Same-sex marriage, investigating nuns, health care

GAY MARRIAGE & SEGREGATION

I found Robert K. Vischer’s review of Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty thought-provoking (“Incompatible Freedoms?” October 9). One thought it provoked is that Professor Vischer’s political arguments for religious liberty were very similar to arguments for racial segregation. That is troubling.

Vischer has two arguments for allowing employment discrimination against same-sex married couples. First, if same-sex married couples can find employment elsewhere, denying them a particular employment opportunity is merely an inconvenience and a matter of hurt feelings. Therefore, when a religious agency enters a contract voluntarily and receives public dollars to operate a public program, the state should allow discrimination on the basis of “separate but adequate.” Second, sectarian agencies represent a longstanding and deeply entrenched moral position. State refusal to fund social-service programs run by discriminatory sectarian agencies would subvert the moral authority of those agencies and the churches with which they are affiliated.

These arguments seem to be a diluted version of the old “separate but equal” argument used by Southern states to defend segregation in public schools. To this argument, Vischer adds that states have a duty to finance discriminatory employment practices in the name of religious liberty. As a member of the board of directors of a local Catholic social-service agency affiliated with Catholic Charities, I am concerned. In order to defend the Catholic Charities Code of Ethics, do I need to revert to arguments for racial segregation?

MICHAEL J. HANSEN
Salem, Ore.

 

THE AUTHOR REPLIES:

I disagree with Michael Hansen’s restatement of my arguments, though I see the need to clarify my views on employment discrimination. I believe that religious organizations should be permitted to consider religion in hiring for positions that are essential to advancing the religious mission of the organization, just as Planned Parenthood is permitted to consider an individual’s views on abortion in making its hiring decisions. More generally, though, I believe that gays and lesbians should be protected by our laws banning employment discrimination.

On the question of funding, I recognize that the government has the right to attach regulatory “strings” to its funding of private organizations. I wish that more religious organizations were able to function—or, in some cases, were willing to function—without government money. Unfortunately, the expanding scale of public-private partnerships makes that increasingly difficult. An organization that turns down government money must face subsidized competitors. Given how important it is to maintain a vibrant landscape of independent associations, I would like the government to keep the strings to a minimum, though some strings are necessary. (For example, I do not think that a government-funded organization should be able to discriminate in its provision of services to the public.)

To the extent that Hansen believes that the substitution of “racial segregation” for “same-sex marriage” reveals the failure of my argument, we might just have to agree to disagree. I do not think that the massive government intervention needed to dismantle Jim Crow is the appropriate model for enforcing same-sex couples’ legal right to marry.

ROBERT K. VISCHER

 

JUST THE FACTS?

I don’t want to make too much of a sentence and one reference, but in his review of A Great Idea at the Time ("Unread White Males," October 9), Peter Schwendener writes that “Dewey thought that Truth was a waste of time and that education should focus on practical knowledge and mastery of facts.” That is so embarrassingly ignorant it doesn’t need refutation. Editing at Commonweal is of such a high standard that I’m surprised the editors let it pass.

It brought back memories of Catholic college in the 1950s and Msgr. John Tracy Ellis’s work on anti-intellectualism. And I also remember the pugnacious Sidney Hook debating Mortimer Adler at Rutgers. Hook had all those little notes stuck in the pages of many of Dewey’s books and he refuted just about everything Adler said. And then of course there is the exchange of essays between Dewey and Robert Maynard Hutchins. Always the polite New Englander, Dewey did the best he could to avoid revealing just how sophomoric Hutchins’s logic was.

I haven’t thought about Dewey in quite a while. Perhaps the sentence caught my eye because just last week I wrote to my daughter, a teacher in San Francisco plagued by the current fashion in education: “accountability.” In noting how much the techniques of measurement had improved since I left teaching (schools are rated and ranked, students rated and ranked, teachers constantly evaluated and “subjective” grading minimized in the name of “objective” grading), I referred to Dewey’s argument that “even if it is true that everything which exists could be measured—if only we knew how—that which does not exist cannot be measured. And it is no paradox to say that the teacher is deeply concerned with what does not exist.”

Instead of relying on Susan Sontag for his view of Dewey on art, Schwendener ought to sit down and carefully read Dewey’s Art as Experience. The facts indeed.

G. J. HARRISON
Kent, Ohio

 

BISHOPS & NUNS

I was most impressed with the October 9 issue. Daniel Callahan’s incisive article about health-care values (“America’s Blind Spot”) and John Garvey’s moving tribute to my old friend Tom Bernard (“A Package Deal”) both show what makes Commonweal an indispensible journal for American Catholics.

But I was most affected by Sister X’s article on the Vatican investigation of U.S. women religious in the United States (“Cross Examination”). This was both an authentic cri de coeur and an indictment of curial attitudes.

The members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops should be ashamed for not speaking up in defense of women religious who have given their lives over the past two centuries in service to the Catholic community and, indeed, the whole country. Where is their outrage? Where is their courage?

TOM HIGGINS
San Francisco, Calif.

 

WHO’S ‘SOME’?

The October 9 article “Cross Examination” raises two points. The first has to do with the dynamics of the Vatican investigation. It is sad, though understandable, that “Sister X” felt she had to write her fine piece anonymously. Her desire not to place her bishop in a difficult position is another sign of the integrity so evident in her article.

Unfortunately, her need for anonymity also demonstrates the danger of the nonaccountable behavior that gave rise to the investigation in the first place. “Some” American members of the curia, “some” U.S. bishops, and “some” members of religious communities were allowed to make the initial charges without taking public responsibility for them. Their own anonymity should have been challenged on the spot. Any psychologically healthy leader would have confronted them: either make your claims publicly or they go into the circular file. Once the Vatican official fails that initial test of good leadership and acts on the unattributed charges, fear is injected into the system.

The second point goes far beyond the admittedly serious matter of the investigation. It concerns a common misunderstanding of the intent of the bishops at Vatican II. Sister X is not alone, and certainly not to be faulted, in contrasting the teaching of Lumen gentium with that of Gaudium et spes. She abbreviates the former teaching as “church as institution, fortress, and witness to a godless world.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The drafters of Lumen gentium, as is clear from the record of their deliberations, made a major strategic decision by placing chapter 2, on the people of God, before chapter 3, focused on the hierarchy. They intended that anything said in the chapter on the hierarchy was to be interpreted in light of the foundational declaration about the nature of the church as the people of God, rather than vice-versa. Unfortunately, that methodological principle, though clear from their deliberations, is not stated in the actual text of the final document. The result is that ever since the council people have cited texts from chapter 3 in isolation from the context established by chapter 2, thereby disregarding the revolutionary choice made by the bishops. Read correctly, the two great documents mutually support one another.

GEORGE B. WILSON, SJ
Cincinnati, Ohio

 

RIGHT ON!

A million thanks to Sister X, and to Commonweal for publishing her article. I’ve been a religious sister for fifty-four years; “Sister X” is like thousands of sisters I have known in community and ministry over that entire span. She tells our common story authentically, and without anger or recrimination.

U.S. women religious took the Vatican II mandate to reflect and renew very seriously. We’ve been working collaboratively among communities and with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to do just that in the half century since the council. It is an ongoing commitment among us.

To use canonical visitation and a review of doctrinal orthodoxy—both historically established and legitimate practices in the church—as weapons against American women religious, in such a secretive and hierarchically controlled manner, demeans all parties involved. Vatican officialdom ought to be rejoicing in our story, and saying to every Sister X, “Right on!”

PATRICIA MCCANN, RSM
Pittsburgh, Pa.

 

THE GOSPEL & THE COMMON GOOD

In all the bewildering morass of reports, speeches, and commentary on health-care reform, Daniel Callahan’s article, “America’s Blind Spot” (October 9), takes the gold medal, hands down, flags flying. He could have added that Jesus Christ also supported the “common good” when he taught the Our Father and told the stories of the Good Samaritan and the beggar at the rich man’s gate. More recently, Pope John Paul II insistently preached solidarity in countless global visits. We Catholics have not spread the riches of our own tradition.

JOHN SCHWARZ
Ann Arbor, Mich.

 

DANTE & EPINEPHRINE

Deborah Smith Douglas’s Last Word (“Jubilant Haste,” October 23) was both thoughtful and fun. As someone who started running somewhat late in life myself, I thought she did a fine job of capturing the joy of running, and I will never again read the Divine Comedy without noticing all the runners.

ROBERT BEEZAT
Racine, Wis.

Published in the 2009-11-20 issue: 
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