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So's Your Mother

A number of commenters on our brief, initial response to the bishops statement Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, accused Commonweal of being partisan for warning that the bishops statement and initiative run the risk of making the church appear to be aligned with one political party. For expressing concerns about partisan entanglement, Commonweal is accused of being partisan. That is a tiresome rhetorical tactic as well as a misreading of the magazines position. If our critics remain skeptical of Commonweals motives and unpersuaded by our arguments, we urge them to read a letter to the editor in the May issue of First Things from noted First Amendment scholar Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia. Laycock represented the church in the recent Hasanna-Tabor case, winning a resounding affirmation from the Supreme Court of the right of religious bodies to determine who is or isnt a minister. In responding to an article by O. Carter Snead (subscribers only) attacking the Obama administration, Laycock sets the record straight by noting that the president has been bad on some religious-liberty issues but very good on others. And it is dangerous to religious liberty to see it as a political club with which to beat up the other side. As we argue in our latest editorial (Partisan Dangers), and Laycock warns in his letter, Religious liberty is in danger of becoming just another left-right political issue, and if that happens, the cause is lost. Laycocks letter is well worth reading in its entirety.At National Review online, George Weigel, who has been known to have the ear of influential bishops, has responded to Commonweals cautions about partisan entanglement by claiming the following: Would that we had two political parties that honored religious freedom in full. But we dont. And this argument will not be resolved at some mythical 50-yard line where all of us learn to just get along. Someone is going to win this debate over the future of civil society, and someone is going to lose it.No one could accuse George Weigel of ever wasting his time at the 50-yard line in either religion or politics, although he has on more than a few occasions mistaken failure for mission accomplished. But if Weigels call to battle and demand for unconditional surrender is in fact the view of the bishops, we fear their cause is already lost.


Commenting Guidelines

JAK --How many of the bishop-members of this committee were members of Vatican II? In fact, are there more than a dozen of the VII bishopsleft? Aren't a big majority of current American bishops JP II appointees? And if so, might not this have something to do with their paranoia about this so-called "war"? (OK, so the last question was rhetorical.)

"The bishops say they believe in religious freedom, but they show, by essentially ignoring the religious/civil rights of non-Catholics, that they believe their own rights are absolute.- On what possible logical basis do you deduce this conclusion?"Jeff --Either the bishops respect the religious rights of all, some, or none. They do respect their own rights, but they ignore the rights of non-Catholics (as well as Catholics who agree with the non-Catholics) when they neglect to respect the religious rights of non-Catholics to equal protection under the HHS mandate. Since there are only two classes involved -- Catholics' rights and non-Catholics' rights -- and the bishops show no respect for the others' rights, it follows that they consider their own rights to be the only ones with real value. The rights of the others can be ignored. That's pretty absolute.

Ann: No bishops who were at Vatican II are still heads of dioceses. Most of today's bishops were appointed by John Paul II, a fierce defender of religious freedom whose teaching on the subject went far beyond Vatican II's Declaration. The bishops have made it clear that they think the threat they perceive does or will affect the religious freedom of all people and groups. Two questions: 1) Is there a right to contraception? 2) Does anyone have a right that someone else pay for one's contraceptives?Nicholas: When I reviewed the proposals for an agenda for Vatican II, of the bishops who raised the issue of religious freedom, all but one proposed Murray's position; that one basically agreed with Murray's critics. Murray's silencing was never made public, and so you will not find public defenses of him, but there is indirect evidence of the respect Murray enjoyed among the bishops, one of whom was Cardinal Spellman, who secured Murray's appointment as an official conciliar peritus in 1963.

As I read these blogs, I continue to find myself confused about 'rights' and arguments about conflicts among 'rightsholders'. It seems to me that 'rights' are inherent to the human person, unalienable to use the term from the Declaration of Independence. But because humans are social, the way those rights are satisfied necessarily involve interactions with with other rights possessing human persons. So lets assume, just for arguments sake, there is a human right to contraception. To me, the question now becomes, how will society satisfy that human right? In other words, what method or rule will we put in place to bring about that human right. But here's the critical piece, in my mind anyway, the method or rule chosen is not itself a human right. Particularly when one can posit myriad other ways to satisfy the same human right. So in the case of the HHS regulations in particular, my assessment is that our Catholic organizations want the human right not to do wrong, while the HHS regs simply one method among many to satisfy a perceived human 'need' for contraception.What I think also follows from my thought process, is that arguing over a method to satisfy a human right is necessarily partisan since many alternatives exist and we cannot know which will produce the optimal outcome, while arguing about a human right should never be partisan.

I suspect that if there was a move by my local government to unfairly seize my house via eminent domain, I would object strenuously. I may do so even though I failed to speak up when other localities used eminent domain to seize houses, or even when my local government unfairly seized my own house. Would my objections be more honorable if I had spoken up when it wasn't my particular oxe being gored? Yes, it would. Does my failure to have done so, in itself, mean that my claims of injustice are wrong, or that a valid response to my objections is to say that they must be disingenous because I failed to speak up about the other seizures, or to link my cause with theirs? No.--If the HHS mandated distribution of firearms rather than contraceptives, I don't think it would be disrespecting the rights of non-Catholics to "equal protection" to seek an exemption.

To clarify the above, I am aware that the HHS mandate does not compel Church-based organizations to distribute contraceptives, but to offer insurance programs that cover the cost of them, and realize my phrasing above was a bit imprecise. You can apply the same distancing to my hypothetical firearms benefit.

JAK --Thanks for the history. Can you think offhand of anything JP II said about religious freedom that might be useful in this very knotty controversy? Given that Poland was mainly Catholic and the government was a non-democratic Communist one, he probably didn't have to think very much about possible conflicts between the religious rights of Catholics and those of non-Catholics. So I wouldn't expect much from him on the subject.