In a thoughtful editorial on the Great Contraception Altercation, the editors of the Jesuit magazine America contend that the Catholic bishops are erring in both practice and principle by opposing on religious liberty grounds the Obama Administration's efforts to reconcile Free Exercise rights and health coverage responsibilities.
By stretching the religious liberty strategy to cover the fine points of health care coverage, the campaign devalues the coinage of religious liberty. The fight the bishop’s conference won against the initial mandate was indeed a fight for religious liberty and for that reason won widespread support. The latest phase of the campaign, however, seems intended to bar health care funding for contraception. Catholics legitimately oppose such a policy on moral grounds. But that opposition entails a difference over policy, not an infringement of religious liberty. It does a disservice to the victims of religious persecution everywhere to inflate policy differences into a struggle over religious freedom. Such exaggerated protests likewise show disrespect for the freedom Catholics have enjoyed in the United States, which is a model for the world—and for the church.
This has occasioned some serious umbrage from the Most Reverend William E. ("Deli Bill") Lori, Bishop of Bridgeport and USCCB religious liberty honcho. In a letter to the editor notable more for sarcasm than clarity of thought, Lori takes particular exception to the editorial's suggestion that the bishops "have been most effective in influencing public policy when they have acted as pastors, trying to build consensus in church and society" by observing the "moral distinction" between "authoritative teaching on matters of principle and debatable applications of principle to public policy." Here's a taste of Lori's response:
So, the bishops should regard providing (and paying for) contraception as, well, a policy detail. After all, it’s not like the federal government is asking bishops to deny the divinity of Christ....Pardon me also for wondering whether the most basic of freedoms, religious liberty, isn’t being compromised, not by a right to health care, but by a claim to “services” which regard pregnancy and fertility as diseases....Oh, and as Detective Colombo used to say: “Just one more thing.” It’s the comment in the editorial about when we bishops are at our best. Evidently, it’s when we speak generalities softly and go along to get along."
Rather than analogizing the bishops to Jewish delicatessan owners obliged to sell pork, Lori now compares them to Moses confronting Pharoah and the Good Shepherd confronting "the rulers of his day"--uh, would that be the Jewish Temple priests? Be that as it may, when religious leaders express themselves this way in house publications, they are speaking not as prophetic heroes challenging the powers-that-be but precisely as priestly bullies threatening their flocks to get into the pen. Kind of like Rush Limbaugh when he speaks to Republicans.
Responding to Limbaugh's obscene denunciation of Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, the president of the Jesuit-run university, John J. DeGioia, said on Friday, "If we...allow coarseness, anger–even hatred–to stand for civil discourse in America, we violate the sacred trust that has been handed down through the generations." I hope the editors continue to stand for civil discourse in America, and never cease calling out those--even bishops--who allow coarseness and anger to get the better of them.