Archbishop Timothy Dolan

Bishops change course on religious liberty

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."

Boehner, Dolan, Catholic heretics?

The 122nd annual commencement address at Catholic University of America was old school from start to finish, offering calls for self sacrifice, inspirational sports stories, a bite of Irish wisdom, a dash of positive thinking and a quote from Mother Teresa. "The good things in life aren't things. They are people. They are values. They are our birthrights," concluded Speaker of the House John Boehner, who also mentioned his childhood in a Catholic family with 12 children. "For when it's all said and done, we are but mere mortals doing God's work here on Earth. Put a better way -- no, put the best way: remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The speech was low key, but there were tensions behind the scenes.

Boehner's appearance drew a firm, but civil, letter of protest from 80-plus Catholic academics who accused him of dissenting from essential church teachings because of his role in Republican attempts to cut or reshape a number of government safety-net programs.

"From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor," stated the letter. "Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it."

This protest drew clear parallels to an earlier battle, when 80-plus bishops, numerous academics and many Catholic pro-lifers protested the University of Notre Dame's decision to grant President Barack Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree. This earlier coalition insisted that honoring a strong supporter of abortion rights violated a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops policy stating: "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

Thus, Catholic progressives were saying that if it was controversial to honor the president, a liberal Protestant who disagrees with many Catholic moral teachings, it also should be controversial to honor Boehner, a Catholic whose approach to economic issues angers many activists and almost certainly some bishops. Meanwhile, it also helps to know that the coalition that protested the Boehner honor included some academics with consistent records of dissent against church teachings on abortion, homosexuality, birth control, the ordination of women and other doctrinal issues.

The bottom line: Who gets to say who is, or who is not, a "dissenter" against church doctrines?

Another skirmish took place soon after the Boehner address, when New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan -- president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- wrote a friendly letter Rep. Paul Ryan, the mastermind of the GOP budget. He praised the Catholic congressman for his "attention to the guidance of Catholic social justice in the current delicate budget considerations in Congress."

While not endorsing Ryan's work, the archbishop stressed that caring for the poor was not a matter for state action, alone. Thus, he affirmed Ryan for noting "Pope John Paul's comments on the limits of what he termed the 'Social Assistance State.' "

A political group called Catholics United immediately issued a fiery press release under the headline, "Catholics Ask Archbishop Dolan: What Anti-Poverty Programs Would Jesus Cut?" The group claimed the New York prelate's comments "have confused Church teaching" and urged him to recant.

Two things are certain in these ongoing debates, noted Stephen Krason, president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and a political scientist at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. The Vatican has repeatedly stated its opposition to abortion in the strongest possible terms. Catholics also live under an urgent mandate to help the poor and needy.

The problem is that some Catholics are "treating specific government programs as if they are the embodiment of Catholic teachings," he said. "They are confusing criticism of the effectiveness of some government programs with criticism of the absolute teachings of the Catholic faith. ...

" We must serve the poor. There is no doubt about that. But within the realm of Catholic orthodoxy, there are a number of ways that we can pursue this moral imperative. The Catholic Church has not endorsed a particular political approach as to how we are supposed to go about doing that work."