Partisan Dangers

On April 12 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty released a statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” calling on Catholics and others to resist what the bishops characterize as unprecedented threats to religious freedom. The statement calls for a “great national campaign” of political and legal protest during what is sure to be an intensely contested presidential election. It urges Catholics to participate in a “Fortnight for Freedom” leading up to this year’s Fourth of July holiday, during which they are asked to study, pray, and take public action against what it describes as concerted government efforts to deprive religious groups of their rights. Among the bishops’ worries are the recent HHS contraception mandate, harsh immigration laws, the denial of federal funding to Catholic social-service agencies, and the closing of Catholic adoption services because of the church’s refusal to place children with gay parents.

Religious freedom “ought not to be a partisan issue,” the bishops declare. They are absolutely right. If defending religious freedom becomes a partisan issue or, worse, an electoral ploy, it will engender enormous cynicism in an electorate in which a significant majority of voters already think religion is too politicized. Unfortunately, the bishops’ statement and proposal for public action are likely to increase that possibility. This initiative is being launched during an election year in which one party has assumed the mantle of faith and charges the other with attacking religion. The bishops need to do much more to prevent their national campaign from becoming a not-very-covert rallying point for the Republican Party and its candidates. If that happens, it is the church and the cause of religious freedom that will suffer.   

The bishops’ description of the various threats to religious freedom conflates a number of disparate federal, state, and judicial actions into an allegedly unified and urgent peril. The argument is hyperbolic. In a nation as large as ours and with so many points at which local, state, and federal government agencies and religious bodies interact, a number of such cases are almost always being debated, legislated, or litigated. It is not at all clear that the threat to religious liberty has suddenly become much greater. That does not mean defenders of religious liberty have nothing to worry about. Yet even those who agree with the bishops about the scope of the danger should be concerned about the appearance of partisanship. Writing in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs (“God and Caesar in America”), sociologists David Campbell and Robert Putnam trace the dramatic shift among Americans away from institutional religion over the past forty years. “As religion and politics have become entangled, many Americans, especially younger ones, have pulled away from religion,” they write. “And that correlation turns out to be causal, not coincidental.” 

Campbell and Putnam trace the rise of religiously conservative evangelicals and Catholics in the Republican Party, and the remarkable degree to which certain political allegiances now coincide with, or even determine, certain religious beliefs and practices. As religious objections to abortion and contemporary sexual mores have come to dictate Republican Party policy, many other Americans have reacted by becoming deeply suspicious of the role of religion in politics. In a 1991 survey, 22 percent of those asked said it was inappropriate for religious leaders to influence government decisions. By 2011, after decades in which the religious right exerted greater and greater influence in our national politics, 70 percent of survey respondents said that religion should be “kept out of public debates over social and political issues.” Surely, the bishops do not want to act in a way that inadvertently strengthens this trend.

During the same period, younger Americans abandoned institutional religion in startling numbers. Paradoxically, as religious groups campaigned to take back the “naked public square,” support for the role of religion in our political debates has steadily eroded and religion itself has lost a good deal of its appeal. “Future historians may well see the last third of the twentieth century as an anomaly,” Campbell and Putnam write, “a period in which religion and public life in the United States became too partisan for the good of either.”

For their effort to be effective, the bishops’ campaign must be seen to be nonsectarian and independent of electoral politics. Adding anti-Islamic prejudice to their list of concerns would help in that regard. The “grand campaign” should also begin and end with a frank admission about the complexity of church-state relations. No government can accommodate every conceivable religious practice or belief, nor does the Catholic Church have a strong record of supporting accommodation of other religious communities. In their simplistic rhetoric, the bishops sound more like politicians than pastors. As Campbell and Putnam warn, if religious freedom becomes a partisan issue, its future is sure to grow dimmer.

Related editorials: Religious Freedom & the U.S. Bishops, Compromise or Stalemate?, Bad Reaction, Bad Decision, An Illiberal Mandate



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I am proud of Commonweal's thoughtful work on this issue and on calling the bishops to a deeper, richer statement on religious freedom. This article is again correct in urging upon the bishops a simple step to make the clarity of their intentions more apparent--speak out against the obvious and continual restrictions placed on the religious freedom of Muslims by the ridiculous anti-Sharia laws. As I note in the link below, the bishops' favorite religious freedom group, the Becket Fund, has spoken out against these laws. Why aren't the bishops?



The bishops need to relaize that religious liberty is two-edged sword. It is all well and good for them to proclaim religious mliberty for Christians when it comes to the state. What they forget it that6 religious liberty applies to the way they deal with Catholics and Catholic scholars. Ask Johnson, Curran, Fox, and Kung for starters. They seem to foget the teaching of Vatican II on religious liberty:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power[including the atholic hierarchy], in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

I have just been reading about the loss of religious liberty that Catholics experienced in early Maryland.  We have heard much about the lack of religious liberty in the news about the Pope's visit to Cuba.  For the bishops to call what's going on now in our country an "attack on religious liberty" is to cheapen the meaning of the phrase.  It does look like the bishops are aiming their campaign at the November elections.  If that is not their intention, they need to change their rhetoric.

As a cradle Catholic old enough to remember when Catholics faced real discrimination in America, I find the hyperbole of today's USCCB downright insulting. It's so unlike the serious but always respectful tone our leaders maintained even, as far as I can tell from the historical record, when the issue was violence against Catholics in the public square.   What on earth are these bishops thinking?  Their rhetoric sounds far more in keeping with Tea Party politics than anything else.  Surely not all the bishops agree with this change in tone.  I pray those who've kept their heads will eventually prevail and speak up and out again.  I think I know my real shepherds' voices, and these are something else again.

Question: how often do you find Muslim leaders specifically advocating for Catholic Church concerns? How often do you find Southern Baptists speaking out about how important liberty for the Catholic Church is? How often do you find reformed Jews campaigning for the rights of the Catholic Church, specifically? I'm not talking about these people joining together with Catholics for a common cause. I'm saying how often do you find these groups, independently and on their own volition, releasing statements about how concerned they are for the Catholic Church over something a state or federal governmental body may be doing?


It's just as ridiculous to expect Catholic bishops to be advocating everyone else's causes. They're Catholic bishops, for God's sake, not full-time religious freedom activists. It's more than a little ridiculous to be wringing one's hands that the Catholic bishops aren't speaking to the specific concerns of other religions and other denominations.

It is a strain for me to suppose, as the editors appear to do repeatedly, that the USCCB is intending something less direct than what they are saying. A more sensible reading is that religious freedom in the Catholic hierarchy has gone the way of thoughtful dissent in the Republican caucuses in Congress. There is a party line and all shall subscribe to it or else.

Where is the virtue in maintaining a fiction that the Catholic tent in America isn't a good deal smaller and more exclusive than it was in 1970?

It is incumbent on the Bishops to teach with clarity and insight about the central moral issues of the day - by what moral calculus does any freedom infringement experienced by Catholic organizations preclude acts of conscience or freedom of speech. Only the latest retreat from modernism can explain such retrograde enthusiasm for institution at the expense of the Body of the Faithful.

It is clear to a large majority of Americans (including Catholics) that the determined social Darwinism of the Bain Capitals of the day are wrecking genuine havoc and physical harm to millions of people. These are the same modern day pirates who host Catholic Supreme Court Justices at private political affairs at the same time they are pouring very large sums into slash and burn campaign slanders.

Ordinary Catholics should be afraid for the Church on the threats from within - not those alleged to be arising from without!

That they are "Catholic bishops, for God's sake" is, I believe, a well aimed and easily defensible belief. As to the verifiable reality of such a wonderful and useful belief,  I suppose that bit of faith like so many can only be verified with absolute certainity in a phrase so useful on so many challenging occassions, "God knows".  Good to know perfect understanding and the wisdom it imparts is not our responsibility. 

As for questioning their efforts or responsiblities in "advocating everyone else's causes" why would they not be? I assume the question is limited soley to worthy causes.  If not, I truly am confused.  Is it their personal interpretation of Christ's message or Christ message they wish to share?   At whom are their efforts most properly directed?  For example, what is it exactly the most faiithful of Christians could have done to improve the worthiness of Mother Teresa?  As lacking in reason as it likely is, it seems to me even God struggled to answer that question.

I may well be utterly mistaken but it seems to me both the notion and the reality of the Trinity arrived in no small part in hope of dispelling the idea that value could be found in exclusivity. A way of perceiving all things of value as one.

They can and should advocate for other people. But the point is that they're Catholic bishops responding to what they regard as a threat to the liberty of Catholics—including Catholic-affiliated businesses and organizations—to practice their religion without conflict with federal or state law. As Catholic bishops, their first duty is to guard their own flock. By extension, yes, it's true, they should be (and are, as far as I can tell) concerned for the rest of humanity. But that doesn't mean that everything they ever say should be pitched to all of humanity, rather than as a warning that their own flock is in danger.

Thank you for the thoughtful clarification.  A do hope my remarks sufficiently reflect my recognition of my place on a fairly tricky ledge and appreciation for those who have wandered this ground more devotely than I ever will.

It seems to me literal interpretations are required when one is defining the bounds of a religion.  I do no believe a strict doctrine whose tenets can so verifiably be found in even the smallest of ways to reflect our all too human limitations can be accepted without serious risk when one attempts to define the bounds of faith.  I am assuming we can agree religion and faith are not synonymous but both are required for a successful journey.

I failed to express my awareness of a well known use for the Trinity.  It is a handy tool to keep ready for those predictable occassions when one is, for understandable reasons, considering initiating a bit of mischief. All one need do is find a pleasant spot from which to reason out that Holy Ghost part.  When the incoherent mumbling begins it will be quite easy for one to identify their true friends.  They will be the one unwilling to discuss any topic other than their favorite vacation spots.  Should such luck not arrive one is at least entirely too befuddled to lead a crowd with any hope of genuine success.

Waxing less grandly, what part of Christ message should not be "pitched to all of humanity"?


Overall, I found the bishops’ Statement on Religious Liberty well-argued and helpful. Of the seven cases illustrating where religious liberty is being threatened, five were quite clear and convincing. One local one (NY) seemed rather minor in the scheme of things, and one, the HHS Mandate, was covered way too briefly.

It is the HHS Mandate that is the least clear, most complex, far-reaching, and troublesome of the seven. Are the bishops referring to the mandate as originally presented or to the accommodation made by the administration? Granted, the original was unsatisfactory, but the accommodation was at least a first step in the right direction by exempting Catholic hospitals and universities from having to offer coverage of contraception and sterilization in their insurance plans for their employees.

Why was the accommodation seemingly dismissed out of hand rather than welcomed as a kind of “building block” for further discussion which might eventually help solve the problem?

One problem remaining is who pays to cover the insurers’ costs now that these services will be offered “free” by the insurance companies rather than the Catholic institutions. Most likely insurers will simply raise premiums across the board, meaning that Catholic hospitals and universities will still be paying for these services at least indirectly.

Is there a workaround here? Some, like Stanford professor Michael McConnell and the Becket Fund, have suggested that Title X might be a solution because the government, not the institutions and their insurance companies, would be paying for these services. Where do the bishops and their legal advisors stand with regard to this approach? And to other “third party administrator” ideas raised by the government?

There are still other even more fundamental questions at play here irrespective of finding a solution to the accommodation. Does government have the right to define a religious organization or institution, and then decide which are exempt or not exempt from legislation? Is the mandate even constitutional? Bishop William Curry, a First Amendment scholar, believes it is not. The government does not have the right to define a religious organization according to the First Amendment. On the other hand, HHS claims its definition is solely for purposes of contraception, and nothing more. Resolving these larger issues is likely to entail protracted litigation in court.

What role will the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 play, if any? On what grounds can the federal government require or mandate religious institutions and individuals – of whatever faith – to participate in or pay for services and activities they consider immoral? And yet, for many, contraception is not seen as immoral.  Womens’ rights are an issue. The courts could well decide there is a “compelling need” for government to provide health services such as contraception and sterilization to women. How do we reconcile these two competing and legitimate interests in a pluralistic society? Is there anything to be learned from the approach used in the state of Hawaii? Has Hawaii  -- or other states – found a way of reconciling the two?  

Undoubtedly, the bishops and their legal advisors have considered all these questions and others, and, hopefully, are working with the administration to find answers that will protect religious freedom and at the same time women’s rights.

Clinging once more to that tricky ledge, it seems to me useful solutions to such complex issues might be moved along more quickly were we simply to modify what is little more than an attempt to overly simply a very complex challenge, government.  I am assuming that was our motive in creating the term "the government" rather than "our government".  Preferring the modifier "our" might allow us to more easily identify the source of so many of our challenges on this issue. But, then, there is that responsibility thing.

Perhaps this is a moment when being literal would be helpful.  In this remarkable nation it requires merely the good fortune of birth or of choice for its laws and it public institutions to rightly consider a person worthy of the best this nation offers.  Being considered, in all ways important, a "member" of its government is a gift one receives without any earning whatsoever.  Reflecting responsiblity with the word "the" seems at best a temporary solution to a permanent challenge.

This thoughtful editorial was similar, in important respects, to Andrew Sullivan's (somewhat controversial) Newsweek cover story/editorial for its Easter edition.  Both lamented the lack of emphasis on personal responsibility and personal morality, in favor of engaging in political coercion. 

In the present context, it appears as if the Bishops feel that it's easier to win a political battle over contraception, at the level of Presidential politics, than to win hearts and minds, at the level of individual souls.  As your current missive suggests, the former approach may ultimately work to the disadvantage of the latter, which should be the more appropriate focus of attention:

Here's Sullivan's conclusion:

>>I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world. But I do know it won’t happen by even more furious denunciations of others, by focusing on politics rather than prayer, by concerning ourselves with the sex lives and heretical thoughts of others rather than with the constant struggle to liberate ourselves from what keeps us from God<<

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA


The problem is that Sullivan's focus is a red herring. It isn't about people's individual sex lives. It's about forcing Catholic organizations to subsidize an element of their sex life that the Church regards as morally wrong. They didn't pick a fight to try to persuade everyone not to use contraception, and they didn't pick a fight because they want to prevent everyone from getting contraception. They picked a fight because it was the government who decided that Catholic-affiliated organizations should have to pay for contraceptive coverage as part of an employee's health insurance. It'll help on all sides to keep our eye on the ball.

Hi Anonsters.  We've discussed and debated the contraception mandate extensively. I don't at all agree with the way you have presented this controversy, but it's pointless to continue going over all the arguments and counter-arguments, again and again.  I think that the present editiorial (above all of these comments), presents thoughtful cautions, as does the Sullivan op-ed.           

You can easily find a great many rejoinders to your point of view regarding the contraceptive coverage issue in a number of thoughtful Commonweal discussion threads over the past two months.

-  Larry Weisenthal/Hunington Beach CA

Back to Anonsters:  After saying that I shouldn't waste bandwidth re-arguing points which have been argued before, I find that I do need to offer a rejoinder to your claim that that "Catholic-affiliated organizations [CAOs] should have to pay for contraceptive coverage as part of an employee's health insurance."  That's one was of looking at it, but I don't think it's accurate.  Rather, as a pre-condition of being permitted to provide health insurance contracts, private insurance companies are required to offer a contraception rider as a private contract between insurance company and  employee.  The CAO has nothing to do with these private contracts. Additionally, it's not even the money of the CAO which is used to purchase the insurance -- these health insurance policies are compensation that the employees have earned, as a result of their labors in the service of the CAO.

There is some concern that  the insurance riders could increase the total costs to the insurance companies and that they would re-coup these costs through raising premiums.  But this "follow the co-mingled money" argument is theoretical and tortured, given that there is broad agreement that the costs of contraception will be offset by the decreased cost of pregnancy.

There are a great many more arguments which have been offered, including the relative silence of the Bishops when these contraception mandates were in place only at the state level and until the Obama justice department began to investigate the Bishops for cover-ups and hiding of assets to get out of settlement contracts in the various abuse scandals.  This last fact underscores the potential hazard to the Bishops in politicizing this issue.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach, CA

"They're Catholic bishops, for God's sake, not full-time religious freedom activists."


That's about the best damning indictment of the Catholic bishops that I have read in quite some time!

I'm surprised this editorial doesn't mention the bishops' strong stand against the Ryan budget's deep cuts to programs for the poor and vulnerable.  Of course their letters to Congress were not sent with the fanfare of their HHS mandate letters read in every church.  The mainstream media was also apparently not alerted.  Nevertheless, the bishops are close to saying don't vote democratic and don't vote republican. 

It's almost like some people were encouraging of the church a few decades back: having around the world a half billion Catholic conscientious objectors to war.  The bishops today are almost calling American Catholics to be pro-life across the board.  If they were, some of us could emphasize the HHS issue and others could emphasize the social justice issue, as well others emphasizing capital punishment, unjust war or harsh policies against immigrants.  And we could be Catholic in the sense of diversity within unity, with everyone demonstrating different gifts of the Holy Spirit, with few if any being actively pro-life on all issues.  Almost everyone, after all, is a cafeteria Catholic.  It has probably always been thus: we have different gifts of the Holy Spirit and are different parts of the one (mystical) body.  Why the unnecessary -- and dangerous -- partisanship?       

The USCCB lawyer in-charge tried to make a case that Catholic Taco Bells franchisees  are being deprived of religious freedom.. that kind of silliness condemns the entire USCCB. And he still has a job!

Blah, Blah, Blah, all you want, the only individual persons who are denied the freedom of conscience in matters of reproductive health care by the Bishops are the low  "non living wage paid" employees of catholic institutions. Any one who does not understand this basic simple fact is not paying attention.

The bishops have a growing PR problem. They weaken their credibility as they make it increasingly clear that they are merely, like many other conservative old white men, partisan Republicans.

It's obvious that their real underlying agenda is enforcing traditional gender roles by obstructing women's access to contraception. Their ridiculous stance that birth control is a "grave evil," punishable by eternity in hell, undermines acceptance of their pronouncements on other issues, including abortion. Their obsession with punishing uppity females (including nuns and Girl Scouts) makes them appear mean-spirited and foolish.

They'd do themselves a favor by stifling their impulses to bully everyone who disagrees with them. Playing the victim about their supposedly jeoparized freedom isn't doing them any good. 

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