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November 15, 2011

The NYT on the bishops' concern for religious liberty

Here's a deeply cynical article in the New York Times on the bishops' new religious liberty committee (mentioned here by Rick).  A few points bear noting:

First, focusing on religious liberty is not simply a "recasting" of the Church's existing opposition to abortion and SSM.  These are related but distinct issues.  I'm pretty sure that the bishops are not dropping opposition to abortion or SSM from their agenda, and supporting the religious liberty cause does not require consensus on the merits of abortion or SSM. 

Second, I don't think it's fair to say that abortion and SSM have now "eclipsed" poverty and economic injustice as important issues to the bishops.  I don't think there's any comparison between the amount of resources the bishops devote to combating poverty versus combating abortion or SSM.  The fact that more of the bishops' teaching platform has been devoted to abortion and SSM in recent years may not reflect changes in relative importance as much as changes in social circumstances.

Third, the suggestion that the bishops' teachings on politics and morality have "been met with indifference even by many of their own flock" does not necessarily follow from the cited statistic that only 16% of Catholics had heard of the document, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship."  I'm guessing that the statistics for documents issued by the bishops to address economic injustice would not be much rosier.  The implication that Catholics care less about the bishops' teaching on an issue like religious liberty than on an issue like poverty needs more evidentiary support.

Finally, I tend to be leery of cherry-picked quotes to close off an article.  They often seem to be carefully chosen laundering devices to allow the expression of the author's own opinion without (explicitly) violating journalistic standards.  So the article ends with this: “The bishops speak in hushed tones when it comes to poverty and economic justice issues, and use a big megaphone when it comes to abortion and religious liberty issues.”  This is an unfairly sweeping statement, especially as the final word in a "news" article.  To take one of many examples: Archbishop Nienstedt, no shrinking violet on SSM and abortion, was front and center over the summer in opposing the GOP's efforts to balance the Minnesota state budget through draconian cuts to social services.  It didn't sound too hushed to me.

Posted by Rob Vischer on November 15, 2011 at 03:18 PM in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

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Rob,

Is it fair to say that, generally, "[Catholics] speak in hushed tones when it comes to poverty and economic justice issues, and use a big megaphone when it comes to abortion and religious liberty issues"? That's how it appears to me, on the outside looking in.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 15, 2011 7:50:28 PM

Actually, my reaction to that article was that it was the bishops' new "religious liberty" talking points that were pretty cynical.

Tell me, do these bishops support the "religious liberty" of those religions that support SSM? Does "religious liberty" require the government to recognize SSM marriages performed by, e.g., a Unitarian minister who believes that such marriages are OK by the God she or he worships? Does "religious liberty" mean that the government should not be able to punish parents whose beliefs lead them to withhold needed medical care for their children?

I bet not.

My guess would be that "religious liberty" according to the Catholic bishops means only that the government should alter its practices only so far as necessary to leave unaltered the beliefs of Catholic bishops.

If, however, the bishops have a good, logical suggestion for how the government can remain strictly neutral in all matters touching religious belief, by all means they should share it.

Posted by: brennan | Nov 16, 2011 10:51:29 AM

Brennan, I think a good place for the state to start is the protection of conscience, i.e. not forcing Catholics to violate their consciences by forcing them to pay for contraception, or not forcing nurses to participate in abortions.

Posted by: AML | Nov 16, 2011 11:28:35 AM

Patrick: That doesn't comport with my experience as a Catholic. The number of homilies I've heard about poverty dwarf the number of homiliies I've heard about abortion or SSM by an order of magnitude. My parish has volunteer ministries targeting homelessness, hunger, and unemployment, but I've never heard of a parish volunteer ministry targeting SSM, and while there are some focused on life issues, not nearly as many as those focused on poverty. I just don't see any evidence that Catholics speak with hushed tones on issues of poverty.

Brennan: You are correct that on some issues, the conscience claim is a fallback for the stronger claim that a practice should be prohibited outright -- e.g., abortion. That doesn't somehow render the conscience claim illegitimate, though. Any conscience claim is contingent on the underlying practice's compatibility with the common good, and we have to fight that out as a political community. No one is going to grant the Mayans a conscientious right to child sacrifice. It is important, though, not to conflate the political community's judgment as to best practices (e.g., permitting children to be placed for adoption with same-sex couples) with a judgment as to permissible practices (e.g., not permitting adoption services to operate if they do not place children with same-sex couples).

Posted by: rob vischer | Nov 16, 2011 11:43:11 AM

AML,
First, you're supporting my point, which was that this religious liberty issue is really about protecting Catholic beliefs exclusively, and not religious belief, or conscience, in general. Second, you suggest that Catholics should not be forced to pay for contraceptives, but would you support a Christian Scientist business owner who didn't want to pay for any health care at all? Must believers in pacifist religions pay taxes that support the military? Should a nurse who believed that AIDS is a punishment from god be excused from caring for AIDS patients?

Accomodating the broad spectrum of religious beliefs is difficult, and there is always going to be somebody complaining about their taboos and beliefs not being respected. Given that the Catholic bishops' view of moral behavior is in the minority in the US with respect to a number of issues (and, on some issues, they're in the minority among American Catholics), it is not surprising that some generally applicable rules and regulations don't fit comfortably with their dogma. That's not evidence that Catholics are being somehow uniquely oppressed, that's life as a political minority in a democracy.

Posted by: brennan | Nov 16, 2011 12:16:24 PM

Thanks Rob. My personal and anecdotal experience is different, with a few exceptions, including a wonderful uncle who lives in Mundelein, Illinois (and some Catholic law profs who are cyberspace friends).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Nov 16, 2011 12:36:13 PM

Rob, you said:
"It is important, though, not to conflate the political community's judgment as to best practices (e.g., permitting children to be placed for adoption with same-sex couples) with a judgment as to permissible practices (e.g., not permitting adoption services to operate if they do not place children with same-sex couples)."

First, while I'm not an expert in adoption issues, my understanding is that adoption, although conducted frequently by non-state actors, is considered a state function. As such, they're operating as an arm of the state. Why should the political community allow a private actor - when acting as an arm of the state - to withhold state services based on religious belief?

Second, what about when the shoe was on the other foot? If the state should not impose its judgment as to permissible adoption practices, then Florida's (recently struck down) law forbidding adoptions by homosexuals was illegitimate under your Catholic understanding of the issue, correct? Yet I don't recall the Catholic bishops taking the position that, while laws such as Florida's express the correct moral preference, the state should not prohibit such adoptions if a private adoption agency felt differently. (Correct me, of course, if my recollection is faulty.)

So what's your position on that issue? Do you oppose laws categorically forbidding adoption by homosexuals? If not, doesn't your position and the bishops' position boil down to, "religious liberty for me, but not for thee"?

Posted by: brennan | Nov 16, 2011 12:40:22 PM

The NYT would not care if we preach against poverty. They do care that we use our liberty to preach against abortion. They want that to stop and don't mind if it means persecution. Of course the NYT has always been selective about its coverage. Didn't they win a prize for their coverage of the wonderful policies of Joseph Stalin?

Posted by: Fr. J | Nov 16, 2011 1:34:35 PM

J,
I can't decide if your post is more of a straw man argument or an ad hominem. Either way, it's not communicating anything more than venom. I believe you are capable of better.

Posted by: brennan | Nov 16, 2011 1:57:10 PM

Brennan: I don't support bans on adoption by same-sex couples, though I of course don't speak for the bishops. To the extent that the bishops support such bans -- I don't think they've spoken formally on the issue as a group, but I could be wrong -- that's not necessarily a double standard, it's just a different assessment of whether a given exercise of liberty is tolerable in light of our commitment to supporting the common good, especially the well-being of children.

On the other point, I don't think that the performance of a service that is important to the public and/or regulated by the state makes the provider of such a service a "state agent." The state properly has a role in approving the adoptive relationship to guard against abuse/neglect, just as the state properly has a role in ensuring the competence of health care providers, etc.

Posted by: rob vischer | Nov 16, 2011 4:11:34 PM

Rob,
Glad to hear it.

And perhaps we're talking past each other. I suspect the bishops do not have a robust account of "religious liberty", that their appeal to neutrality is not genuine, and that what they really mean is that the government shouldn't impose general regulations that conflict with their own beliefs. My evidence is that the bishops have no problem with government regulations that conflict with the beliefs of other religions when they reinforce Catholic dogmas. Indeed the bishops even encourage the government to impose general restrictions that conflict with beliefs of other, non-Catholic religions, e.g., government bans on SSM or adoptions by gay couples. (I also don't know if the conference has spoken to adoptions by gays, but I understand that the pope called such adoptions "gravely immoral" and against the best interests of the child in 2003, so I'm going to assume they will follow the party line on this issue.)

I understand you to suggest that these positions (supporting government regulations that conflict with non-Catholic beliefs) are not really inconsistent with the bishops' new religious liberty battle-cry because whenever the bishops support government actions that conflict with the beliefs of non-Catholic religions, that means that "it's just a different assessment of whether a given exercise of liberty is tolerable in light of our commitment to supporting the common good, especially the well-being of children."

I am not sure I understand this response, but it sounds a lot like you're saying that the Catholic bishops believe that the government should avoid regulation of other religions' liberties right up to the point where other religions disagree with the Catholic bishops about what policy is best for the common good. So the bishops are saying that Catholic beliefs should never be affected by government regulations, while non-Catholic beliefs should get the same treatment whenever the bishops' assessment is that they don't conflict with Catholic beliefs. Is this accurate? If so, we probably agree, but I don't think that very many folks will be persuaded once they understand the bishops idiosyncratic version of "religious liberty."

As for the state function of adoptions, I was not very clear but I was thinking of the recent kerfluffle in Illinois involving the Catholic Charities. In that case the Catholic adoption agency had contracted with the state to provide foster care/adoption services on behalf of the state. In that case, would you agree that Catholic Charities was an arm of the state?

Posted by: Brennan | Nov 16, 2011 10:33:58 PM

Brennan, oh please. The NYT has plenty of venom for the Catholic Church. It is not a bad thing to point out its anti-Catholic bias.

Posted by: Fr. J | Nov 17, 2011 11:32:20 AM

J,
Sadly, you make a convincing case that my last comment to you was incorrect.

Posted by: brennan | Nov 17, 2011 3:31:15 PM

Brennan, sadly you believe that the NYT is objective when it comes to covering the Catholic Church. You have convinced me that you can lead a liberal to the truth, but you can't make him think.

Posted by: Fr. J | Nov 18, 2011 11:23:32 AM

Brennan: I don't think there are many people who favor unlimited religious liberty -- they all have boundaries defined by their own conceptions of what the common good mandates. And Catholic bishops support liberty for plenty of things that conflict with Catholic teaching -- e.g., religious groups who deny the Trinity or the divinity of Christ, churches that ordain women, the sale of contraceptives, etc.

If the gov't is contracting with a private entity, that gives the gov't the right to attach some strings, but the pervasiveness of the strings is a function, in part, of how dominant the gov't is in a particular field. In health care and higher education, for example, the gov't is not simply a market participant; they define the market because of the role of gov't funding, so especially in those contexts, we need to be careful about the strings.

Posted by: rob vischer | Nov 18, 2011 12:10:34 PM

Rob,
I am glad to hear that the Catholic bishops believe that legal restrictions on the availability of contraception would intolerably infringe on religious liberty. (I am somewhat doubtful that's accurate, however.)

I continue to suspect, however, that the bishops' interest in religious liberty is tactical and shallow. After all, a religious liberal could perfectly well claim to follow the same view of "religious liberty" as the bishops, while backing SSM or something else the bishops abhor, due to their differing version of the common good. If the bishops' idea of religious liberty does not resolve any contentious issues (such as the ones they are currently framing in terms of "religious liberty"), even if their opponents were to adopt it, what good is it?

Posted by: brennan | Nov 18, 2011 2:07:52 PM

Brennan, there is no theology that supports same-sex marriage, so your claim that same-sex marriage is grounded in religious truth is not true.

Posted by: Nancy D. | Nov 24, 2011 1:33:22 PM

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