The USCCB religious liberty video

by Michael Sean Winters

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The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has produced a video to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Decree on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, at the Second Vatican Council. My colleague Tom Roberts wrote about the video last week. You can watch the video here.

Last week, I attended a going away party at the bishops' conference headquarters for longtime staffer Don Clemmer. I joked with one of the people in the communications department, "So, you are losing Don, but you hired Leni Riefenstahl. ... I saw the video." That was a joke, not an argument. Riefenstahl is known for her propaganda movies like "Triumph of the Will" that celebrated the achievements and the vision of the Nazis, and we all know that you can never, ever invoke a Nazi analogy in an argument without doing harm to your cause. Whatever horrible things happen to you, they are never as horrible as what the Nazis did.  

Like all jokes, mine had a grain of truth: The USCCB video really does have a propagandistic quality, presenting a trenchant view of a complex issue in a way that is designed to excite the emotions. The video flips back and forth between the Obama administration's contraception mandate and ISIS beheading Christians, as if the two things had more in common than not. To be clear, the signing of a government form indicating you do not want to purchase insurance for contraception is not like having your head cut off with a kitchen knife. The video presents a caricature of religious liberty, in which Dignitatis Humanae's  careful statements about religious liberty are emptied of all nuance, and all conflicts over the issue are rendered in stark, reductionistic terms, good guys on one side and bad guys on the other.

The cause of religious liberty is important, and like all good causes, it can suffer from a variety of afflictions. Neglect can harm a good cause: "Benign neglect" is often an oxymoron. But, few things harm a good cause more thoroughly than gross overstatement and hyperbole. The dark music, the sinister prospects conjured by the people interviewed, the grim images of genuine persecution in the Middle East, these all suggest that America is on the path to abandoning the First Amendment, and that strikes me as overstatement. Put differently, you can joke about Leni Riefenstahl, but if you actually make an argument that invokes her memory, you are overstating your case and harming your cause. 

There are other problems with the video. The editor seems to go out of his or her way to include a segment with a clear shot of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while Professor Helen Alvaré says that "the government lately has been forcing us more and more to cooperate with its view but I see that as the flip side of the coin, of the government stopping us from practicing our faith." How has Hillary forced anyone to stop practicing their faith? Why is she in this video? This conflation of Alvaré's words and the image of Clinton is not Alvaré's fault, but is the fault of the editors and whoever at the conference signed off on the final product.

A Pentecostal minister, the Rev. Eugene Rivers, frets that the government is going to "criminalize" faith. Who is talking about criminalizing faith? Did I miss that plank in the Democratic Party platform? We Christians worship the Prince of Peace and there were plenty of good Catholics falling all over themselves to make excuses for the war in Vietnam (or Iraq). Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, who just went to God last week, went to jail in the 1970s for voicing and acting upon his religious convictions that the war was unjust. Was his arrest and imprisonment a violation of his religious liberty? Or does religious liberty only matter when it involves issues of sexuality and gender?

Professor Alvaré states that if our ministries close, the people harmed are already vulnerable, which is true, but that "if" is made to carry a lot of water in the claim. Why would they need to close? Because a bishop, or the Little Sisters of the Poor, do not want to give dental insurance to the same-sex partner of an employee? After all, the Supreme Court appears to have come up with a Solomonic solution to the HHS mandate controversy and the fight now will be about same-sex issues. What evil does dental insurance cooperate with? Why does baking someone's wedding cake constitute any kind of participation in evil? Dignitatis Humanae states: "Finally, government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens." I am not saying that the issue of hiring people in same-sex marriages for Catholic ministries is not problematic. The issue is not a slam dunk for either side. But, you wouldn't know that from this video.

The video gives a brief mention of the late Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray, whose contribution to Dignitatis Humanae is undoubted. The video also mentions the influence the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, on the final text. It leaves out the fact that Murray and Wojtyla were at odds over the basis for religious freedom, with Murray arguing for a more juridical document and Wojtyla and the French theologians insisting on a more theological treatment of the subject. The tensions with the text were, like many such documents, unresolved. But, you would not know that from this video: There is only one way to understand this document, and the key thing to know about it is that the Obama administration and ISIS are opposed to it. And, do not get me started on the simplistic rendering of America's commitment to religious liberty.

Nowhere does the video talk about the significance of the Decree on Religious Liberty for the church in the United States at the time of its adoption. The U.S. bishops at Vatican II saw this issue as uniquely their issue because the church denied there was a right to religious freedom until Vatican II, and that denial gave substance to the prejudice many non-Catholics harbored towards Catholics, especially Catholics in political life. American Catholics were tired of being the subject of the charge of dual loyalty and treated as second-class citizens. They wanted the church to change its teaching on this issue, which it did, so that their assimilation into the culture could be ratified. Alas, that is not the purpose to which the text is put today.

I am sure that when the council fathers voted on the text of Dignitatis Humanae, they could not conceive of the government's mandating contraception, still less of same-sex marriage's being legal. But, they understood that the right to religious liberty had to coexist with other rights, and that government has an obligation to ensure civil peace and justice among the citizenry. The decree states:

Furthermore, society has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion. It is the special duty of government to provide this protection. However, government is not to act in an arbitrary fashion or in an unfair spirit of partisanship. Its action is to be controlled by juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order. These norms arise out of the need for the effective safeguard of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also out of 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 out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality.

I do not expect Catholic bishops to make the argument that these religious liberty laws being adopted in North Carolina or Tennessee, which are self-evidently targeted at discriminating against gays and lesbians, entail a "pretext" or constitute an "abuse." I will say that the conciliar document is a lot more nuanced than the claims placed upon it in this video, or in other statements from the bishops' conference in the past few years. Certainly, the above passage would not fit well with the dark music that accompanies much of this horrific video. At the very least, those words should prompt each bishop in this country to seriously consider if this ham-fisted attempt at propaganda is beneath their "human dignity."

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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