Saturday, January 28, 2012

Human Rights and Catholic Conscience: Discerning History's Moral Arc

It's illuminating for me to read Jay Michaelson at Religion Dispatches today on the international struggle for LGBT human rights side by side with Christopher Brauchli at Common Dreams on how the U.S. Catholic bishops (and their defenders) persistently subordinate human rights to doctrinal purity when it comes to enforcing official Catholic sexual teaching.

Michaelson writes, 

. . . LGBT equality is a (I won’t say the) defining civil rights issue of our time. This is not because LGBT people are at more risk than, say, undocumented immigrants, or that our struggle for equality is more compelling than that of the Arab Spring. Rather, LGBT issues are a way in which we in America and around the world are defining ourselves and living out (or not) our deepest values. Are those values ones of hidebound traditionalism, regardless of the consequences to human beings? Or are they compassion and honesty, even if our integrity and lovingkindness demands a fresh reengagement with opinions of which we once were certain? For better or for worse, this is the litmus test of how human we dare to be.

And Brauchli writes,

He [i.e., Archbishop Timothy Dolan] said: "To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable. It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom. Historically this represents a challenge and a compromise of our religious liberty. We’re unable to live with this." There is, of course, no reason to think that church employees will be foregoing access to health care if the rule is enforced unless the soon to be Archbishop* is suggesting that the Church would be prepared to drop all employer health insurance plans rather than comply with the requirement. Non-church members would find that a shocking way of expressing the church’s disapproval of the rule. Given the precedent set by Catholic Charities, however, that would not be beyond the realm of possibility. After all, when Church doctrine bumps into human’s rights, doctrine must prevail.

Human rights on one side.  Doctrinal purity and its enforcement on the other.

This is why, in the final analysis, I find the conversations of Catholic intellectual centrists who continue to think (or pretend?) that the U.S. bishops have a moral leg to stand on so stultifying.  The central issue in these significant global moral debates about women's rights and gay rights is pretty clear: it's a question of human rights.  And whether human rights will prevail, or whether the "conscience" of believers opposed to human rights will prevail.

The Catholic church should be unambiguously on the side of human rights.  Period.

It's not to the credit of Commonweal that some of its top spokespersons first took a position opposing marriage equality in New York, and then down the road defending the USCCB in its battle with the Obama administration over "conscience exemptions" about contraception.  In both respects, the intellectual leaders of the Catholic church are taking wrong-headed--and pretty embarrassing--stands against significant breakthroughs for human rights at this point in history.  

These stands will one day come back to haunt defenders of the faith, the intellectual class of the Catholic church, in precisely the same way we are now haunted by the recognition that many defenders of the faith in the church's intellectual class once wrote justifications for burning witches, for slavery, and for the takeover of many European nations by fascism in the early 20th century.

Intellectuals and the elites they defend are sometimes flatly wrong.  If we who think and write for a living paid attention to history, we'd certainly realize that.  But when we're absolutely sure that our tribe and its perspective are right, and when we discount the testimony of real human beings about their real human lives, history doesn't have much to say to us, because it's about those real human beings and their real human lives, after all.

While we're primarily concerned to be on the right side here and now.

* I think "soon to be Cardinal" is correct here.

The graphic is Stacy Youdin's rendition of Dr. King's statement about the moral arc of the universe at Open Salon.

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