Religious Liberty, or the Prerogatives of the Bishops?

The American bishops of the Catholic church have a problem with their parishioners, who tend to be pragmatic about how they apply Church principles. The divide between dogma and actual practice is perhaps best exemplified by the split over birth control. The hierarchy condemns the use of modern birth control because it contradicts its teaching on the role of sex in marriage, namely, that sex is for procreation, not pleasure. Meanwhile, most Catholics simply ignore the Church on the issue, unwilling to wait around for it to catch up with the modern world. Like most Americans, they overwhelmingly believe that family planning decisions are a matter of personal choice and that the Church has no business restricting one’s liberty in that area.

It is thus acutely ironic that the Catholic bishops are lining up to restrict access to contraceptives under the new health law in the name of  “freedom” and “conscience.” In a document entitled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” released on April 12, the bishops take deep offense at the mandate requiring religiously affiliated institutions to allow access to birth control coverage in their health plans. The mandate, the bishops declare, denies “the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices.” Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that most “Catholic individuals” do not view such practices as “evil” and can freely abstain even if they do, plus the fact that many of the Catholic “institutions” affected by the law have been dealing contentedly with the issue for years at the state level. If we simply look at how the issue is being articulated, what is truly striking  is the way the bishops couch it so emphatically in the rhetoric of liberty.

One questions, indeed, whether the Catholic hierarchy understands at all the meaning of conscience and religious liberty in their commonly used sense: i.e., an inner voice that requires respect, and a freedom of choice on religious matters. In the case of conscience, the Church applies the term in a way that seems to deny the individual or affiliated institution any independent standing. In a document entitled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship issued in 2007, the bishops make clear that conscience must be “formed,” preferably with outside help, so that it strictly conforms with the authorized interpretation of doctrine. Otherwise conscience must be dismissed as “misguided” and presumably subjected to further instruction. This attitude is descended from the view held by zealots in centuries past that “error has no rights.”  

Freedom of religion, likewise, is understood more in the sense of granting rights to the Church as an institution and truth-bearer than of safeguarding the individual in her right to religious choice. The bishops take religious freedom to be primarily the Church’s freedom to perform its mission as its leaders see fit. This includes, according to the document just mentioned, the right to wield secular influence and to bring the Church’s “principles and moral convictions into the public arena” (to an unspecified degree, I would add). The religious rights of Catholic lay people or of non-Catholics are given little if any attention.

But while their understanding of First Amendment concepts is dubious, to say the least, the bishops have played the freedom-of-religion card with a keen understanding of how it can aid their conservative agenda. With considerable skill they have highlighted the issue by waving the flag of persecution, focusing on the so-called overreach of the Obama administration’s health plan. The Church’s claim of arrogance on the part of the administration is not overly impressive in light of the latter’s earlier capitulation on abortion coverage and its current efforts to bend over backward on an issue that most people thought was settled decades ago. But the claim plays conveniently into the hierarchy’s narrative of a war being waged by secularists against the faithful, a narrative pushed in Rome as well as in the U.S. And the bishops’ aggressive posture, supposedly in support of religious freedom, has succeeded in creating a groundswell of conservative support for the Church’s active role in the public forum.

Sadly, the whole incident may auger a more assertive stance against the Catholic faithful themselves, who are now being given a lesson on how the Church responds to slights to its perceived authority. America’s nuns can attest to this intensified attitude on the part of their freedom-loving superiors. Only one factor will cause the hierarchy to think twice about continuing its campaign for the long term. It can push its authority only so far before its efforts backfire in a new wave of cynicism.

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