To say that "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty" is tendentious does not do justice to the latest missive from the USCCB. There's just so much to savor. In the third graph, for instance, it offers the following example of how "Catholics in America have discharged this duty of guarding freedom admirably for many generations."
In 1887, when the archbishop of Baltimore, James Gibbons, was made the second American cardinal, he defended the American heritage of religious liberty during his visit to Rome to receive the red hat. Speaking of the great progress the Catholic Church had made in the United States, he attributed it to the “civil liberty we enjoy in our enlightened republic.” Indeed, he made a bolder claim, namely that “in the genial atmosphere of liberty [the Church] blossoms like a rose.”
What "Our First" fails to note is that Rome's response was to anathematize Gibbons' embrace of his country's approach to religious liberty as the heresy of "Americanism." Two generations would pass before American hierarchs, in the wake of Vatican II, were again to find their tongues on the subject.
To be sure, the USCCB does acknowledge that the Church's religious liberty record leaves something to be desired. As they elegantly put it, "As Catholics, we know that our history has shadows too in terms of religious liberty, when we did not extend to others the proper respect for this first freedom." That would include, I guess, those pesky autos-da-fé, wherein the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions barbecued those they judged heretics and apostates. Somewhere, Spinoza's head is exploding.
But OK, the American bishops now have the backing of Rome to stand up for religious liberty, and so they proceed to cite seven "concrete examples" of how it is currently "under threat." Some are local trivialities, like the outlandish 2009 Connecticut bill to reorganize Catholic governance on congregational lines, which was going nowhere and went nowhere. Most of the others involve legal issues of church and state where the bishops have no leg to stand on. Thus, they consider it a violation of their religious liberty to be denied public money to carry out their good works the way they want to, such as being free to deny same-sex couples access to their adoption services. No one, however, has a constitutional right to a government contract.
The best constitutional claim the bishops--and other religious leaders--have would appear to be against the state of Alabama, where the new anti-immigration law restricts the ability of churches to offer religious services to illegal immigrants. And I hope they win. But as conservatives are again acknowledging in the wake of President Obama's criticism of the Supreme Court, the courts are the venue where threats against constitutional rights are handled in America. "What is at stake, say the bishops, "is whether America will continue to have a free, creative, and robust civil society—or whether the state alone will determine who gets to contribute to the common good, and how they get to do it." In fact, the state alone does get to set the rules for who gets to contribute to the public good, and how. If that arm of the state known as the judicial system determines that a law is an unconstitutional violation of the guarantee of Free Exercise or the prohibition of Establishment, then it goes away. That's how our system of "we, the people" governance works.
Which brings us to the oddest part of "Our First"--its apparent simultaneous avowal and disavowal of civil disobedience:
It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.
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.
These paragraphs evidently refer especially to the bishops' central preoccupation these days: the Obama Administration's contraception coverage mandate under the health care law. It seems that the mandate--and thereby the law itself?--is so unjust that there can be no acceptable accommodation (take that, Mr. President!), and also must not be obeyed. Exactly how a religious employer is to conscientiously disobey in this case is not clear, since in its current form there's nothing short of doing away with health insurance altogether that would enable the employer not to provide the mandated coverage. And it's not against the law to decide not to provide employees with health insurance.
But then, according to the bishops, consciencious objection can only provide relief from a just law, and therefore, evidently, is not an option. Since the mandate is unjust, and therefore "no law at all," you're supposed to seek not relief from it but its repeal. Well, sure, go ahead and try to get Congress to repeal mandatory contraception coverage. And meanwhile, engage in un-conscientious disobedience of the mandate, if you can figure out how to do it.