hats. I am able to look critically at “Priests for Life” and they are imperfect people living in a fallen world, just like the rest of us. Politicians exist to win elections and say whatever is necessary. Christians are called to live out their beliefs in good times and bad, win or lose. When church leadership shirts the focus to man-made institutions such as human government, they run a very real risk of missing the point of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In fairness to the bishops, the Constitution is not a self-enforcing document. Our privacy rights have been slowly taken away in the name of national security and there is an ugly tendency against religion in much of Europe. We must be on our guard and voting is mandatory. The daily practice of following Christ, and encouraging an ethic of life and peace, is equally important.

Your comments are welcome.

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