Indiana's RFRA: the fallout, Part II

Yesterday, I began looking at the fallout from the controversy over Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), examining what it meant for political liberals and liberal Catholics. Today, I would like to look at what the fallout means for Catholic leaders who face some very challenging questions in the months ahead.

Let's begin with how the bishops should not proceed. This statement signed by Archbishops Charles Chaput and William Lori, Princeton professor Robert P. George, and two Baptist leaders is exactly the kind of incendiary -- and tendentious -- commentary that does not help the situation. They speak of the "acrimony and lies" that characterized the debate in Indiana.

I called the communications offices of both archbishops, asking them to explain what lies they meant. I did not get a response. We can hope they were not mimicking the claims of some of Indiana's RFRA supporters that the law was not intended to discriminate against anybody and that those who suggested otherwise were lying.

Alas, one of the bill's primary backers, who was so sufficiently prominent he was even invited to join Indiana Gov. Mike Pence for the bill signing, issued a statement that read: "Victory at the Statehouse! Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!" And the Indiana legislature declined to include an amendment to the bill that would have delineated LGBT Hoosiers as a protected class so no one could reasonably charge that the RFRA was aimed at discriminating against gays. The amendment was defeated. So the charge that there were lies seems inflammatory at best, and simply parroting GOP talking points that turn out not to be true at worst.

The statement by the archbishops and the other conservative Christian leaders also indulged the kind of conservative constitutional hyperbole one expects from Sean Hannity, not from an archbishop: "America was founded on the idea that religious liberty matters because religious belief matters in a uniquely life-giving and powerful way."

Actually, part of the reason for the founders' commitment to religious liberty was the fear that if religion played too large a role in public affairs, the republic would come to grief. Anyone familiar with the literature of the revolutionary era knows that issues of religious tolerance had more to do with keeping religion out of politics than it was with celebrating the "uniquely life-giving" attributes of religious belief.

There are also other ideas that formed the foundation of America, one of which was equality, however badly those same founders understood the reach of equality in their own circumstances. The key point here is not to debate what motivated the founders. It is to note that such tendentious political statement coming from the mouths of clerics have debased the cause of religious liberty and are in large part responsible for bringing us to this moment. A transcendent concern has been politicized. We expect that from politicians. It is a cause of regret when it comes from men of the cloth.

The worst aspect of the statement, however, was that it did not even acknowledge the legitimacy of concerns that our laws not be used as a cover for discrimination. It costs nothing to acknowledge the concerns of those with whom one disagrees. And, in the event, this hyper-emphasis on religious liberty as the only thing that matters in this discussion is directly at odds with what the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states. There, at Paragraph 422, we read:

Freedom of conscience and religion "concerns man both individually and socially". The right to religious freedom must be recognized in the juridical order and sanctioned as a civil right; nonetheless, it is not of itself an unlimited right. The just limits of the exercise of religious freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority through legal norms consistent with the objective moral order. Such norms are required by "the need for the effective safeguarding of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also by the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally by the need for a proper guardianship of public morality".

That kind of balance and nuance is not found in the statement issued by the two archbishops and their neo-con friends.

The archbishops' inability to recognize the value and significance of nondiscrimination efforts leads to the most important aspect of the controversy with which the bishops of the U.S. must grapple. Why do we always seem to be talking about gays and lesbians?

I saw a cartoon the other day that showed an obese man at a fast-food counter, ordering two double cheeseburgers and a large order of fries. The man taking his order says, "I am sorry but gluttony is a sin and so I can't serve you." The joke was funny in two ways. First, the behavior of large corporations that piled on the anti-RFRA bandwagon was driven by economic concerns, not altruism. Citizens United and Hobby Lobby notwithstanding, corporations do not have consciences. (Corporations do, however, seek to win the hearts and minds of young consumers, and young people are allergic to discrimination.)

Second, there is a singular focus on homosexuality as the sin that must be stopped at all costs that seems disproportionate to either its incidence in the culture or its prominence in the Scriptures. CNN had a segment last week in which the interviewer spoke to some Christian florists and bakers in Georgia. He asked one florist if she would serve a known adulterer, even though adultery made it into the Ten Commandments. She said yes. He asked why she would not serve gays. "I just think that is a different kind of sin," the woman said. That may be her sincerely held religious belief. It is also bigotry. And it is a kind of bigotry that the Church will appear to condone if we continue to treat gays and lesbians like pariahs while looking the other way in the face of all the greed, and lust, and gluttony, and malice, and other sins with which our culture is filled and by which many corporations make their living.

A statement issued by the Indiana bishops did speak about the importance of avoiding discrimination. (Yes, Indiana has its own bishops. It does not need interloping archbishops from elsewhere opining on the situation in the Hoosier state.) "We urge all people of good will to show mutual respect for one another so that the necessary dialogue and discernment can take place to ensure that no one in Indiana will face discrimination whether it is for their sexual orientation or for living their religious beliefs," the Indiana bishops stated. Here is the immediate way forward: RFRAs? Yes, but only when linked with LGBT nondiscrimination provisions. The bishops of Georgia issued a similarly balanced statement during that state's debate of its own RFRA proposal.

Why is it so important that the Church support LGBT nondiscrimination laws? Yes, they would be good for the nation's civil peace and would help a historically marginalized group of people feel more secure in their rights. That is a good reason. But the better reason is because our current unwillingness to stand foursquare against nondiscrimination proposals distorts the Gospel.

When Pope Francis made his famous "Who am I to judge?" comment, many people applauded. I do not know if all the applause, or even most of it, came from people who care one way or the other about gays, whether they know a gay couple or not, but I know many people who were relieved to hear a pastor of the Church not simply dismiss a whole class of people with a wave of a judgmental hand. The pope focused on the situation of a particular human person, not a category, and he showed empathy, even encouragement, for that person's existential journey in life.

Some people said the pope's remark was confusing. It was anything but. He spoke the clarity of the Gospel instead of the clarity of the law. It is why young people respond so enthusiastically to the Holy Father. It is why young people respond so negatively to any hint of discrimination. "At that time Jesus declared, 'I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to babes' " (Matthew 11:25).

Earlier this week, I wrote about Boston College's conference on libertarianism, at which Professor Mary Jo Iozzio spoke about people with disabilities and how dehumanizing it is to them when they are made to feel excluded by society. The Church is at Her best when She is inclusive because it is then that the Church appears to be walking in the footsteps of the Master. Our opposition to abortion is rooted in the belief that the unborn should not be excluded from the protection of the law. Our opposition to physician-assisted suicide is rooted in the belief that the elderly should be included in life, not excluded by a premature death. Our commitment to the immigrant is rooted in the belief that it is a person's humanity, not their country of origin, that is the source of their dignity and their rights.

We cripple our ability to speak effectively on these three vitally important moral issues of our day if we are seen as willing to exclude gays and lesbians from the benefits of our common social and political life. Instead of looking to draw lines in the sands of the culture wars, the bishops of our Church should be looking for opportunities to build bridges of compassion in a society that is often cold and heartless. It is what Pope Francis is doing. It is what the Master did. It is what our bishops should also do. 

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here