Thursday, September 13, 2012

Religious Freedom in Light of Libyan Incidents: A Challenge to U.S. Catholic Bishops

I wrote several days ago about the limbo in which the criminal conviction of Bishop Robert Finn (and the refusal of Rome up to now to remove him from office) places American Catholics.  As I did so, I zeroed in on the total lack of moral credibility the U.S. Catholic bishops have managed to achieve for themselves in recent years:

Limbo: being told that our salvation is mediated to us by men whose moral credibility is patently lower than that of just about any fussy old teacher who taught us throughout our grade-school years.  Or of the maiden aunt who lovingly cooked our family's meals.  Or the man hired to sweep and clean our parish church.  Or the woman driving the bus on which we ride to work.  Or our beloved corgi Flora.

Those lines are scrolling through my head again this morning as I read Joshua Holland's latest at Alternet.  Holland describes how political and religious right-wingers are working overtime to blow up the world for political gain.

As he speaks of the crude, taunting anti-Islamic film on YouTube (made by a mysterious coalition about whom the media have been able to find out very little--kudos to Sarah Posner for her ground-breaking digging here), Holland speaks about free speech and religious freedom, about those bright and shining objects that the U.S. Catholic bishops have chosen to dangle in front of Catholics for months now, as if there are no other bright and shining objects in the world, as they attack the Obama administration:  

The film was designed to provoke a reaction, to push their right-wing religionist counterparts to acts of hatred and stupidity. On Wednesday, a lot of confused people suggested that the embassy's statement condemning this trash somehow conflicts with our First Amendment right to free speech, which might make some sense if anyone, anywhere, had suggested the filmmakers weren't within their constitutional rights in producing the film. Or if the First Amendment was a guarantee that you could say whatever you wanted and not be criticized. Of course, just because you have the right to do awful things that you know are likely to lead to bloodshed doesn't mean you should do awful things that are likely to lead to bloodshed. Make no mistake: they got what they wanted in sparking those riots. 

Of course, just because you have the right to do awful things that you know are likely to lead to bloodshed doesn't mean you should do awful things that are likely to lead to bloodshed.  There's a level of moral insight apparent in that sentence that is, I would argue, self-evident to most people with much moral acumen at all.  But this fundamental moral insight has been totally absent from the USCCB's perfervid rhetoric about religious freedom and the Obama administration.

For months now, American Catholics have been fed a steady diet of statements about how free speech and religious freedom are the Ur-good, the unquestionable norms by which all other norms are to be normed.  The foundations of our society.  Not to be questioned.

And yet the Catholic tradition of moral thinking, when it deals with socioeconomic issues, has always stressed the common good: having the right to speak and believe freely is good; but just because you have a right to speak and believe freely does not mean you have the simultaneous right to assault the common good.  The rights to free speech and religious freedom need to be weighed against the needs of the common good, in societies that aim at being civilized, humane, and moral.

In everything the bishops have said for months now about religious freedom and free speech, there has been nary a whisper of that recognition that the common good norms religious freedom and free speech.  That religious bodies can inflict terrible pain in the name of what they freely believe.  That merely believing something is no warrant for imposing that belief on all citizens of pluralistic societies--just because I happen to believe it.

That Christian societies once believed it was right and good to burn witches, torture heretics, kill Jews, and hold slaves.  That believing something, no matter how devoutly, does not necessarily make what we believe right.

As I say, there's more moral insight in the little finger of Holland's argument about free speech and religious freedom than we've heard from any of the U.S. Catholic bishops--and, notably, their leader His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan--all through this long, hot summer of religio-political warfare against the Obama administration.  And more's the pity, when it comes to the bishops' moral credibility.

In key respects and evidently without having thought carefully about where their steps were taking them, they now find themselves, with their unnuanced, politically-driven statements about religious freedom and free speech, squarely in the camp of extremists like Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones in Florida.  Those who made the appalling video that is causing the Islamic sector of the world to blow up in rage right now were, after all, only exercising their first-amendment rights and giving expression to their religious freedom--to the very values that the U.S. Catholic bishops have chosen for months now to defend as if there were no other values in the world, putting themselves implicitly on the side of religious extremists now trying to blow up the world.

Wiser and more morally astute men--ones steeped in the wise and morally astute Catholic tradition of weighing moral norms and values in situations of conflict--would have avoided walking into this moral dead end.

But the U.S. Catholic bishops . . . . 

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