Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Catholic Church As Bulwark Of Religious Liberty ? What Would Pius IX Say ?

Originally Published on forbes.com on March 22nd,2012
I recently wrote about what I perceive as the overblown rhetoric in the debate over the mandate that health care planscover contraception.  The bishops complained that the conscience exception for churches is so narrow that it would not have applied to Jesus and the disciples, since they were serving people of another faith, hence my title Would Obama Force Jesus to Hand Out Birth Control Pills ?  TheMarch 14 statement by the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Bishops lowered the decibel level a bit, but I don’t think it gets high marks for intellectual honesty.
The Committee indicates that the mandate is part of a broad threat to religious liberty and that a more comprehensive statement is on its way. In the meantime:
This document reflects on the history of religious liberty in our great Nation; surveys the current range of threats to this foundational principle; and states clearly the resolve of the Bishops to act strongly, in concert with our fellow citizens, in its defense.
So they are not so much the Catholic Bishops here as they are our Fellow Americans.They want to clarify that the debate is not about access to contraception which is ubiquitous and inexpensive. It is all about religious liberty.  Here is the link, if you want to read the whole thing.  My reaction concerning intellectual honesty is mainly a reaction to the last paragraph:
Most importantly of all, we call upon the Catholic faithful, and all people of faith, throughout our country to join us in prayer and penance for our leaders and for the complete protection of our First Freedom—religious liberty—which is not only protected in the laws and customs of our great nation, but rooted in the teachings of our great Tradition. Prayer is the ultimate source of our strength—for without God, we can do nothing; but with God, all things are possible.
Presumably by “our great Tradition”, they are referring to Catholicism.  It is true that there is a statement by the Vatican Council in favor of religious liberty:
This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.
When you are talking about the “great Tradition” of an organization with millenia of history, you should be able to get further back than 1965.  Let’s for the heck of it go back another century or so.  The United States at the time was engaged in a great struggle, which one leader framed as whether “government of the people, by the people and for the people” would long endure.  Where was the Church on that ?  Well of course there were Catholics on both sides, as this bunch of probably mostly Catholic, mostly famine refugees illustrates:

Pius IX, who was then Pope, was not really high on either the principle of majority rule that the men charging the wall were fighting for nor the principle of national self determination that the men behind the wall were fighting for.  When the people of Rome formed a Republic that they hoped would form the basis of a unified Italy, he left the city disguised as an ordinary priest.  The city fell to French troops after a month long siege in June of 1849.  Pius IX returned in 1850.  Margaret Fuller, America’s first newspaper foreign correspondent, reported on the drama, while tending the wounded and occasionally visiting with her new husband who was part of the Republic’s military force.  So much for democracy.

In 1864, as the United States lurched towards amending its Constitution to reverse the Dred Scott decision which had held that “We the People” meant “We the White People”, Pius IX shared his thoughts on religious liberty:
For you know well…that there are not a few, who…applying that impious and absurd principle of what is called naturalism,dare to teach, ‘that the best state of public society and civil  progress absolutely requires that human society should be so  constituted and governed, that there is no consideration of religion, as if it [religion] did not exist, or at least with no distinction made between true and false religions.
“As a result of the altogether false idea of the regime of society, they do not fear to promote that erroneous opinion.…called insanity by our Predecessor Gregory XVI,     namely, ‘that liberty of conscience and of worship is a proper  right of each man, which ought to be proclaimed by law and asserted in every rightly constituted society, and [it should be proclaimed] that the citizens have liberty of all sorts ,which should be restrained by no authority,whether ecclesiastical or civil, in virtue of which they are able to privately and publicly manifest and declare all ideas whatsoever, orally or in print.’”
There is enough contrast with the thinking of Abraham Lincoln to almost make plausible the crackpot theory that James Wilkes Booth was a hit man hired by the Jesuits at the behest of Pius IX.  The other side of the crack in the pot which seems to have more going for it illustrates the problem of being infallible.  It makes it really hard to change your mind.  There is an argument that since the Vatican II teaching on religious liberty contradicts Pius IX, that the council was invalid and Paul VI was an anti-pope.
Most of the bishops probably had an American History textbook in grammar school like the one I had.  It was a little confusing because the version of history prior to 1776 was an inversion of the one in popular culture, which is a Protestant myth. In the Catholic grammar school version, Bloody Mary wasn’t really that bloody.  The Spanish and the French were sometimes mean to the indigenous peoples of America, but not nearly as mean as the English.  Post 1776, though Americanism and Catholicism were practically in lockstep.  Two Catholics signed the Declaration of Independence.  Catholics contributed disproportionately to Medal of Honor winners. (In the Jesuit cemetery at Holy Cross, which I walked through many times on the way to dinner, all the headstones look the same except for the oversized one forFather Jospeh O’Callahan).  There wasn’t a Catholic President until 1960, but George Washington and Thomas Jefferson probably would have been Catholics if they had had a better education.  It was probably the best way to handle a difficult situation and it looks like the bishops are sticking with it.  Maybe, the great Tradition they are referring to is American Catholicism.
I asked David O’Brien,  Emeritus Professor at the College of the Holy Cross and an authority on the history of American Catholicism what he thought of the current situation:
There is of course a problem with framing exemptions. Here you have a new problem (though one states have had to deal with) created by health care reform. On the one hand the odd, legally and political precarious  but wonderfully American way we have blended church-related (and sometime faith-based) institutions to share responsibility for the delivery of services in health care, social services and higher education in sharp distinction  from elementary and secondary education.
The areas under discussion are recipients of huge taxpayer support, a phenomenon not all that clear to the public. Over the years tensions between public requirements and church interests have been handled carefully, often behind closed doors. Most of all they were kept out of the courts (and when they got there the results were almost always restrictive of religion for understandable  constitutional reasons).
 I would like to tease all this over into public education, rather than tease it out so that the church has to retire from these areas of shared responsibility (as has already happened in Massachusetts on adoption). Throwing rhetorical bombs and deliberately misleading people (my sermon two weeks ago began with the contraceptive exemption question and ended with prayers to overcome the “evil health care bill’) .Down that road lies no good for the church or for the common good.
I guess I don’t mind the bishop’s trying to frame the issue in terms of a long tradition of religious liberty, even if it requires that they be slightly disingenuous.  Intellectual integrity can be overrated.  It is certainly of limited utiltiy in tax work, which I think my blog may return to after this side trip.
You can follow me on twitter @peterreillycpa.

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