What to make of the forced resignation of Tony Spence

by Michael Sean Winters

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The forced resignation of Tony Spence as editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Service is regrettable in the extreme. Spence has been a bulwark for maintaining the editorial independence of CNS, which is its value, even when that independence has rankled some of the bishops. If CNS were to lose its well-earned reputation for independent reporting, it would be worthless.

I normally would not write about a personnel matter. I was not at the meeting at which Spence says his resignation was demanded. Employers often have unspoken rationales for the decisions they make in these situations. But, it seems to me that this incident warrants attention for some reasons that transcend the particulars of the case.

The forced resignation came on the heels of stories in several right-wing blogs that called attention to the fact that Spence had sent out tweets offering a negative judgment on some legislative efforts to restrict LGBT rights. As the editor of a news agency, the tweets were ill-advised and confirmed me in my decision to use my Twitter account solely to send out links to my articles. But, a tweet can be taken down and an employee told not to tweet anymore. I do not see this as an offense worthy of firing. And, let’s not kid ourselves: If Spence had tweeted support for the anti-LGBT laws, I am confident he would still be at his desk this morning.

More importantly, even if the general secretary of the USCCB did think terminating someone for tweeting in favor of LGBT rights was proper, the fact that these allegations first came from professional witch hunters should have led the USCCB to hold off. The Lepanto Institute, Church Militant, and LifeSiteNews are diabolical. They do not serve the good of the church. It is hard to imagine three groups less in tune with the current pope. They destroy lives and do not think twice about it. They cast aspersions at outstanding churchmen like Cardinal Donald Wuerl. In 2011, Church Militant, then known as Real Catholic TV, was ordered to cease calling itself Catholic by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, and Archbishop Vigneron is not what you would call a lefty.

These same groups investigated a staffer at Catholic Relief Services last year, Rick Estridge, who was the vice president for overseas finance. His job was in no way a ministerial position, and was not one of the jobs at CRS that is even restricted to Catholics. Mr. Estridge had married his male partner in a civil ceremony. I do not know his reasons for entering into that marriage. I have said before that if, God forbid, I found out I had inoperable cancer and a very short time to live, I would marry my housemate just to make handling my finances something I did not have to worry about in my last months. But, in the event, so far from being a "gay activist," Estridge was not even out to members of his family. Did this give these latter-day witch hunters pause? No.

These McCarthyite tactics must be resisted. And the bishops should not delude themselves into thinking that these groups will restrict their targets to lay staffers. I did not call attention to a Church Militant piece that asserted that the chancery of a major archdiocese was run by a gay cabal: The article had apparently one source, who was not on the record, and it did not pass the journalistic sniff test. But, the link was sent to me by a dozen or so people.

The other, deeper issue has to do with the subject of the tweets. It is apparent that the religious liberty fight that has become so central to the work of the USCCB is now transitioning away from the HHS contraception controversy and is now going to be embroiled in controversies over LGBT rights. This morning, NCR posted a very thoughtful essay by theologians Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman that explains why the Church does not need to engage this fight, indeed, that the foundational values the USCCB cites in explaining its position opposing LGBT rights actually are more properly followed by supporting nondiscrimination language. I do not agree in toto with their argument, but I am closer to their position than to the conclusions reached by the USCCB and stridency should be reserved for those instances in which the moral case is more clear cut.

No one likes to admit it, but the Church’s theology related to gays and lesbians is inadequate. For two thousand years, the working assumption was that gays and lesbians were behaving in an aberrational manner but, in recent years, most people have come to accept that being gay is not a choice to act in a certain way, but is constitutional for that person. We have not yet wrestled with that fact, and the changed moral framework it requires, adequately. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis took a step in the right direction, citing a previous Vatican document about the need to avoid unjust discrimination against gays and recognize their inherent human dignity, but not citing that same previous document’s comments about homosexuality being "intrinsically disordered."

Let me add an additional reason for the bishops to rethink a legal and political strategy aimed at securing religious liberty by restricting LGBT rights: They will lose. In state after state, when a religious liberty bill is passed that is understood, rightly or wrongly, to traffic in unjust discrimination against gays and lesbians, the business community is now first in line to protest. Most governors and legislators cave at that point. Those who don’t will face a tough time getting reelected.

What is more, the bishops will deserve to lose, and not just for the reasons put forth by Lawler and Salzman. For three years now, we have been treated to histrionic language about religious liberty. It has not caught on beyond the choir because it does not cohere with people’s lived experience. Most believers do not feel that their religious liberty is threatened. And, they can sniff that the issue has been hijacked by the professional litigators on the issue, who always have an interest in ferreting out threats. The fact that this issue aligns neatly with the conservative wing of the Republican Party should give the bishops pause, but it is hard not to conclude that this is seen as a plus by many of them, and certainly by the staff at the conference.

The other reason people are not too agitated about "threats" to religious liberty is because the courts have not shown any inclination to gut the First Amendment. In 2012, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled in Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC that the government had no business telling a church what it could do and not do in its employment policies regarding those in ministerial positions. A unanimous court. In the event, the CRS official was certainly not engaged in a ministerial position, but why should the Church, or anyone, be able to discriminate against gays and lesbians when hiring an accountant?

The right path forward is to do what the Mormons did in Utah: Sit down with gay activists and work out a deal. I fear it may be too late for that. I fear, too, that the same psychology at the conference that led them to fire Spence would frustrate any effort to find a compromise formula on the issue of LGBT rights. Unlike the fight over the contraception mandate, about which the bishops discussed legal strategy multiple times but never once in plenary session discussed the underlying theological issue of whether compliance with the mandate would constitute "illicit material cooperation with evil," this time the bishops should start with the theology and let the legal strategy flow from that.

I am not someone who thinks there is no merit in the concerns about the future of religious liberty in this, or any, country. But, my concerns on this front are less than the concerns I have that the USCCB has become in thrall to rightwing activists whose ability to weigh competing values is skewed or worse. The bishops have been ill-served, and many of them know it, but no one has taken the lead in seeking to change it. The conference is losing staff faster than the Titanic lost passengers. Now, they will range themselves among that sliver of conservative opinion that believes they must fight and die on the hill of opposition to LGBT rights. Someone should tell them that the country passed that hill five miles back.

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