Religious Liberty: The Politics

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I noted that I am not much of a fan of the cast of mind which warns darkly about “cultural elites” out to attack the Catholic Church, but that there were two exceptions. Yesterday, I looked at the world of legal scholarship which I believe really has adopted an attitude towards freedom and justice that is antithetical to the Catholic Church, even though I think most of the legal scholars who adopt this attitude do not think of themselves as hostile to the Church. It is more the case that they view the Church as some weird historical leftover, the Easter Bunny with real estate, certainly not an institution possessed of a coherent worldview.

Today, in the third and penultimate blogpost on the subject of religious liberty, I would like to look at the politics of the issue and I start that examination by considering the second exception to my “don’t blame cultural elites” rule. One of the difficulties I have with a Democratic administration is that a significant number of their mid-level staffers (and higher) are drawn from the ranks of those groups which really do see the Church as an enemy, groups like NARAL and Emily’s List. And, to be clear, these groups are not wrong: Their worldview, their political and social goals really are directly opposed not only to the Catholic Church’s teachings, but to its entire worldview. As I indicated yesterday, and the day before, this is not just about the pill. This is about anthropology, indeed it is always about anthropology. (Obviously, here, I use anthropology in its older, philosophic and theological sense.) I shall have more on the deeper implication of this different anthropology tomorrow.

If you doubt the ferocity of anti-Catholic views among some groups in Washington, just read this article at the Huffington Post yesterday, helpfully entitled “The Men Behind the War on Women.” The men in question are the U.S. bishops and the women in question are women striving to preserve power over their reproductive choices not those very, very young women who get aborted each year. The article is a catalogue of dumb and dark statements about the Catholic Church from first to last. Last in this case is, of course, Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice, who repeats the most obviously ridiculous argument in such matters, saying of the bishops: “What they’re attempting to do is use the legislative process to legislate us and others into their sense of morality,” O'Brien said. “If you can't reach them at the pulpit, you go to Congress! And sometimes they win.” Kinda like Dr. King and Archbishop O’Boyle lobbying for the Civil Rights Act, huh?

The White House, of course, has no political interest in picking fights with the USCCB. The article in Tuesday’s Washington Post about political appointees stepping in to deny the USCCB a contract to help survivors of human trafficking was very damaging. It fit a narrative that harms the Democrats, painting them as hostile to religious concerns and traditional values. This narrative not only affects Catholic swing voters, although it does that in spades. Many religious people, not just Catholics, have a sense that contemporary society is hostile to religious concerns and it does President Obama a great disservice to be seen as a champion of that hostility.

That said, I think the bishops need to be honest with themselves about the source of their sense of estrangement from the administration. They welcomed the incoming President with a shot across the bow, a postcard campaign about the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) a bill that had precisely no chance of ever getting out of committee. Then there was the kerfuffle over President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame, during which some bishops said truly venomous things, painting the President as a pariah, even though he had scarcely done anything to offend the Church in his first six months in office. Some on the left, including many, many Catholic Democrats, were deeply disappointed that the USCCB could not bring itself to support the health care overhaul, and the USCCB did not give Obama much in the way of credit for staring down a core constituency in his own party by signing the executive order that mimicked the Stupak Amendment. The President could be forgiven, after all of that, for thinking, to hell with the bishops. But, he did not. I think the reasons are two-fold. First, President Obama is a conciliatory personality. Indeed, I think he was a little too conciliatory towards the GOP for too long. Secondly, and more importantly, he recognizes, even if some of the apparatchicks at HHS do not, that there is no upside to engaging in a running war with the USCCB. It is never wise to simply trust a politician, but you can usually trust a politician to pursue his or her own self-interest. So, for example, having pledged himself to avoid all taxpayer funded abortions in his health care law, it would be hugely damaging to the President to have some HHS staffer try and pull a fast one and sneak through a policy that would permit such funding.

To be clear, a contempt for Catholic values is a bipartisan phenomenon here in Washington. At the end of last week’s congressional hearing on religious liberty, Congressman Steve King came over to shake Bishop William Lori’s hand. Bishop Lori, who is a polite and well-mannered person, shook King’s hand and they exchanged pleasantries. But, I hope Lori knows he needed to go wash off his hand after that exchange. Cong. King, who is a Catholic, has led the charge to deny birthright citizenship to the children of undocumented workers born here in the U.S. In addition to vitiating the 14th Amendment, King’s proposal attacks the basic rights of millions of fellow citizens and co-religionists. King has also championed the budget proposals of Cong. Paul Ryan which, all his protestations to the contrary, would bring enormous harm at the other end of the age spectrum, turning Medicare into a voucher system all in order to shovel more money at the already super-rich in the form of tax cuts.

King’s involvement in the hearing actually showed how deep the rot is within the GOP. King steered the questioning away from the matter at hand, religious liberty, and towards the Church’s sacramental understanding of marriage and its opposition to same sex marriage. King, of course, fashions himself a champion of traditional marriage, at least for white people. Anyone with even a glancing familiarity of the immigration issue knows that as a consequence of our failure to adopt comprehensive immigration reform, every time there is a raid by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, you can bet a wife is being separated from her husband, or children from one or both of their parents. King is the worst kind of hypocrite, someone who denies others the rights and humane considerations he demands for himself. He may happen to agree with the USCCB on the Forternberry bill, but can we really look to someone like King as an ally? Can the bishops expect to be untarnished by involvement with someone so hateful?

So, what to do? The bishops, of course, should follow the example of Jesus and not be afraid to dine with sinners and tax collecters. But, they should be acutely aware of the radical deficiencies in both parties regarding Catholic concerns and, curiously, the fact that both parties tend to deviate from Catholic concerns for the same reasons: The Dems embrace libertarian sensibilities on certain social issues and Republicans embrace libertarianism in economic ones, and the Church insists that we mean something different by liberty. It behooves the bishops not to be seen as pawns of either party, to consciously try and maintain good relations with leaders in both parties, to commend those leaders when they do well and to help them see the error of their ways when they do poorly.

One of the tenets of Just War theory is that, in order to be just, a war must be winnable. This is an immenently practical and moral consideration. I think the bishops, who are clearly very fired up about religious liberty, can reasonably expect to win their fight on some issues. But, they have to exercise prudential judgment about what constitutes a “win.” For example, on the issue of the new proposed mandates in health care coverage, that would require all insurance policies to cover contraception and sterilization, the Church would prefer that there be no such extension of contraceptive care to anyone, but I think they realize that they have lost that argument with our culture, even with most Catholic lay people. But, I believe they can and should expect to receive a broad and generous conscience exemption from the contraceptive mandates. There are times in a pluralistic culture when the best you can do is carve out room to be true to yourself. If the HHS broadens the conscience exemptions to include both employees of Catholic organizations and students at Catholic colleges, that will be a huge win for the USCCB and I sincerely hope they will acknowledge it as such.

In his September 29, 2011 letter to his brother bishops announcing the establishment of the ad hoc committee on religious liberty, Archbishop Timothy Dolan cited six specific concerns regarding religiouos liberty, and the HHS mandates was the first. As I say, I think we will win on that. The second and third items had to do with administration efforts to require those who receive government contracts to provide contraceptive care. We have already seen that the USCCB lost on one of these, the funding for the human trafficking contract. I think the bishops should push back hard, especially in light of the Post article on the political influences that were brought to bear in denying the USCCB an extension of that contract. The issue is not only the money, it is the principle. The fourth item on the list was the administration’s decision not to defend DOMA. I am afraid that the train has left the station on this issue. We lost our defense of traditional marriage when the nation adopted no-fault divorce laws. Our culture no longer means by marriage what we Catholics mean by marriage. And, a few thousand gay people getting married is not the threat to the Church’s views on marriage that the millions of divorced Catholics are. The fifth item dealt with the truly objectionable DOJ brief on the ministerial exception, which I dealt with yesterday. The last had to do with New York State’s adoption of gay marriage. So, of the six, I think we will win #1, I think we can effectively push back on #2 & #3, I think items #4 and #6 were lost decades ago, and hopefully item #5 will die a peaceful death after the Supreme Court spanked the DOJ lawyers in public. Of course, taken cumulatively, the USCCB can be forgiven for thinking that there is a manifest assault on the Catholic Church in these six instances.

A final thought. If you have been watching the GOP debates, you will have concluded that the only person to win them was Barack Obama. If the economy continues to improve, even a little, but enough to be seen as moving in the right direction, it is hard to see how any of the putative GOP contenders could beat the President. That gives the USCCB exactly one year to repair its relationship with the administration, and vice-versa, in advance of the presidential election. If we permit certain conservative political groups to hijack the religious liberty issue to continue to throw sand in the face of the president, we will have no one to blame but ourselves for what will follow in a second term. Now, the president has an electoral interest in avoiding a fight with the bishops. If the acrimony continues and he wins anyway, he will have precisely no incentive to even listen to what the USCCB has to say. The clock is ticking.

I do not believe the President of the United States harbors any ill will towards the Catholic Church. Obviously, his worldview is very different, but there are areas of obvious overlap, both in his policies and in his past. He does seem genuinely concerned about the plight of the poor and the security of the elderly in ways his Republican opponents do not. And, as he has himself explained, te late, great Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was an inspiration to Obama early in his career. All Catholics, not just U.S. Catholics, can rejoice in the fact that he has abandoned the Bush administration’s “shoot first” policies abroad. Certainly at the Vatican, they appreciate the change in U.S. foreign policy. The USCCB has every right to defend its ideas and its institutional engagement with the government on behalf of the poor. But, they need to acknowledge that in any relationship, the difficulties are never all on one side and that, in this case, the opposition to Obama, even if it is allied with us on one or two key concerns, brings its own difficulties. This is politics, not the eschaton. We are not building the Kingdom of God in Pelagian fashion. We are seeking, haltingly, a more perfect Union. That is work enough, and it is work to which all Americans, regardless of their political persuasions, pursue in good faith.

The good news? The USCCB is today led by Archbishop Timothy Dolan who is, like the President, a man with a conciliatory temperament, fortified by his studies in Church history which are an unending lesson in the virtue of forbearance. Dolan is also an unequalled defender of the both the Church’s teachings and her interests. No one, not even a President, is going to “roll” him. I do not doubt that the President of the conference and the president of the nation can avert an all out war between the USCCB and the administration. For the good of both Church and State, let’s hope I am right.

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