Friday, February 24, 2012

On Religious Freedom, Conscience, and the Gospels: Recent Discussions in Media

At the Nation, Jessica Valenti agrees with Sarah Posner (in a Salon piece to which I linked yesterday) that the American political and religious right is involved in a long-game strategy to roll back women's rights in the area of healthcare.  But she wonders why we're so surprised to discover this right now, and why it has become a campaign talking point in 2012, when the handwriting on this particular wall has been plain to see for some time now:

Their fear of sex—of women’s sexuality in particular—has become a major media talking point, and a source of outrage among American women. But what I don’t understand is why anyone is surprised. Republicans have long based their agenda for women in a deep-rooted disdain for all things female. We’ve been down this road many, many times before.

And in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jon O'Brien contrasts the U.S. Catholic bishops' understanding of religious freedom--freedom for me and my kind, my conscience but not yours--with the notion of religious freedom articulated in the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae.  As O'Brien notes, Dignitatis Humanae "tells us that in protecting and promoting religious freedom, conscience is foremost: each person is bound to follow it, and nobody can be forced to act contrary to their conscience."

And so in the name of protecting religious freedom and conscience (their freedom, their conscience), the U.S. Catholic bishops want to ride roughshod over the religious freedom and conscience of others--of the huge majority of Catholics who reject magisterial teaching about contraception, and of the many non-Catholics working in Catholic institutions: 

The problem is the U.S. bishops don't respect the consciences of the 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women who have used a form of birth control banned by the Vatican. These women doubtless would cite their well-being and that of their families for their moral decisions, but the bishops have seen fit to ignore this and have not been shy in expressing their point of view accordingly.

And so O'Brien concludes that the position taken by the Obama administration vis-a-vis the HHS guidelines and contraceptive coverage is more authentically Catholic, truer to the Catholic notions of religious freedom and conscience, than that taken by the USCCB and its co-belligerents.

At Religion News Service, Tom Ehrich deconstructs one of the main premises on which the U.S. bishops' spurious religious freedom arguments depend: namely, the notion that their religious freedom (and that of Catholics in general) is under attack in the U.S.  Ehrich concludes that the real threat to the claims made by the churches--that they stand for the memory of Jesus in the world, and are signs of God's all-embracing love for the world--comes from the churches themselves, not the surrounding society.

It is the churches who are undermining their own credibility in the world today, he concludes, because they have lost vital contact with the world around them, because they muzzle critical voices within their ecclesial structures, because they willingly use the legal system to bully and remove rights from others, and because they protect wealth and power "from any intrusion by the actual gospel": 

Religion's enemy isn't government. If anything, the American system has bent over backwards to protect religion from the accountability, fairness and justice that are expected of other citizens. No, religion's enemy -- if it has one -- is itself.

And I suspect he's very right about that.  As a Catholic, I suspect that during this Lent, as we Catholics read the gospels carefully and ponder their significance for our lives, many of us will look in vain for the faces, examples, and words of our bishops in these documents in which our faith is grounded.

Because for growing numbers of us, the bishops have come to stand for the opposite of what the gospels stand for.  They are countersigns to the gospels, and an impediment to our faith.

That's what many of us Catholics will be wrestling with during this Lent.

Thanks to the indefatigable Jim McCrea for bringing Tom Ehrich's article to my attention.

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