The U.S. Catholic bishops have an important case to make in their drive for religious liberty as government continues to pass laws and regulations that would force church-affiliated agencies to take actions that violate church teachings. Bishop William Lori takes the right tack in his speech on this subject at the bishops' conference in Baltimore when he cites the Second Vatican Council's teaching that no one should "be forced to act in a manner contrary to [his] conscience" (Dignitatis Humanae, 3).The problem with this ringing endorsement of religious freedom and conscience is that it's not small-c catholic. If the bishops applied it universally, much would change in the church. For example, bishops would speak about the right of Muslims to build mosques with the same fervor with which they support the rights of their own church. A bishop would not acquiesce to community opposition when, say, a Catholic parish in Staten Island, N.Y. wants to sell a vacant convent so that Muslims can worship there. In the public arena, certain bishops would cease trying to limit the freedom of individual Catholics to make decisions in conscience when it comes to voting. A comment newly added to the Faithful Citizenship guidelines for voting reflects the influence of this rather large number of bishops. It says the document "applies Catholic moral principles to a range of important issues and warns against misguided appeals to 'conscience' to ignore fundamental moral claims." One could go on about the respect for individual conscience in the life of the church. I am not thinking so much of disputes over vital teachings of the church, but rather administrative matters such as what happens to a priest who publicly criticizes a bishop's decision to close a school or parish. The atmosphere in many dioceses is not exactly conducive to free speech.One wonders what President Obama makes of the bishops' drive in support of freedom of religion and conscience in light of the attempt by so many of them to keep him from speaking at the University of Notre Dame in 2009. It would be hard to blame him if he views this effort by the bishops not as a movement for human rights but as one more lobbying campaign. And that's too bad. Some important points are being made.
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.