By Russell Shaw - OSV Newsweekly, 4/29/2012
In issuing an “urgent summons” to Catholics and other Americans to stand up in defense of religious liberty, the American bishops, without intending it, may have called attention both to a serious problem and the difficulty of organizing a united Catholic response.
“Religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad,” declared the statement “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” issued in Washington, D.C., April 12 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
True as that may be, the bishops could have a job on their hands selling that idea in an election year without being accused of political partisanship.
‘Cogent’ vs. ‘partisan’
Early responses to the statement ran the gamut from enthusiastic to skeptical. In the former category, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, called the document “comprehensive and cogent.” But the lay-edited liberal Catholic biweekly Commonweal said it “vastly exaggerates” the threat to religious liberty and warned against making this “a partisan issue.”
The bishops’ ability to rally Catholics will have a practical test in two months. June 21 to July 4, Independence Day, will be observed as a “fortnight for freedom” featuring prayer, study, catechesis and public action in support of religious liberty in dioceses and parishes across the country, the USCCB statement said.
The 11-page document titled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” is the work of the USCCB ad hoc committee on religious liberty chaired by Archbishop William E. Lori, the newly named archbishop of Baltimore.
His blue-ribbon group includes six other archbishops and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington among its 16 members and consultants.
Established last year by USCCB president Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, the religious liberty committee is heavily involved in the continuing confrontation between the Church and the Obama administration over directives by the Department of Health and Human Services for implementing President Obama’s signature health care overhaul law.
As they stand, the directives require Church-sponsored colleges and universities, hospitals, and charities to provide coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their health insurance plans. The bishops object to that, as well as to having the government define what is and isn’t a “religious” institution entitled to an exemption from the mandate and to the narrow terms of the definition adopted by the Obama administration, which exclude many Catholic groups.
In addition to the HHS directives, the USCCB policy statement cites other current or recent incidents to show that religious liberty is under attack.
Among these: Catholic Charities in Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Illinois have had to discontinue adoption and foster care services because of government rules requiring placement of children with same-sex couples; USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services lost its federal contract for a program to assist victims of human trafficking after the government changed the rules to require approved programs to provide abortion and contraception; New York City adopted a rule barring small non-Catholic congregations from renting public schools for weekend religious services available for rental by nonreligious groups.
In one striking case cited by the USCCB document, the Catholic, Episcopal and Methodist bishops of Alabama have joined in a court challenge to an Alabama law against illegal immigration that, among other things, would bar clergy from giving undocumented aliens ministerial services like sacraments or counseling.
“Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass or pray the Rosary at home,” the USCCB statement says. “It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith?”
An obvious question raised by the statement is whether its examples add up to a pattern of abuse or are simply isolated cases. Obnoxious as the Alabama immigration law may be, for instance, it could be seen mainly as a draconian response to undocumented aliens, with the ban on ministerial services a means rather than an end in itself.
Beyond that, the document contains at least one overly broad assertion on the key issue of how to respond to an unjust law.
The document gives this unequivocal answer: “An unjust law cannot be obeyed. … If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America … must have the courage not to obey them.”
That clearly would apply to administrators of Catholic institutions faced with having to cooperate with the HHS mandate requiring coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion.
But Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), conceded that in less obvious circumstances the conscience problems posed by unjust laws can be “difficult” (No. 74).
The prominent American Catholic ethicist and moral theologian Germain Grisez writes that “sometimes either the common good or some personal responsibility requires compliance despite the law’s injustice.” Where there are good reasons for and against complying, he adds, “a person should discern which is preferable and act accordingly.”
Quibbles about a particular document aside, the bishops undoubtedly face at least two large questions in pursuing their religious liberty campaign: how to avoid being accused of partisanship by standing up to the Obama administration in an election year; and whether they should ignore the flak — often from sources with partisan agendas of their own — and, considering what’s at stake, simply forge ahead.
Look for answers soon.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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