Fortnight for Freedom

The bishops in my church instituted a pitched campaign to resist the HHS mandate, as part of the overall healthcare reform known as “Obamacare,” requiring religious institutions to cover contraception to their employees.  The bishops teach that active contraception is wrong and argue that being forced to provide such violates the religious freedom of Catholics to practice their faith and live according to their consciences.  All this is par for the course in American politics. Our democracy is about a battle of rights, an ongoing fight about whose rights deserve protection and how.  If you are a constitutional buff, this is heady stuff and part of what makes this country great.  No guns, just words.

On the merits, this battle is worth fighting. Each side has a legitimate case to make.  And rights are at stake.  Make no mistake about it.  My problem has always been how the bishops have chosen to wage this battle as soldiers of Christ or as mere political prosecutors of war?

As a Catholic, this whole “Fortnight for Freedom” thing made me nervous. The timing of this battle, the vigor with which is waged, and the lack of compassion for our opponents once again demonstrates how myopic the bishops can be and how their credibility (and the Church’s as well) is withering before the rest of the country.  I am not alone in this view.  Here are the problems I see in a nutshell with trenchant humor from Jon Stewart to liven it up!

  • Selling Wolf Tickets – The bishops sound more like the Tea Party than Christ by comparing Obama to Stalin and Hitler and characterizing him as “radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist.” Lying about a man is not Christlike and taking up the smear rhetoric of the right presents us as more rightwing than righteous. Further, it just makes us look like foolish, entitled extremists crying wolf.
  • Distraction 1984 Style – We are a decade into the sex abuse scandal here in the U.S. Children were raped and molested and the vile deeds covered up and pedophiles foisted on unsuspecting faithful.  Almost a decade later we are still waiting for accountable, definitive action where we can feel safe.  Recent convictions show that the coverup, at least in Philadelphia, was about practice and pattern not isolated mistakes.  So the bishops have serious religious, criminal and organizational issues that they have been slow to fix.  Contrast that with the speed and organization of the response to the HHS mandate.  Frankly that difference disgusts me and I look on this campaign with a jaundiced eye in that respect.
  • Freedom to Do What? – I am not impressed by simplistic calls to the First Amendment and buttressing them with clarion calls that Christ fights for us!  No right is absolute nor without constraint in a secular democratic country.  We are not free to do whatever we want under the guise of religious freedom.  There are limits, secular limits and to behave as if they don’t exist is wrong.  Bob Jones University came out of segregation, banned interracial dating, and fought all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to do so as a tax-exempt religious organization. (They lost and have since repented of their institutionalized racism. They remain non-tax-exempt to this day.)  The situation is similar here in that the religious freedom rights of the Church are in conflict with women’s health and reproductive rights.  To deny this is to strain credulity.  It is the crux of the battle!
  • Religious Freedom Makeup on Misogyny? – Contraception is tied up with the politics of women and reproduction.  While there have been loud denials that it’s not about women, the Church’s hostility toward so-called “extreme” feminism, the inquisition of nuns, listing the ordination of women as grave a sin as pedophilia, and the fact that, at least initially, men represented the face of this fight all paint an ugly picture to the secular world that does see this as about women. The bishops have done little to nothing to rectify this.  I found Jon Stewart’s comedy perfectly emblematic of the problem.

Ultimately this will be decided by the proper institution: the courts.  Since the compromise that Obama offered did not satisfy the bishops, that’s where this is headed and the true arguments made.  And while we are in the court of public opinion let’s behave as ambassadors of Christ not like right wing moralists whose greatest contribution to our cause is the word “hypocritical.”

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  1. I have to say I disagree a good bit with some of your points. The Fortnight For Freedom events that are about to conclude on July the 4th have been going on for some 14 days around the country. I have not detected anything much out of line or “Tea Party” ( not saying the Tea Party is a bad thing) in what has occured.

    It is remarkable in fact that when the Bishops conduct is brought up the same example of one Bishop weeks and weeks ago is repeated and repeated. I don’t think that is accurate or complete truthful picture that is going on. We have 177 Latin-rite dioceses and 17 Eastern Catholic eparchies in the USA. Many of these have Auxiliary Bishops. To that number we have a large amount of retired Bishops. It seems one possible misinterpreation of a statement does not represent the whole here.

    The Bob Jones Case remains somewhat contorversial to this day in legal circles. There are reasons why the Court has at times been hesitant to expand that case in other areas. I do have a feeling that Obama administration does not want that case so closely associated with the HHS Birth Control mandate.

    The Church’s Bishops , the Catholic and other Religious activists, and people in the legal community are not saying we are “free to do whatever we want under the guise of religious freedom.” The Bishops and everyone else is quite aware that there are limits and the Court accross the country engage these issues.

    That birth control is a “right” I think would be very disputed as to the HHS mandate. No court has declared it as such as an entitlement or as a part of a benefit package . Further this line of thinking sort of turns the right to privacy and contraception case that came from Griswold on its head. That line of cases indicates that there are some areas that were so private and intimiate ( like Birth Control) that the State had competence to Judge. I am not sure how we go from the State does not have competence in these affairs to now the State mandating that one has to pay for it and offer it.

    There is no doubt this a expansion of Govt power. In the background let me quote from this paper:

    ” because the near-universal, if sometimes unreflective, conviction that “discrimination” is wrong means that assertions of religious freedom are sometimes heard as requests that the political authorities
    tolerate a wrong – i.e., “discrimination” – which they would otherwise prohibit, penalize, or discourage. Such requests then raise the question whether it is “worth it” for the authorities to do so – that is, whether doing so would complicate too much the government’s own projects or conflict too glaringly with its values—and so, when they are granted, accommodations are regarded all around as concessions. Sometimes, to be sure, we do and probably should think about
    legal rights as protecting, or simply tolerating, a liberty to do even the wrong thing (so long as the wrong thing is not too wrong). We should not forget, though, that a dimension of the freedom of religion is, sometimes, precisely the freedom to “discriminate,” and that this freedom should be protected not simply because such discrimination is an all-things-considered tolerable wrong –
    sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t – but because it is inextricably tied to a human right and is, sometimes, beyond political authorities’ legitimate reach.”

    Besides the precedent here , that will not so easy to contain it also appears we have a pretty good violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993′. That has to be fought.

    In the end of course it is not just the Bishops. Many lay people and in fact millions of non Catholics have grave concerns about this matter. I think they are correct to do so

  2. I understand your legal objections but they are almost completely irrelevant here. You and I aren’t going to litigate this case here. That’s what the high priced lawyers are for.

    The bishops are leading a political campaign and they are the ones who have sounded like the Tea Party. There is no way misinterpret what the Bishop Jenky said. He was quite explicit. Just read the public release statement (which I did)! But what is telling to me and what makes Jenky’s comments universal is the deafening silence rebuking on this one bishop’s comments. They were widely reported and not one bishop stood up to rebuke them. Their cooperation with evil is yet another example of weakened credibility. This is the furthest thing from Christlike behavior. Zeal is no excuse for lies. Its no excuse for the demonization of any person as a child of God. Period. The more I think of this, the less respect I have for them.

    As for discrimination I repeat, since it bears such, that religious freedom is no excuse to do so. Discrimination on the basis of gender or race is wrong. It is a moral sin. At what point should discriminating against people on the basis of race or gender becomes “too wrong?” None in my view from a moral philosophical standpoint.

    The Church’s Bishops , the Catholic and other Religious activists, and people in the legal community are not saying we are “free to do whatever we want under the guise of religious freedom.” The Bishops and everyone else is quite aware that there are limits and the Court accross the country engage these issues.

    Could have fooled me. Their reaction to Obama’s compromise then is quite intellectually dishonest. They simply ignored what the administration did in response to their initial objections. (All money is fungible, that’s why have money in the first place!) Obama recognizes the secular values that mandates such as these are legit so long as there is exception made for religious conscience. To my thinking, not having to pay for contraception qualifies as an exemption. The bishops of course are having none if it. Again, yet another reason to discount their moral credibility. If you aren’t willing to compromise, how can you in good faith show you accept any limits? It does go far to support their usual position: to impose moral rectitude on others. Is this not their stated role?

    It’s worth noting the ACLU brought up the point of religious freedom of employees could be an issue as well. Do employers by dint of controlling health insurance have the right to override the consciences of their employees? This is why Jon Stewart brought up the example of Jehovah’s Witnesses who object to blood transfusions. Would it be right for them to deny you a blood transfusion? At what point does the Church imposing its religion on others disrupt one’s right to unfettered healthcare? And birth control, the pill in particular, is part of the reproductive health of women.

    Again, I’m not going to litigate here, I’m just saying this is far from settled and the other side has a legitimate case to be made.

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