Problems with religious liberty campaign

Problems with religious liberty campaign June 26, 2012

Let me begin by noting that I fully support the bishops’ position on the recent HHS contraception mandate and their efforts to oppose it. But I find some of arguments made by the USCCB a little perplexing, with the potential to mislead people and even backfire on the Church. There are three specific issues that I would like to raise.

The first issue relates to the nationalist undertones of some of the arguments. I found the tone of “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” more than a little worrisome, especially in its attempts to align Church teaching with a particular form of constitutionalism and a particular understanding of liberty. Given the clear lessons of history, we must be particularly sensitive to the dangers of wedding the teachings of the universal Church with the prerogatives of a particular nation state.

Even worse, I believe that the tone of document in some places verges on the notion of “American exceptionalism”, especially with statements like “we are stewards of this gift, not only for ourselves but for all nations and peoples who yearn to be free”. I do not believe there is anything special about the freedoms enjoyed by people in this country, which resemble the freedoms protected by most liberal democracies in this modern era. America is not “exceptional”. Furthermore, I believe that this flawed notion of “American exceptionalism” is inspired by the Calvinism that shaped this country’s history and culture. I believe that it stands squarely against the idea of the Church as the sacrament of the unity of the human race.

The second area that causes me concern is how the document understands the very notion of liberty itself. The true problem with the HHS mandate is that it fails to understand and respect the mission of the Church in the world, a mission that goes far beyond public worship. The mandate embodies a privatized—and indeed a Protestant—approach to religion.

But I would argue that some of the arguments put forth by the USCCB are open to a similar interpretation. They can be read as emphasizing a negative form of freedom—freedom from coercion in the spirit of Lockean liberalism—rather than the more Catholic idea of positive freedom in the service of what is good and just. I have heard many Catholic commentators make this kind of argument, stressing freedom from government coercion as the primary motivating principle.

This was the same flawed argument used by opponents of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, a group that includes many of the same prominent lay Catholics leading the fight against the HHS mandate. The argument relies on the same individualist mindset to deny the authority of the government to compel the purchase of health insurance. But since the Church sees health care as a fundamental right, and since it is practically impossible to guarantee the provision of universal health care in a world of private insurance in the absence of such a mandate, I believe that the principle of solidarity can be justifiably invoked to defend this action.

Arguments based on the supremacy of individual liberty have long been condemned by the Church. As one example, Pope Pius XI took a very strong stance against the “poisoned spring” of the “evil individualist spirit”. To take another, Pope Paul VI was quite clear in his condemnation of the “erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty”.

This notion of liberalism is deeply embedded in the American culture, across the partisan divide. This same Lockean liberalism is used to justify abortion and same-sex marriage on the one hand, and economic libertarianism on the other. It shows quite clearly that the Church’s approach to liberty is very different from the prevailing American ethos.  I fear that the campaign behind the “fortnight for freedom” will only muddy the waters further, as it seems to align the Church with this secular understanding of freedom.

The true problem with the HHS contraception mandate is of a different order. It steps upon the legitimate autonomy of the Church as a vital mediating institution, and intrudes upon its legitimate sphere of influence in the social order. Indeed, it can be seen as a violation of the principle of subsidiarity, properly understood. As Dignitatis Humanae says, “government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare”. This is the heart of the matter.

When the bishops argue for an exemption for all employers, not just the Church, then the argued becomes confused. The idea of unfettered freedom of conscience for each individual believer in this area is a different, and much trickier, issue. It relates, of course, to the moral proximity to the act in question. One possible argument is that, for private employers, the provision of health insurance is simply a benefit in lieu of wages, and the moral issues between an individual purchasing contraception with wages or employer-subsidized health benefits are not very different.

To take another example, many object to the use of tax dollars to pay for the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction, but the right of every person to refuse to pay taxes at their whim would surely lead to societal breakdown. Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship itself recognizes the moral right to conscientious objection to war in general, a particular war, or a military procedure, but we do not hear too much about this.

Fundamentally, this is a complicated area, and by no means as clear-cut as the erroneous definition of religious employer underpinning the HHS mandate. Certainly, the question of how to apply the call of Dignitatis Humanae to respect the religious liberty of individual believers in modern society needs a lot more thought. But right now, it is detracting from the issue at hand. A continued emphasis on the so-called “Taco Bell exemption” undermines the otherwise watertight position of the bishops and splits the otherwise united front of Catholic opposition. I also fear that too many Americans understand this argument in the Lockean sense of freedom from coercion, rather than the Catholic sense of conscience as the call to do good and avoid evil.

The third problem I have is that the Church is opening itself up to charges of partisanship. I do not believe for one moment that the bishops are being consciously partisan, but perceptions matter. It does not help that many of the most vocal lay Catholics on this issue are not objective, but are strong partisans aligned with the opponents of President Obama.

The problems lie with the selective use of examples and with the overall volume of the campaign.

On the first point, the selective use of examples, the bishops are obviously putting a lot of emphasis on the HHS mandate. But the other examples listed seem to single out the Obama administration. Only occasionally do we hear about the grave problems created by various state level immigration laws, which impede the Church in doing its duty. Surely this is at least as important as the HHS mandate.

We also hear nothing about the numerous attacks on the religious freedom of our Muslim brothers and sisters, especially in the context of some recent legislation threatening the right of Muslims to use sharia law in private contracts. This should be of huge concern to the Church, not only because religious liberty applies to Muslims too, but because these same arguments could very easily be deployed against canon law.

On the issue of volume, people might legitimately wonder why this issue is being stressed so overwhelming, especially through the “fortnight for freedom”, to the detriment of other important concerns in these trying times. Why not a fortnight for immigration reform? A fortnight for economic justice? A fortnight for peace?

I believe strongly that Catholics can only make inroads with a secular, somewhat hostile, culture by living the virtue of consistency. Secular humanists will not agree with numerous Church teachings. But I believe they will respect consistency, the understanding that the Church’s teachings all stem from an unshakable commitment to human dignity and intrinsic human worth across all spheres of life. As Pope Benedict put it so well, the Church’s social doctrine is “a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new”. If the Church is perceived as partisan, its teachings will be written off. The new evanglization will be dead in the water.

I am afraid that too many lay Catholics in the United States try to create arbitrary divisions in this unified teaching—on both the right and the left. They take their guidance more from ideology than Catholic teaching. Especially in such circumstances, it is extremely important for the Church to stay above the partisan divide, and to do so by emphasizing the totality of its social teaching.

One of the great tragedies of our current deep partisan divide is that it pits white Americans against minority Americans. As we all know, the contours of America, and the Catholics Church in America, are changing dramatically. If the Church is seen as siding with the interests of its older, whiter, members and ignoring the concerns of others, I fear this will only damage its future credibility. If you want to see the kind of blowback the Church can face from identification with a particular culture or particular generation, just look at Ireland, or Quebec, or countless other cases.

For these reasons, I find the current “religious liberty” strategy to be flawed.

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