The bishops seek justice, not accommodation

From an essay by George Weigel, “Framing the Religious-Liberty Issue”, posted today on NRO:

The Ad Hoc Committee’s statement also underscores that what the bishops are seeking to clarify for all Americans is a fundamental issue of social justice, and what they are determined to remedy is a fundamental injustice. The HHS “contraceptive mandate,” the bishops argue, is not a matter on which the Church seeks an accommodation for its own distinct (and, by implication, bizarre) views. Like the state immigration laws that forbid Catholic priests from offering the sacraments to illegal immigrants, the HHS mandate is an unjust law. And as the bishops note, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s exegesis of St. Augustine in King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, “An unjust law is no law at all.”  …

Thus the bishops reject the anorexic notion of religious freedom once described by Harvard’s Laurence Tribe as a matter of marginal carve-outs that a benign government makes while enforcing the naked public square, shorn of religiously informed moral arguments and convictions. The bishops are not interested in being accommodated; they are interested in justice. So it is “essential to understand the distinction between conscientious objection and an unjust law. Conscientious objection permits some relief to those who object to a just law for reasons of conscience — conscription being the most well-known example. An unjust law is ‘no law at all’. It cannot be obeyed, and therefore one does not seek relief from it, but rather its repeal.” The bishops also urge Catholics to stop thinking in Tribal categories, as if we were children asking our nannies for a treat. We are not asking for favors; we are demanding that our rights be acknowledged and protected. 

Weigel later refers to the “administration’s commitments to the legal imposition of the sexual revolution”, which is a perfect summation of what is going on. At the root of things, this is about radically opposed views of sexuality and morality, what is means to be human, the place and purpose of the State within society, and the place and purpose of religion within society. To get a sense of what the bishops and good Catholics (as well as those non-Catholics in agreement with them) are up against, at least in terms of rhetoric and “argument”, read “My Take: Catholics bishops against the common good“, written by the oh-so-open-minded Stephen Prothero, who teaches at Boston University:

But what freedoms are these clerics being denied? The freedom to say Mass?  To pray the Rosary?  No and no. The U.S. government is not forcing celibate priests to have sex, or to condone condoms. The freedom these clerics are being denied is the freedom to ignore the laws of the land in which they live.

Prothero dismisses the bishops’ description of “unjust law” as being merely “religious” in character. Apparently, for him, the only power that matters is that of the State; Catholics should be happy to quietly have their religious services, pay their taxes, and otherwise just shut up. And if you have any doubts about how dismissive Prothero is of the Church and the bishops, consider this:

Once the Obama administration presented this compromise, I thought Catholic clerics would withdraw their objections. I was wrong. Instead they acted like political hacks rather than spiritual authorities, doubling down on the invective and serving up to the American public an even deeper draught of petty partisanship.

It continually comes back to a point I’ve made many times: as the State relentlessly insists that more and more issues are purely “political” in nature, it becomes more and more common for secularists and others accepting secularist premises to criticize the Church for being involved in politics. The Church, they say (either patronizingly or with open disdain), can have some private services and utter some nice platitudes, but it has no place in the public square. “Stay out!” Any action, then, by the Church in the public square is always viewed as an assault on some “right” or “freedom” that is sacred to the secularist—usually, but not always, having to do with sexuality. The bishops have drawn a very important line in the sand. Time will tell if it erodes, deepens, or becomes a line of demarcation.

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.