The U.S. bishops’ campaign on religious liberty ends today. As has been the case since they launched it five years ago, criticism of the “Fortnight for Freedom” is strong this time around.
In an essay for the National Catholic Reporter, John Gehring of Faith in Public Life wrote that our current historical moment is one in which Americans should be uniting around religious liberty as a common value. But, he added, the bishops’ partisanship around the issue does not help that cause. Gehring recalled the Fortnight’s origin as a defiant act by the bishops to challenge how the Affordable Care Act was changing contraception access:
“While reasonable people — including religious liberty attorneys — disagree over whether exemptions provided to religious institutions are expansive enough, bishops framed the fight with breathless historical allusions. . .Evoking these Christian martyrs [St. Thomas More and St. John Fischer], the bishops argued that religious liberty was ‘under attack’ and warned Catholics to be ‘on guard.’ The diocese of Brooklyn, New York featured a front-page image of the Blessed Mother wrapped in the American flag.”
“This siege mentality breeds a hunkered-down posture that does not reflect the liberating spirit of the gospel. It also does not reflect reality. Christians in the Middle East and other volatile areas are confronted with violent persecution. In contrast, the myriad legal and policy debates that arise in the United States over religious liberty questions concern the balancing of social goods in a pluralistic society. These challenges are significant and often complex, but they do not constitute an existential or apocalyptic threat to fundamental freedoms.”
Though initially about contraception, the Fortnight has subsequently targeted LGBT equality as the bishops seek to use religious exemptions as ways of undercutting discrimination protections or access to civil marriage. Showing no “respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” the bishops launched the Fortnight last year just a week after 49 people were massacred at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando.
Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice pointed out in The Baltimore Sun
that, unfortunately, the bishops’ campaigning is finding success under the Trump administration “despite very little support or attention from everyday Catholics.” O’Brien concluded:
“The so-called ‘religious liberty’ agenda is being pushed by minority special interest groups, like the USCCB, that have the ear of the president at the expense of a majority who might find their lives disrupted. The bishops do not represent the majority of Catholics who believe in social justice and freedom for all. Their license to discriminate will hurt real people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. We must stand up and say this is wrong.”
More positively, while the bishops’ partisan agenda on contraception and LGBT rights has advanced marginally, the Fortnight for Freedom has done nothing for the faithful at large. A majority of Catholics reject legal discrimination against LGBT people, and this support has grown rapidly in the same years the bishops poured resources into stopping equality.
The bishops’ fifth Fortnight for Freedom should be their last. As I’ve noted previously, religious liberty is actually a progressive and highly Catholic idea that is not, as the bishops imply, a zero-sum exercise. Many commentators over these past years have pointed out both the genuine threats to religious liberty some face in our world today and the opportunities to resist those threats that U.S. bishops’ campaign misses entirely.”
In their June assembly, the bishops voted to make what had been an ad hoc committee on religious liberty into a permanent one. Notably, and positively, a number of bishops opposed the move.
On this July 4th, John Gehring offers a challenging invitation for the bishops and for all Catholics:
“Some Christians today seek to deny gay, lesbian and transgender people basic rights in the name of religion. Discrimination under the guise of faith does a disservice to upholding authentic religious freedom. At the same time, some on the left who would reduce religious liberty to the sphere of private worship and limit the role of faith in the public square are also mistaken. Individual believers and religious institutions have served the common good and animated social justice movements since the founding of our nation. Liberal intolerance and animus toward the rights and responsibilities of faithful citizens and religious institutions are also an affront to democratic virtues and values.
“[I]t’s time to rescue religious liberty from the culture wars, reject false choices and put renewed energy into protecting Muslims who are living under a cloud of suspicion. In the end, this effort shouldn’t be about serving liberal or conservative agendas, but defending core American values.”
As bishops and other Catholic faithful participate in a national, invitation-only Convocation of Catholic Leaders this week, may the Holy Spirit move them to understand the pressing need for the U.S. church to defend religious liberty where it is truly threatened and to lay aside the hyper-partisan, harmful actions of the last five years.