The Church and Her "Enemies": Garnett versus Pius VII

Yesterday, I linked to a post at Mirror of Justice by my friend Rick Garnett, in which he wrote about both the Washington Post article about LGBT employment by the Catholic Church and my post on the subject Monday. I would like to examine Garnett’s argument a little more closely.

Garnett writes:

I agree with Winters that the Church should not "go looking for a fight" with respect to these matters.  However, I think it needs to be said that (a) others are "looking for a fight" -- that is, there are highly motivated litigants and well-funded activists for whom it is important to use litigation and administrative complaints precisely in order to undercut the religious freedom of the Church's institutions -- and it is naive and hazardous to imagine otherwise and (b) it is not such a bad idea as Winters suggests for Church leaders to listen to the lawyers when it comes to writing contracts, manuals, policies, etc., that will help to protect not merely the Church's legal rights (as Winters suggests, the Church can and should do better than simply standing on her rights) but the Church's religious freedom.  The "case-by-case" approach that Winters endorses has a lot to commend it but, at the same time, it can create legal difficulties in those cases where the Church has to insist on hiring-for-mission.

Garnett is surely correct about his facts, and I always pay attention to what he says about the law, but I am not sure he is right about what to do with those facts and the law, because I think the lessons of history are very ambiguous.

It is true that there are those who are “looking for a fight” over LGBT issues and who are all too happy to use expensive litigation to make their point. I will go further: There are people who think the Church exercises a mostly pernicious influence and would love to see us confined to our sacristies and banished from the delivery of social services, our universities secularized, our voice in the public square silenced or inconsequential. And, to be clear, some, perhaps many of these opponents of the Church would hold the animus they do no matter what the Church said or did over the past fifty years.

But, it is also true that the leaders of the Church in this country have to take their own share of the responsibility for the creation of the animus, especially on the LGBT issues. Yes, the Cathechism and most statements by the bishops call for respect for the human dignity of gays and lesbians, but did I miss the USCCB statement endorsing some version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act? Did they approach the issue of civil unions with a bias that led them to conclude it was a slippery slope, rather than a means of recognizing and affirming the dignity of gays and lesbians while maintaining the distinctiveness of marriage? At USCCB meetings, do you realize how many bishops will not even use the words “gay” or “lesbian” but revert to the phrase “persons who experience same-sex attraction,” as if saying the word “gay” would give them cooties. Sadly, the affirmation of the dignity of gays and lesbians is usually more rhetorical than real. The approach of the bishops as a whole and of most bishops individually has been the standard culture war approach, we vs. they, and they bring civilizational catastrophe.

I have been reading up on the papacy of Pope Pius VII. He was by any standard a remarkable pope who made his best effort at reaching an accommodation with Napoleon, even sacking the entire episcopate of France to redraw the diocesan boundaries and permit Napoleon to nominate new bishops, provided the pope retained the right to canonically invest the bishops in their new posts. This was standard practice at the time. (Can you imagine if Obama had the right to nominate bishops? Yikes!) But, the issue that caused the final break, and Pius’ abduction and imprisonment, was Napoleon’s seizing the papal states. On this, Pius would not yield. The pope could not conceive of his maintaining his spiritual independence without also possessing temporal independence. After Waterloo, his chief negotiator, Cardinal Consalvi, went first to London and then to Vienna to win the papal states back, in which he succeeded, but most historians would argue that the eventual elimination of the papal states was the best thing that ever happened to the papacy. Popes today have much more authority and freedom within the Church than they did back then. The core value was the independence of the papacy, and the papal states were seen as a necessary means, but those who thought the papal states indispensable were proven wrong by history.

(Let me get naughty with my own argument. The Lateran Treaty of 1929 ratified the situation that is with us still. The pope has complete control over the Vatican City State, a small enclave in Rome, a vestige of the papal states that once spanned the peninsula, but enough of a vestige to have largely guaranteed the pope’s independence. But what if, during World War II, Hitler or Mussolini had abducted the pope as Napoleon had done? How would historians view the significance of the papal states in such a scenario?)

There are no tidy, clear historical analogies in life, but one of Pope Pius’ comments yields some insight into the situation of the Church in the U.S. today. After the ratification of the Concordat with Napoleon in 1801, the French government appended unacceptable articles to the treaty. In a meeting with the French ambassador, Pius said, “We find, alas, true peace and repose only in those governments where Catholics are subject to infidel and heretics. The Catholics of Russia, England, Prussia and the East cause no pain to Us. They ask for bulls, for necessary counsels, then go their way peaceably in conformity with the laws of the Church….”

What Garnett fails to appreciate, I think, and what many if not most bishops fail to appreciate, is the degree to which their entire perspective has been skewed by a certain type of zealous Catholic who is deeply concerned about some issues and perfectly content to ignore others, and the division between the two sets of issues coheres more or less with the political preferences of the two parties. When Obama was invited to Notre Dame all hell broke loose, but when George W. Bush went to war in Iraq, no one screamed that he should be barred from Catholic honors. When Cardinal Sean O’Malley presided at the funeral of Sen. Ted Kennedy, the American Life League Judie Brown said the cardinal had “spit on Christ” but Catholic politicians who deny the rights of immigrants get a pass. To be sure, there have not been a lot of profiles in courage in American politics recently, but the degree to which the Catholic Church’s leaders have had their perspective warped, not by gay rights activists, but by conservative Catholic activists, is a thing to bear in mind.

I fail to see how demonizing gays makes our Catholic teaching on marriage more attractive or more clear. And, the concern about the Church’s teachings being unclear or ambiguous is overwrought and usually a canard. One must be pretty dim not to know what the Church teaches about contraception, human sexuality, and marriage insofar as the specifics go. The problem is that Catholic activists have so focused on the particulars, become so inward-looking and sectarian, they fail to see how divorced the Church’s teachings on sexuality have become from our core beliefs about the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It is they who have, however unintentionally, sown confusion and, I would submit, it is Pope Francis who is preaching clarity.  

This dynamic will, I fear, come to a head later this year if the Supreme Court rules against the Catholic ministries challenging the HHS mandate. I fear that some bishops are perfectly prepared to shutter our ministries rather than permit them to fill out a form indicating that we decline to provide contraception coverage in our insurance plans. Think about this, and think about it deeply. Could an overwrought concern for religious liberty really lead us to surrender our own identity, because a Church that does not minister to the poor is not a Christian Church. And, over what? If the government were demanding that we tie our Catholic female employees to a gurney and force feed them the pill, okay, but we are talking about insurance, and we are talking about filling out a form that indicates our desire not to participate in the provision of contraception. If that is viewed more weightily in our understanding of our Catholic identity, there you have the measure of the degree to which the skewing of our focus has been complete. This skewing applies to the HHS mandate. It applies to the issue of LGBT hiring and firing. It applies to the pass we give to billionaires who make their money by raping poor countries in the bond market so long as they write checks to the annual appeal.

The bishops should listen to Garnett, as should everyone who cares to be informed by a thoughtful observer of these issues. But, I think however correct he is on the legal issues, he is missing the larger picture.  We need to step back and take stock of where we are, and ask ourselves if we really need to keep defending the papal states anymore? 





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