I was going through a box of papers sent home from my Commonweal office the other day, tossing out most of them. Then I came across the fourteen-page text of a talk Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò gave at the University of Notre Dame just days before the 2012 November presidential election. Viganò is the disgruntled former Vatican official and ambassador to the United States who accused Pope Francis of covering up Cardinal McCarrick’s history of abuse, decried the existence of homosexual cabals in the church, and called for the pope’s resignation.
I don’t think I read his Notre Dame talk at the time, but evidently I put it aside for possible future reference. It’s titled “Religious Freedom, Persecution of the Church, and Martyrdom.” I don’t doubt that Christians are persecuted in many places, but talk of martyrdom in the secular West strikes me as histrionic, if not delusional. Ridicule is not martyrdom. Talk of religious persecution is also a page from the Republican Party’s game plan. In 2012 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was consumed with its fiery opposition to the “contraception mandate” in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Earlier that year the bishops had issued “Our First, Most Cherished Freedom,” their call to arms against what they claimed was Obama’s threat to religious liberty, absurdly linking provisions in the ACA requiring insurance companies to provide free contraception coverage for employees of Catholic institutions to the martyrdom of Sir Thomas More and John Fisher. In its initial interpretation of the health-care law, the Obama administration had not granted exemptions from the mandate to Catholic institutions such as universities and hospitals, a stupid and unwarranted decision, and one to which Commonweal—and many other so-called liberal Catholics—strongly objected. In response, the administration proposed a workaround that would exempt all Catholic institutions. Commonweal judged that accommodation a reasonable compromise on the complex issue of when religious groups can be granted exemptions from otherwise applicable laws. The bishops, for their part, refused to give an inch, claiming that the mandate was an “unjust” law and demanding that it be repealed. They joined Republicans in charging Democrats with waging a “war on religion.” It was clear that the USCCB had taken a partisan stance. “The bishops claim liberty for themselves, and for the large institutions they control,” the constitutional scholar Douglas Laycock wrote in our pages, “while also fighting to restrict the liberty of others with respect to abortion, emergency contraception, and same-sex relationships…. The argument for a religious exemption is strong; the claim that the law is so unjust that the only solution is to repeal it will persuade no one.”
Viganò’s talk cleaved closely to the USCCB’s partisan line. Grave concerns about religious liberty “exist not only abroad, but they also exist within your own homeland,” he told his Notre Dame audience. The objective of religious persecution is “to eradicate the public witness to Jesus Christ and his church,” and this can be accomplished by marginalizing the church “from meaningful participation in public life.” Echoing “Our First, Most Cherished Freedom,” Viganò argued that “religious freedom is the exercise of fidelity to God and His Holy Church without compromise.” But of course that is not true. Like every other freedom, there are limits to religious liberty. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and Quakers do not have to serve in the military, but like the rest of us they have to pay taxes. Religious institutions have to abide by fire and zoning regulations like everyone else. Mormons are not allowed to practice polygamy. In a secular and religiously diverse society, the freedom of religious communities is inevitably circumscribed. They should be accommodated whenever possible, but where that line is drawn is a political and legal question, not just a religious one.