When it comes to changing course, ecclesiastical bureaucracies are like giant oceangoing vessels that struggle to turn quickly when obstacles appear in their paths. It took time, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has made a sea change in how it works on religious freedom issues.
Faced with what they see as dangerous trends in the Obama administration, the bishops recently announced the creation of their own Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. The goal is to address church-state trends that in recent decades have primarily been attacked by Protestant conservatives.
Anyone seeking the source of this development in American religion -- including recent blasts at the White House by the archbishops of New York and Los Angeles -- needs to study a 2009 Georgetown University speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It received relatively little attention at that time.
"Our human rights agenda for the 21st century is to make human rights a human reality and the first step is to see human rights in a broad context," she said, speaking on a campus known for its leadership on the Catholic left. "To fulfill their potential, people must be free to choose laws and leaders; to share and access information, to speak, criticize and debate. They must be free to worship, associate and to love in the way that they choose."
Conservatives cried foul, noting that the secretary of state had raised gay rights -- the right for all to "love in the way that they choose" -- to the same level as freedoms explicitly articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They also noticed that she mentioned a narrow right "to worship" instead of using more expansive terms such as religious "freedom" or "liberty."
"Religious freedom, rightly understood, cannot be reduced to freedom of worship," argued George Weigel, a Catholic conservative best known for his authorized biography of the late Pope John Paul II.
"Religious freedom includes the right to preach and evangelize, to make religiously informed moral arguments in the public square and to conduct the affairs of one's religious community without undue interference from the state. If religious freedom only involves the freedom to worship, then ... there is 'religious freedom' in Saudi Arabia, where Bibles and evangelism are forbidden but expatriate Filipino laborers can attend Mass in the U.S. embassy compound in Riyadh."
Nearly two years later, this list of concerns looms over a blunt letter (.pdf) from New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan to President Barack Obama, one inspired by Obama administration attempts to overturn the national Defense of Marriage Act.
America's bishops "cannot be silent ... when federal steps harmful to marriage, the laws defending it, and religious freedom continue apace," claimed Dolan, who now leads the USCCB. It is especially unfair, he added, to "equate opposition to redefining marriage with either intentional or willfully ignorant racial discrimination, as your Administration insists on doing."
Dolan was even more frank in a letter (.pdf) to the U.S. bishops, claiming that the Justice Department is undercutting "our ancient Catholic belief, rooted in the teachings of Jesus and also the Jewish Scriptures." If this doctrine continues to be "labeled as a form of bigotry," he argued, this will surely "lead to new challenges to our liberties."
In addition to clashes on same-sex marriage, Dolan listed other concerns, including Health and Human Services regulations requiring all private health insurance to cover birth control and so-called "morning-after pills." Critics claim that the religious exception would protect few religious institutions, including colleges, and would leave insurers or individuals with moral objections completely vulnerable. The Justice Department, in recent Supreme Court proceedings, also questioned the need for the "ministerial exception" that allows religious groups to hire, and fire, ministers and staff members without government interference.
According to Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, "We are slowly losing our sense of religious liberty" in modern America.
"There is much evidence to suggest that our society no longer values the public role of religion or recognizes the importance of religious freedom as a basic right," he argued, in an essay for the journal First Things. Instead, "our courts and government agencies increasingly treat the right to hold and express religious beliefs as only one of many private lifestyle options. And, they observe, this right is often 'trumped' in the face of challenges from competing rights or interests deemed to be more important."