Saturday, October 1, 2011

Reflections on U.S. Catholic Bishops' New Office to Protect Religious Liberty: Shady Political Context

I've just appended a comment at the end of my posting yesterday about the recent letter of Timothy Dolan, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to his brother bishops re: (inter alia) concerns that the bishops not be regarded as bigots due to their campaign to block gay citizens from the right of civil marriage afforded as a civil right to all other citizens of the U.S.  As my posting notes, bigotry is bigotry is bigotry.  And it's no less bigotry when we try to wrap it up in high-flown religious rhetoric.

The note I append to yesterday's posting states that, in my view, the U.S. bishops are rolling out their stepped-up attack on the Obama administration at precisely this point in time as their contribution to the Republican cause at the start of the 2012 election cycle.  Mr. Dolan's letter to his brother bishops speaks of the current administration's "assault" on "our people," as if the Catholic people of the U.S. are being persecuted by a godless administration coercing them to believe and do what contradicts their consciences.

Two of the points the letter makes to substantiate its claim that "our people" are under "assault": 1) the new guidelines proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services that would mandate coverage of contraception and sterilization in private health insurance plans; and 2) (as I noted yesterday), the administration's decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, on the ground that it unconstitutionally bars gay citizens from a right afforded to other citizens, with no basis for the barring other than prejudice.

And here's what's baffling about Mr. Dolan's claim that "our people" are under "assault" with these initiatives: for years now, one study after another has demonstrated that the vast majority of American Catholics approve of and, in their own marriages, use contraceptives.  And polls also indicate a very solid and growing majority of American Catholics supporting the right of same-sex couples to civil marriage.

The "our people" who are, according to the bishops, under "assault" now by the Obama administration not only do not object to contraception and marriage equality, but actively accept and approve both.  And, instead of entering into dialogue with "our people" about what Catholics actually believe in the area of human sexuality--rather than what the magisterium tells us to believe--the bishops are now using their energies and resources, rather, to set up an office to "protect" the religious freedom of Catholics under assault, which will have two full-time staffers, a lawyer, and a lobbyist to try to influence governmental bodies to adhere to Catholic teaching in these neuralgic areas.

Think about this step for a moment: have the bishops set up a similar office to protect children being abused by clerics?  Or to deal with the pastoral needs of adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse?  Has a special office been established by the U.S. Catholic bishops, with several full-time staffers, a lawyer, and a lobbyist, to assure that the bishops' mandates about reporting cases of sexual abuse immediately are being followed scrupulously?  And that children are being kept out of harm's way as priests known to be dangers to children are removed from all contact with children as soon as the danger they pose to them has become evident?

I don't see anywhere near the concern, frankly, on the part of the bishops to protect children that I see to protect a bogus "right" of the bishops to impose their religious views on the body politic--and on their fellow Catholics--in the name of a religious liberty now said to be under assault.  And I can only conclude, sadly, that the bishops' concern to play partisan politics vastly transcends their concern to be good pastors of their flocks. 

Joshua Holland gets it absolutely right at Alternet today when he points out that what religious-right activists like Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage (or the U.S. bishops, for that matter, though he doesn't discuss them) really want is this: they want to claim a special "right" to express their faith-based bigotry, and to discriminate against a minority group, without being known as the bigots they are.  And so they now wish to maintain that, as a pluralistic secular democracy rejects the special "right" of some people of faith to foment prejudice and to discriminate against a minority group simply because these folks maintain that religion tells them to discriminate, they--and faith itself--are under assault. 

Holland writes,

It's important to step back for a moment for a reality check, to remember that we are talking about people opposing core civil rights for American citizens. Prior to the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling in Lawrence v Texas, “sodomy” was a crime in some states, and the sole justification for denying the LGBT community the equal protection under the law that's guaranteed by the 14th Amendment – the only basis – was that those who violate the law can't then turn around and seek its protection. In the aftermath of Lawrence, the issue boils down to whether the state should be allowed to treat different groups of citizens differently – a notion that is anathema to our system of government. Either the law treats all citizens the same, regardless of race, sex, creed, how they identify themselves or whom they happen to love, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then none of our rights are secure.

But that truth doesn't prevent the narrative that competing rights are at stake, even in the supposedly 'liberal' media. This week, the New York Times framed a story about Rose Marie Belforti, a small-town clerk who refuses to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples, in exactly that way . . . . 

Holland knows what he's talking about, as an African-American journalist who has studied carefully the previous attempt of the American religious and political right to block the civil rights of people of color, while appealing to faith-based warrants to justify their discrimination.  As he notes, it was precisely when the right lost the battle to withhold civil rights from African Americans that it began to develop these scripts of bogus persecution of people of faith by godless secularists.

The very script Timothy Dolan now wants to resurrect and employ on behalf of the entire Catholic church in the U.S., as he claims that "our people" are under "assault" by the Obama administration . . . . The bishops have, for some years now, placed themselves in bed with some pretty disreputable folks, as they have built their alliance with the American political and religious right.

The new office to protect religious liberty doesn't do anything at all to mend the damage they've done to their reputations as pastoral leaders through that alliance, of through their tragic mishandling of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic religious authority figures.

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