The Illinois legislature voted in November 2010 to pass The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act, which legalizes civil unions for same-sex couples. In the following year, most of the Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois were closing down rather than having to comply with the requirement that same-sex couples be included among potential foster care and adoptive parents. “For the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, the outcome is a prime example of what they see as an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom while expanding the rights of gay people,” the New York Times reports. In other words, the Bishops wanted the issue to be viewed in terms of a clash between religious freedom and group rights. “In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., a civil and canon lawyer whom the Times reports “helped drive the church’s losing battle to retain its state contracts for foster care and adoption services.”
According to the New York Times, the bishops were “engaged in the religious liberty battle on several fronts.” The clerics asked “the Obama administration to lift a new requirement that Catholic and other religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and charity groups cover contraception in their employees’ health plans.” At the same time, the bishops were protesting the denial of “a federal contract to provide care for victims of sex-trafficking, saying the decision was anti-Catholic.” An official with the Department of Health and Human Services told “a hearing on Capitol Hill that the bishops’ program was rejected because it did not provide the survivors of sex-trafficking, some of whom are rape victims, with referrals for abortions or contraceptives.” Anthony R. Picarello Jr., general counsel and associate general secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, disagreed with the decision. “It’s true that the church doesn’t have a First Amendment right to have a government contract,” he said, “but it does have a First Amendment right not to be excluded from a contract based on its religious beliefs.”
To be sure, “political rights vs. religious beliefs” is a difficult nut to crack. It is like having to solve for both x and y in an algebraic equation. Both sides enjoy formidable legitimacy in the West, and the political and religious dimensions are difficult to relate or compare, as they are different domains of the human experience. That they can impact each other does not mean that they have the same substance. If we could get “political” or “religious” on both sides, however, it would be easier to compare the sides and, moreover, to which domain was driving the conflict. I contend that the conflict was at root political. Obscuring this realization is the long-standing habit of overextending the domain of religion from its basis in religious experience.
In late 2011, the Catholic archbishop of Chicago remarked in an interview that gay activists are like KKK members because both groups oppose the Catholic Church. My immediate reaction in hearing of the remark was that the man was doubtless a partisan, being in a political fight. Lest the bishop’s protestations to the contrary be taken seriously (as if there were nothing in the remark that could reasonably taken as offensive), I want to make his distinctly political impetus (as well as the implied opportunity cost in foregone religious experience) transparent. If I am correct, the wolf in sheep’s clothing took after the Pharisees more than the lamb. My approach in this argument is to relegate the apparent religious and even moral alternative bases of the bishops’ motivation.
When a bishop says that gay men or women should not have sex, not to mention form a civil union that legitimates the “sordid” sexual relations, should intimates that the claim has a moral or normative dimension. Lest thou shalt not be taken as subsuming morality under religion, as in the moral half of the Decalogue, the immoral treatment of Job and the divine decrees to the ancient Hebrews to kill even the children of the tribes refusing to convert from worshipping Baal both suggest that religion is not confined or reduced to morality. Theologically speaking, divine omnipotence (i.e., God’s power) cannot be limited by a moral system by definition alone. Nor can immoral be treated as synonymous with sinful. Harm to others is not the same as distancing oneself from religious experience, even though one can affect the other. To the extent that the Catholic bishops were applying “should not” to particular issues that can be viewed as essentially moral in nature, a category mistake was likely involved in characterizing them as “religious beliefs.”
Were the clash between political rights and religious belief more accurately between political rights and moral standards (or ideology), we are still left with the uneasy job of relating the political to the moral—another case of x and y. As in algebra, it would be easier if we could substitute an equation of x’s for the y so we could solve for x. Fortunately, the “political vs. moral” relation may not go far enough in getting us to the root of the conflict. Specifically, the moral aspect may be a subterfuge for a political motive.
That both the anti-gay and anti-abortion (as well as the anti-stem-cell) stances of the American group of Catholic bishops line up with political conservatism in the Republican Party suggests that a “right-wing” political push may have been the bishops’ true motive beyond (though related to) their traditionalism. Lest the bishops’ call for more economic redistribution be cited as an outlier or counterexample, Christian charity dovetails with the Republican platform. The ill-fate of liberation theology in the Vatican of John Paul II suggests that even there mandated economic redistribution was receding in value. In my view, the theological de-emphasis was due to shifting political ideology. To be sure, the Vatican’s call in 2011 for greater financial regulation—though notably coming from the Vatican in Europe rather than the American bishops—is either an exception or something the American bishops could easily advocate in lip-service out of a traditionalist view of obedience to the Vatican, especially relative to their opposition to abortion, which even renders them as “single issue” (i.e., reductionist) voters. In terms of the traditionalist bishops’ political ideology generally, I submit that the bishops themselves were by 2011 much closer to the “right-wing,” social-conservative branch of the Republican Party than to Obama’s Democratic Party. Liberation theology had lost out to abortion (and gay marriage). I contend, in other words, that the bishops’ personal political ideology was in the driver’s seat—with their social ethic and even theological interpretations occupying the back seats even in their official roles as bishops. Claiming that the particular incumbent should not matter, Max Weber would no doubt object to the salience of the personal in the bureaucratic role.
The salience of political ideology even in an ecclesiastical office could also account for the subtle presence of passive-aggressive anger in the Christian clerics whom one would naturally expect would be compassionate peace-makers rather than incendiary partisans. Additionally, ideology could be behind the “single issue” orientation wherein the “pro-life” issue has been pushed so in homilies and petitions. The near-obsession over the issue of abortion, even though Jesus says nothing on the issue itself in the New Testament, may suggest that something other than following Jesus or even religion itself is involved. At least with social welfare, passages in the Gospels can be found in which Jesus advocates feeding or caring for the poor. The hypertrophy of abortion (and even gay marriage—the secondary political issue in the Church) does not pass the smell test from the standpoint of what a follower of Jesus would prioritize politically. My point is that something else is in the mix, and it is rooted neither in religion nor ethics.
Furthermore, the increasingly extreme positions since 1979 taken by the traditionalist clergymen could reflect the nature of a distinctly political ideology. Without a viable check to arrest it, a political agenda is apt to take more and more for granted until the movement is finally upended by the opposition finally having had enough. This pattern can be seen by comparing the U.S. House Republican majority in the mid-1990s with that in 2011. A similar pattern was extant among Catholic priests (and their lock-step epigones) through the same period. The issue of stem-cell research, for example, can be viewed as going beyond abortion to a more extreme position, which in turn could only find enough of a solid constituency once the traditionalists had effectively taken over the hierarchy and the vast majority of parishes. I suspect that a similar trajectory can occur in theological matters, as in going from Mary as an intercessor to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, though without any obvious associated moral or political movement. In both cases, the lack of any internal check is evident (and perhaps lapses in the human mind’s ability to keep perspective on its own trajectory). Similarly in the case of greed , that which looked like a good deal achieved an hour ago suddenly looks hackneyed next to the possibility of an even better deal. The perceptual switch implies a dis-ease with limitation.
In Illinois, the Catholic hierarchy has at times been astonishingly blatant in both its extremism and overt political partisanship. The blatancy alone may say something about the formation of a dominant coalition in political terms (i.e., that the traditionalists had already infiltrated the hierarchy and enough parishes). In 2011, for example, a young priest in Rockford, a rather conservative city ninety miles northwest of downtown Chicago, openly petitioned God in Mass for a “pro-life” candidate to be elected as president of the United States in 2012. A “pro-life” candidate necessarily meant a Republican candidate, as Barak Obama was clearly pro-choice and no other Democrats were contesting him in the primaries.
Another priest, also a year or two out of seminary, declared (without any hint of a possibility of being wrong) in a homily at the same parish that the Catholic laity have a “religious obligation” to martyr themselves for “the pro-life movement.” Notably, that movement is political in the American lexicon. The lay leader of the parish’s anti-abortion group interpreted that “religious” obligation as implying that lives would be saved if there were fewer doctors. Aside from the clearly political nature of homily despite (and undercutting?) the religious context, the sheer extremism (without any hint of being recognized as such!) matches the tendency of political movement to go too far, as if it were entitled to do so.
In short, both of the young traditionalist priests had the same distinct political orientation, which dovetailed with their traditionalist anti-Vatican II ideology. Although subtle, both priests were said to have evinced a seething anger, just below the surface of a peaceful humility. Beyond being against modern society itself (one of the priests advocated in a homily that the parishioners replace their televisions with Jesus’ sacred heart), the anger was directed against liberals as a group (under the antiquated rubric of “heretics”). The priests’ subliminal message was that any politically-liberal Catholics were not really welcome at their parish. In other words, only socially-conservative (Republican) Catholics could truly feel at home there. I contend that this distinctly political prejudice is the counterforce to “political rights” in the dichotomy introduced above.
In brief review, I first replaced the “political rights vs. religious beliefs” distinction with that of “political rights vs. moral beliefs (or standards).” Beneath the moral dimension in this case is a political ideology. Now, the bishops refer to their claim as that of “religious freedom,” which would render the clash as “political rights vs. political liberty.” As a right is simply the protection of a freedom, the tension can be rendered as between liberties. However, the bishops’ “freedom of religion” may have been a red herring, as no right to receive government contracts exists in the U.S. Furthermore, the practice may compromise the “establishment of religion” clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. federal Constitution. Even if the “freedom of religion” claim applies to social services (which I doubt), the expression does not sufficiently capture the bishops’ push against gay marriage and abortion beyond the Church’s social services—that is, beyond the Church’s liberty being infringed. Hence, the “x” may not reduce exclusively liberty. To be sure, the “political rights” position may also include a “remaking of society itself” beyond ones’ own liberty. In other words, political ideologies are also in the mix. Beyond the clashing liberties may be clashing societal ideals presumably to be instituted and enforced by political means. It should be evident that we have left the domain of religion, even if religious beliefs may be related to one or both of the contending political visions.
To cement this conclusion and uncover an implication regarding the bishops’ religiosity, I turn now to distinguish religiosity from moral and political issues. I contend that pruning of what we somewhat carelessly take as the religious “tree” is long overdue. We have lost a sense of what the core of religiosity is, having been long distracted by interlarding moral and political agendas (as well as by the expansionary trajectory of religion itself).
At least in the United States, abortion and gay marriage (as well as economic redistribution) are within the lexicon of political issues, even if the two are also moral and ostensibly religious in nature. The religious nature is tenuous at best, even though linkages are possible. The phenomenology of religion literature, such as Otto’s Idea of the Holy, describes the phenomenon of religion as being an experience whose referent transcends the limits of human cognition and perception. Meditation, adoration, prayer, and worship (e.g., through ritual) are just a few of the possible manifestations of experience whose referent is transcendent. In contrast, moral and political issues are contended within these limits—in the human realm. In other words, yearning for union with the divine, as per Augustine’s pining for God as love, is sourced beyond our grasp, and is therefore qualitatively different than declaring a moral or political position (which we typically presume cannot be wrong, even apart from any link to something taken as religious).
For example, to believe that the Holy Spirit is involved in dynamics in the world is very different than claiming that having an abortion, engaging in sodomy, going on the pill, and using human stem cells in research are wrong. Most significantly, the Holy Spirit is inherently transcendent even as it is immanent, whereas the activities are not—the stances on them being at best indirectly linked to beliefs on a transcendent concept. In other words, the question of whether the Holy Spirit is acting in the world must be left at “I believe” and “You do not.” In contrast, stances on the activities, which—and this is crucial—are not transcendent, can get beyond such unknowability. An advocate would not say, “I have faith that abortion is wrong.” Rather, he or she would declare, “Abortion is wrong because . . .” The typical reason given—that of “harm to the fetus”—is itself a distinctly moral reason (i.e., harming the innocent is wrong). The issue is thus within Catholic social ethics, rather than being a theological doctrine on the nature of the divine. It is problematic to conflate the two, as if a stance on an “issue” were itself a theological belief on the nature of the divine. Yet this is perhaps the major fallacy being committed by the Catholic hierarchy in the post-1979 anti-Vatican II traditionalist movement, which have pushed “social ethics” on to political stances—the “pro-life” movement being distinctively political.
Lest it be retorted that a linkage can indeed be established from religious experience or even Christian theology to a prohibition on gay civil unions or abortions, a relation of affects does not constitute identity. In fact, two discrete entities or concepts are needed just to say “X affects Y.” Therefore, even just insisting that one’s religious experience or one’s faith in that which one believes is transcendent impacts one’s moral and political stances implies that on treats the religious domain as distinct at least conceptually from the stances. To the extent, moreover, that moral and political stances (e.g., the anger involved against contending partisans and their positions) eclipse religious experience and any ensuing sensitivity to existence itself (and people—i.e., compassion), the overgrowth of what we take as religious can actually suffocate that tree of spiritual life. One might ask, therefore, whether the bishops and their priests (and laity) truly value religious experience, given the opportunity cost that is involved in an expansionary interpretation of the religious domain as including particular moral and political stances (and advocacy).
If religion has indeed become too distended for its own good, then some of the clerics who portray themselves as religious may actually be enlivened a political motive that operates subtly at odds with the portrayal itself. That is to say, the clergy may have been tacitly undercutting their own claim of religiosity in general and more specifically in following Jesus, who taught us to value the good Samaritan, who tends after his enemy, over the priest, who passes by the injured as if religiously impure. The proof, as it were, is in the pudding.
Laurie Goodstein, “Bishops Say Rules on Gay Parents Limit Freedom of Religion,” The New York Times, December 28, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/29/us/for-bishops-a-battle-over-whose-rights-prevail.html?_r=1&hp
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