The USCCB's Fortnight for Freedom is just three weeks away, and whether or not you believe that the spectre of secularism is haunting America, it behooves all interested parties to ponder the Catholicist Manifesto, "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty." To that end, let me recommend the new issue of Commonweal, which features six essays on the document, two of which (including one by me) are now online, with the rest to follow shortly.
Fair warning: While the authors have a range of views on the extent of the present danger, there's not a lot of admiration for the manifesto itself. Only Michael P. Moreland of the Villanova law school is prepared to embrace it, and it's a pretty lukewarm embrace at that. The consensus view is that "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," a production of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, is long on table-pounding, short on argument, and philosophically incoherent.
The incoherence arises from an unresolved tension in the bishops' understanding of religious liberty. Notre Dame's Cathleen Kaveny thus writes of their "deep ambivalence about whether they prefer the protection afforded a religious minority in the United States or whether they want to be an influential force in the moral mainstream. The first option will likely require them to accept some marginalization, while the second exposes them to uncomfortable pushback from opposing forces. Their statement suggests they want to have it both ways."
Along the same lines, the eminent First Amendment scholar Douglas Laycock, who successfully argued the Supreme Court's ministerial exception case last fall on behalf of the conservative Becket Fund, criticizes the bishops for pretending that the only way for them to obtain an exemption from the contraception mandate is to repeal the health care reform law itself.
The difference between exemption and repeal is the difference between seeking religious liberty for Catholic institutions and seeking to impose Catholic moral teaching on the nation...The bishops claim liberty for themselves, and for the large institutions they control, while also fighting to restrict the liberty of others with respect to abortion, emergency contraception, and same-sex relationships.
In recent years, it has become common in certain circles to criticize John F. Kennedy's remark to the Houston ministers that he believed in an America "where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials"--as if this was equivalent to opposing the right of religiously motivated actors to try to influence public policy. But attempting to persuade society at large of, say, the importance of racial equality is not the same as asserting an institutional religious right to limit others' liberties. And that's exactly what "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty" asserts.