Narratives That Blind

UPDATE/CORRECTION: Below I related the story of Cardinal Wuerl's discussions with the government of the District of Columbia regarding same sex marriage. I was mistaken in suggesting that Cardinal Wuerl had proposed a variation on the "Levada solution" because the Levada solution dealt with domestic partnerships, not same sex marriage, and so that solution was not available to Cardinal Wuerl. I regret the error.

Politics and policy do not happen in a vacuum. There are always extant narratives that emerge in different socio-political circles that frame the way the nation looks at a given issue and will profoundly impact how any and all statements are viewed and understood. And, so it is with the decision of the U.S. bishops to focus on the defense of religious liberty this year. It is incumbent on each of us to ask some basic questions. Do the extant narratives bear scrutiny? Do they enlighten or obfuscate our appreciation of a given issue? And how can we discern what is of value and import in the kind of narrative with which we find ourselves in disagreement? It is not always easy to do this. Those of us on the left can flip the channel to MSNBC to find arguments, “data,” and all the accoutrement of a modern political campaign to confirm us in our prior narratives, and our friends on the right can have the same experience by tuning into Fox News.

In regard to the USCCB’s focus on religious liberty, a dominant narrative meme on the left has been that this entire issue is somehow “phony,” that it was ginned up by Republican leaning activists to help drive religiously motivated voters away from President Obama in the upcoming election, and that the bishops should drop it. Some of the flavor of this narrative, albeit with some qualifications, found its way into the comments by the editors of Commonweal on the text.

There is an obvious factual difficulty with this narrative. When the bishops formed their ad hoc committee on religious liberty last summer, how could they have anticipated that the Obama administration, after much debate, would have decided as it did regarding the HHS mandates? Even as late as November, the Obama administration was indicating that they would resolve this issue in a way that would please the Catholic hierarchy. It should be obvious to all that if President Obama had decided differently, the first piece of evidence the USCCB presented would have been the GOP-backed, Romney-endorsed, Alabama anti-immigration laws. Indeed, the first time I heard a prelate mention the religious liberty issue had nothing to do with the Obama administration or contraception: It was in 2006, when Cardinal Roger Mahony denounced a pending anti-immigrant bill and said he would order catholic workers to disobey the law!

It is true that certain conservative thinkers have been increasingly concerned about religious liberty in recent years, largely in opposition to the stance of certain liberal groups like the ACLU which has been active in the courts trying to get the nation’s judiciary to remember the establishment clause of the First Amendment and forget the free exercise clause of that same amendment. In fact, I would say that the ACLU has ceased to meaningfully deserve the proud label of “liberal,” so hostile have they become to the religious liberty the First Amendment guarantees. They are faux-liberals and conservatives have been right all along to warn that without attention to the issue, the role of the Churches in society will be increasingly diminished. Just last month, the ACLU won a case in Massachusetts that essentially bars HHS from giving grants to Catholic organizations that provide services to the victims of human trafficking but refuse to include contraception services.

But, there has been a broader narrative on the right and it was very disappointing to see it intrude into the bishops’ document released yesterday. I touched on this in my post yesterday. The conservative concern about religious voices being barred from the public square, the “naked public square” is demonstrably nuts. The public square is drowning in religious arguments, assessments of the religious motivations of politicians, discussion of the political motivations of religious leaders, polling about the attitudes of religious voters, other polls about the attitudes of all voters towards religion. It seems to me that you can scarcely spit and not hit someone making a religious claim in the public square. A note to those who drafted the USCCB’s document: Just because Richard John Neuhaus said it, does not make it so. Greg Metzger makes the point in his, balanced, take on the new document, concluding: “Yes, Richard John Neuhaus would love this document and therein lies my appreciation and my concern about this document.”

The narrative on the right also sees a conspiracy of forces promoting secularism in America. There is no doubt there are groups, such as NARAL and the ACLU, who are enemies of the Catholic Church and wish to see the influence of the Church in political and social life diminished or even eliminated. It is naïve to think otherwise. Recall a story recently told by, if memory serves, Cardinal Dolan. Cardinal Wuerl was trying to forge a compromise with political leaders of the city regarding the extension of employee benefits to same-sex partners. (If memory serves, Wuerl suggested following the “Levada plan,” which splendidly met the concerns of the city of San Francisco and those of the Catholic Church: Any employee of an organization receiving government contracts could designate anyone who was legally domiciled with the employee as the beneficiary of their benefits. It could be a gay partner, it could be an unemployed cousin.) This solution was deemed unacceptable by a member of the D.C. council. The archbishop replied that unless there was a solution, the Church could be forced to abandon its social service ministries. The council member replied that such an outcome would delight him because he had wanted the Church out of the business of providing social services for years. So, yes, the Church has enemies.

But, the councilman in the story above happened to represent a ward in D.C. with a huge gay population and he risked nothing politically by taking such a stance. I do not think the bizarre, hateful stance of one councilman should lead us to conclude that there are legions of Democratic policy makers with similar ambitions of eliminating the Church from public life. You can usually count on a politician to follow his or her political self-interest, and while sometimes activist groups, especially well-funded groups, exercise disproportionate influence over some politicians, few politicians revel a showdown with bishops or ministers or rabbis. Such showdowns tend to backfire. Certainly in America, which uniquely among industrialized Western countries maintains relatively high rates of church attendance and religious identification, a direct assault on religion is likely to backfire.

The uniqueness of America regarding religion points to part of the problem in the narrative from the right. I harbor the suspicion that certain European intellectuals, including certain Vatican officials, see America as a bastion against secularization in the West and want to avoid the sociological collapse of Christianity in some European countries. But, even here, the story is more complicated than the narrative allows. For example, those on the right who champion the robust Christianity of the U.S. and bemoan the prospect of further secularization on the European model should explain why those horrible, secularized European countries have shockingly lower abortion rates than we devout Americans.

There is one other narrative that I fear the USCCB document will play into that is worrisome and should have given the drafters of that text greater pause about anything even approaching histrionic language. If you listen to Fox News, or have attended a Tea Party rally, or read anything by Glenn Beck, you will have witnessed their obsession with the idea that President Obama, the Democrats, the Left, are engaged in an assault on freedom and an assault on traditional values, and, well, can apple pie be far behind! Jeffrey Bell, of the American Principles Project, appeared last month on the 700 Club to make the point:

I honestly think that the left, their greatest achievement is the sexual revolution and they want to complete the job of imposing the values of the sexual revolution on everybody else, including those who have held out and disagree with some aspects of it. They’ve been this way since the 1790s, when the word ‘the left’ was invented, that was all about tearing down the existing social institutions and the political institutions, yes the royalty and nobility, but also the left from the beginning in the 1790s with the Jacobins and Robespierre wanted to attack organized religion and the traditional family and they have never changed in that regard. Every left movement has been about getting rid of traditional institutions.

Really? Jacobins? This line of paranoid fantasy should be especially worrisome to the U.S. bishops because of the undue emphasis it places on the individual rights of citizens, its denunciation of the kind of common good political analysis that the Church has traditionally applied to political issues, to say nothing of the fact that paranoid fantasies are always to be avoided per se.

So, I would posit that the entire Catholic community, starting with the bishops, should ask themselves: Am I looking at issues like the HHS mandates or the Alabama anti-immigration laws with a prior narrative that helps me grasp the political options and the political stakes, or does my narrative not only frustrate the prospect of a resolution of a given controversy, but actually leads me to see what is not there?

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