Next Week's USCCB Mtg & The Ad Hoc Cmte on Religious Liberty

This story appears in the USCCB Summer 2014 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, in advance of next week’s spring meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I looked at the future of the bishops’ quadrennial document on the responsibilities of Catholics in political life, Faithful Citizenship. Today, I would like to look at another item on next week’s agenda, whether or not to extend the life of the ad hoc committee on religious liberty.

I do not anticipate that the bishops will pull the plug on this ad hoc committee, but they should.

I am not a fan of ad hoc committees, especially in the Church. The theological and even pastoral tasks of the Church are almost never “ad hoc.” We live and breathe out of a centuries-long tradition. Even when we face a crisis moment, we face that crisis from within the contours and the contexts that tradition affords. Ad hoc committees can do a better or worse job of incorporating that tradition into their analysis, to be sure, but in practice, they tend to inflate the significance of the current moment.

Ad hoc committees also tend to inflate the significance of the issue at hand. I agree that religious liberty is an issue worthy of the attention of all citizens. I agree that we face certain, although hardly catastrophic, challenges to religious liberty here in America. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan explained in his last speech as president of the USCCB, the challenges to religious liberty in the rest of the world are certainly an issue of grave concern. But, if we focus only on the issue of religious liberty, several bad things flow. Those who hold a different perspective on how religious liberty should be balanced with other important social goods will tend to be seen as “the enemy” even though they may support the Church on other important issues such as helping the poor. Other issues may also lose some of their currency because the ad hoc committee is sucking up all the oxygen in the room. By its very nature, an ad hoc committee narrows the focus, and I do not think a conference of Catholic bishops should be in the business of narrowing focus when there are many evident claimants on their attention.

Pope Francis addressed this phenomenon of narrowing our vision in Evangelii Gaudium, #235, where we wrote:

The whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts.  There is no need, then, to be overly obsessed with limited and particular questions.  We constantly have to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all.

One can easily see how the USCCB’s narrow focus on the HHS mandate has kept them from focusing on the “greater good” achievable by health care reform. For example, many states have refused to expand Medicaid, denying millions of citizens’ access to affordable health care. Have the bishops in those states spoken out in favor of expanding Medicaid? Has the USCCB spoken out about the need to expand Medicaid? Very few bishops used the Church’s network of social service providers and parishes and schools to help sign people up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. We have lost the forest of helping the poor by providing them access to health care for the trees of conscience clauses. I think conscience clauses are important, but I do not think they are the only thing that is important.

In fact, even with the terrain of religious liberty squabbles, the USCCB’s ad hoc committee picked the wrong horse by narrowing their focus in a disturbing way. The best argument against the HHS mandate was that it violated the integrity of our Catholic institutions. But, instead of focusing on that objection, the ad hoc committee has focused on the rights of conscience. I am all for conscience rights, but in America today, as I have noted before and often, most people do not mean by the word conscience what we Catholics mean. For us, it is, as Newman said, the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.” For most Americans, conscience is indistinguishable from whim, and you can expect conscience rights to be invoked against the Church as well as for her.

You can see how this narrow focus on conscience rights can feed other intellectual infirmities. The argument from the integrity of our institutions leads to a defense of a robust civil society, the only antidote to both excessive individualism and excessive state control. Conceived in a highly individualistic manner, however, feeds the beast of libertarianism. My colleague Josh McElwee reported on a conference in Rome sponsored by the Acton Institute which made the argument that economic liberty and religious liberty were joined at the hip, destined to rise or fall together, a thesis that is disproved by a single word – China.

There is an additional reason to pull the plug on the ad hoc committee on religious liberty. Recently, they sent out their bulletin inserts and homily suggestions for the Fortnight for Freedom. In those texts, the claim is put forward that the HHS mandate forces Catholic institutions to “fund or facilitate” morally objectionable activities. This is the language of moral cooperation with evil and, significantly, it is language that was conspicuously absent from the USCCB’s statement after their November plenary. If that November statement reflected the will of the bishops as a whole, and specifically their concern that the “fund or facilitate” language pre-judges the issue of illicit material cooperation with evil, why was that language reinserted by the staff at the USCCB in the current documents for the Fortnight? That is a question that deserves an answer.

I have long been suspicious of the argument that the staff at the USCCB leads the bishops around by the nose. This charge was frequently leveled at the Domestic Policy Committee when I think it would be more accurate to say that the staffers at the Domestic Policy Committee were better acquainted with Catholic Social Doctrine than some of the bishops, and that they educated the bishops in that doctrine, producing documents that were fully consonant with both papal and conciliar teaching. In a contested and convoluted area of constitutional law, much of which is specific to the United States, the danger of listening to the staff is even greater. Especially when the staff seems hell bent on pursuing litigation.

Recently, I came across a video that made me think about the influence of the staff at the USCCB on the bishops. In it, Helen Alvare says that “it would have terrorized” some of the people in the pews if they knew how little vetting there was by the bishops of documents drafted by the staff. Hmmm. Professor Alvare explains that this lack of vetting was a consequence of her being “steeped in the Church at that point.” I do not doubt that Alvare is, as she says, steeped in the Church. I do not doubt that many other, indeed all, staffers at the USCCB are so steeped. But, the concern is that some of those staffers are also steeped in a conservative political and ideological narrative that they have conflated with the Catholic narrative. Instead of reaching out to, say, Catholic legal scholars who took a different view on the threat to religious liberty posed by the HHS mandate, the campaign run by the ad hoc committee has had the flavor of a political campaign. It has seemed obsessed with the HHS mandate while speaking little of, say, the hostility some local Muslim communities experience when they seek to build a mosque. It has obscured the many good aspects of the Affordable Care Act in its obsession over the contraception mandate. And, frankly, it has failed to capture the imagination of Catholics in the pews because they can sniff that there is a partisan point of view at work here. The video is at the end of this post and the relevant quotations are at 43:00.

I am not unsympathetic to the concerns raised by the ad hoc committee on religious liberty. I believe the Church – its leaders and its people in the pews – need to pay attention to the need to preserve our religious liberties. But, the USCCB has made itself look like an arm of the Becket Fund, instead of acting like bishops charged with governing the Church. It has pursued sometimes tendentious arguments in fighting a worthy goal. It has echoed arguments that are deeply partisan and often inadvertently hostile to other aspects of our Catholic imagination and theology. The institutional focus on the issue of religious liberty should be returned to the Domestic and International Policy committees, where it can take its rightful place among a host of concerns, be viewed with perspective, balanced as it must be in a pluralistic society, but a recognition of other points of view. The fact is that the ad hoc committee has led the bishops out onto a limb by pre-judging the issue of material cooperation with evil, using “fund or facilitate” language that will raise the question, should our suits fail in the courts: Will you then close down your ministries? Will you shutter your schools? The bishops should pull the plug on the runaway train that the ad hoc committee has become. They won’t, but they should.



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