USCCB response to LGBT nondiscrimination order worse than expected

by Michael Sean Winters

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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' statement about President Barack Obama's LGBT nondiscrimination rule is even worse than I expected. You can read the full statement here, and I recommend you do so and form your own opinion before continuing with this column in which I shall share mine.

The statement would have been fine if it had been issued by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty or by the Republican National Committee. Some may wonder if there is much of a distinction left between the three organizations. Call me foolish, but I find it astonishing that a statement signed by an archbishop and a bishop on behalf of other bishops fails to mention God, makes no reference to the Bible, and is so utterly devoid of pastoral sensibility. This is the work of a lawyer, not a bishop.

All the bishops of the United States, and most especially Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the president of the USCCB, should ask themselves a question: Do you think Pope Francis would have issued a statement that sounds like this? For that matter, can you imagine Pope Benedict XVI issuing a statement that did not have some inflection of Christology? I can't.

Do you think Pope Francis would exercise his apostolic ministry of teaching in such lawyerly and politicized words and concepts? The phrase "a stroke of his pen" is now a staple on Fox News in their effort to paint President Obama as a tyrant, even though he has signed fewer executive orders than his predecessor and, for all the hyperventilating about religious liberty, America is not China.

The bishops' statement takes up the distinction I mentioned yesterday between homosexual people and homosexual acts, then draws precisely the wrong conclusion. They fault the administration for failing to draw the distinction, but I cannot imagine a grosser violation of religious liberty than for the government to involve itself in such an obviously theological distinction. But the USCCB says the new rule will sanction conduct, not just people. How is that? The new rule does not grant anyone the license to copulate at work. The new rule says that people should be hired (or not) based on their ability to do the job. I suppose if there was a Catholic strip club owner -- let's not go there. Is it really, really important that the accountant at Catholic Relief Services be straight?

The statement from the USCCB does not even mention the new rule's inclusion of 2002 Bush-era language permitting religious agencies that receive federal contracts to give preferential hiring status to co-religionists. So if that accountant is gay, at least he will more likely be a gay Catholic! But for those who hold key positions in a Catholic or other religiously affiliated ministry, those positions that have to do with the religious identity of the organization can be reserved for those who share the faith in all its fullness, however the religious organization wishes to define that. As Fr. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said in an official statement: "As has always been the case, Catholic Charities USA supports the rights of all to employment and abides by the hiring requirements of all federal contracts. We are pleased that the Executive Order signed today by the President upholds already existing religious exemptions that will allow us to maintain fidelity to our deeply held religious beliefs. Specifically, we are pleased that the religious exemption in this Executive Order ensures that those positions within Catholic Charities USA that are entrusted with maintaining our Catholic identity are to be held exempt." The contrast in the statements raises the question: What does the general counsel at CCUSA know that the general counsel at the USCCB does not? That, sadly, is no longer really a legal question, but a question of where one stands in the culture wars. 

Perhaps the authors of this document will object that obtaining a marriage license is an act, and so any effect the new rule has on the employment of gays who choose to enter into a civil marriage is pertinent. As I have said before, I do not think the extension of health care benefits to a same-sex partner connotes any kind of validation of that relationship. Yes, there is some degree of recognition that the relationship exists. But I do not believe that Pope John Paul II was endorsing or validating Castro's rule when he visited Cuba and met with the dictator, although he was recognizing him. Nor do I think the Catholic Church in Cuba is validating or sanctioning his rule when they work with the Cuban regime to alleviate poverty. This way of thinking, that any form of recognition means we are complicit in actions that the Church does not approve, only makes sense if one has adopted a thoroughly defensive posture.

There is one part of the USCCB statement that is so shameless, even I was shocked. It reads: "In an attempt to avoid these needless conflicts, states that have passed 'sexual orientation' or 'gender identity' prohibitions have overwhelmingly included protections for religious employers. When the U.S. Senate, which is controlled by the President's own party, passed the similar Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) last year, it included religious liberty protections as well. Indeed, all prior versions of ENDA had at least some religious liberty protections." The authors of this statement might have had the decency to mention that the USCCB has opposed every previous iteration of ENDA, yes? Does not the Eighth Commandment deserve some attention and respect from the bishops? Or is it only the Sixth Commandment that has any juice over at USCCB headquarters?

To be clear, I think the Obama administration should have included religious exemptions to the new rule, just as I think there should have been wider exemptions to the HHS mandate. Civil society actors, including churches, are vital for the health of the nation, and part of the strength of those civil society actors is that they are not agents of the government, even if they get some government funding, and they are different one from another in a variety of ways, including their views of human sexuality. And in a pluralistic society, there must be room for minorities on the right as well as on the left.

As a political matter, of course, the bishops would have a sounder claim to resist the government telling them what to do and not to do regarding same-sex issues if the bishops had not spent the last 10 years trying to use that same power of the government to vindicate our Catholic understanding of same-sex issues. It is a sad irony, but an irony nonetheless. Last night, on EWTN's "News Nightly," a woman from the Concerned Women for America was on to address the president's rule, and she, somewhat strangely, talked mostly about the need to keep government off of business's back, showing, to my mind, that there are swirling, not always compatible narratives in the right-wing bleachers. Her focus was a kind of libertarian appeal, which is strange when the topic is same-sex issues.

These rules are always going to produce conflict and, likely, litigation. But why did the USCCB not just wait until such conflicts arose? Why the need to pounce and to pounce in full battle armor? The headquarters of the USCCB, or at least the fifth floor, has become the strategic headquarters in the culture war. They apparently see no danger in the public face of the bishops becoming the face of a litigant, not a teacher or pastor. They have adopted hook, line and sinker the culture-warrior stance most associated with His Grace of Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and indeed, these days, if you want to get hired at the USCCB, it helps to have worked for +Chaput and to have been affiliated with Christendom College. The USCCB headquarters has become Philly on the Potomac, which is kind of ironic seeing as Archbishop Chaput has repeatedly failed to be elected to the conference's leadership.

Archbishop William Lori has seen the religious liberty issue as his meal ticket for some time, and he is up to his elbows in creating this culture-warrior mentality as well. And a large number of bishops, I suspect, are genuinely bewildered that public attitudes on same-sex issues have changed so fast and so thoroughly. But that fact should invite us to reflection, not culture war. That fact deserves a pastoral response, not another lawyerly screed. The more worrisome fact is not that so many people now accept gay relationships. The more worrisome fact is that we have a bishops' conference that does not perceive the danger of how alienated they are making the public face of the Church by becoming an arm of the Becket Fund, adopting the role of litigants-in-chief, and how at odds this is with the culture of encounter, the evangelical methodology of accompaniment, and the Gospel imperative to serve the poor that has been so clearly, repeatedly articulated by Pope Francis. The bishops do not meet as a group until November, but at that meeting, some brave soul needs to stand up and ask: Why, having dug ourselves so deeply into the culture war hole, do we keep digging? 

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