Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Why Conscience is Important": USCCB, SCOTUS & "Birmingham Jail"

As I sat in a beautiful church during the quiet minutes before the 9:00 am Feast of Corpus Christi mass this past Sunday, I read the document called "Why Conscience is Important" which the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) disseminated, via weekly bulletin inserts, to most parishes in the United States this weekend. I was delighted and amusedly shocked.
"Delighted" because the USCCB made liberal (if bizarro) use of one my favorite essays, Dr. Martin Luther King's Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which he wrote in the margins of a newspaper as King sat in a jail cell after having been arrested for civil disobedience.
"Amusedly shocked" because the bishops failed to notice that its "Birmingham Jail"-buttressed argument had presented its flock with a perfect argument in favor of Roman Catholic dissidence.
In his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. boldly said, "The goal of America is freedom." As a Christian pastor, he argued that to call America to the full measure of that freedom was the specific contribution Christians are obliged to make. He rooted his legal and constitutional arguments about justice in the long Christian tradition: "I would agree with Saint Augustine that 'An unjust law is no law at all.'... A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."
Two gay men wearing "Pride" pins helped to distribute the Eucharist at the 9:00 a.m. Corpus Christi mass I attended. I know these men to be Roman Catholics of strong faith and deep belief. Both men live in committed partnerships with the men they love. One is a father who is raising his daughter in the Roman Catholic Church.
It is because these men know intuitively that "an unjust law is no law at all" that they are able to continue as active Roman Catholics in a church whose highest leaders support systematic prejudice that targets them. They understand that the doctrine which targets them is "man-made" law which fails to "square," as Thomas Aquinas said, with "moral law of the law of God."
Donna Rougeux was ordained this week in Lexington Kentucky in time to celebrate a mass on the Feast of Corpus Christi. She, too, knows that "an unjust law is no law at all." The two gay ministers of Holy Communion and the woman priest not only understand the essence of King's argument (by way of Aquinas) that "an unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law" - they live it.
And for them "conscience," of which so much is made in the bishops' insert, comes before man-made codes which fail to exist in "harmony with the moral law. They know Jesus never barred women from the priesthood; men who came later did. They know that Jesus never condemned same-sex marriage; men who came later did. They know their God as Love, and that this is what Jesus taught. Because they know that prejudice is an affront to God, the aforementioned gay Roman Catholic men and woman Roman Catholic priest allow their informed consciences to guide them as they violate the Roman Catholic hierarchy's unjust, man-made codes. They know what the tenets of their faith are and where "primacy of conscience" fits into (it comes first - hence the word "primacy.") Roman Catholic faith and worship.
They reject the de facto Roman Catholic Jim Crow the hierarchy promulgates on the grounds that it is unjust and an affront to a loving God.
The bishops' use of "Birmingham Jail," comes off as silly and duplicitous. As I read the bishops' sloppy attempt to piggy back on the authenticity of offered by an essay I (having taught it eight or ten times) know well, I kept asking myself, "Did these guys even READ the "Birmingham Jail?"
The USCCB's use of King's text backfires entirely, as does much the bishops' clumsy attempts to graft political freedom ideology on to the Vatican's "freedom of religion" campaign. 
The church does not ask for special treatment, simply the rights of religious freedom for all citizens.
This is the opposite of true.
When courts make allowances for any religious group it always constitutes "special treatment."
What the bishops really mean is that they are only asking for the religious freedom all religious people deserve.
This statement is erroneous in another way, too; the bishops' use of "the church" is a misnomer, for it is the bishops, not "the church," who are asking for changes in the Health and Human Services mandate. And 80% of the church not only supports the use of artificial contraceptives -- they also use or have used it. So, the sentence should read: "The bishops and a minority margin of orthodox Roman Catholics are asking for special treatment."
The bishops and their orthodox supporters have every right to ask. Religious freedom is protected by the Constitution. The inmate who receives Kosher meals, the girl who wears a veil in a "no hats" public school classroom for religious reasons -- they receive special treatment under the law because the Constitution protects religious freedom.
But the constitution does not offer all persons of faith unlimited freedom.
In the United States, it falls to the courts to draw the line on what has, throughout U.S. history, always been the slippery slope of religious freedom.
The justices charged with deciding whether it is constitutionally proper to make special exceptions for Roman Catholic Church-run agencies at the bishops' behest, will take into account, when they issue a ruling this month, how deeply held the beliefs in question are. While the there can be no doubt on the part of the court that the USCCB holds (deeply) the belief that the use contraception is a grave sin, the court can't ignore that the Roman Catholic Church as a whole does not share this belief.

Most Catholics and many Catholic bishops either have no objection to the mandate or believe that providing the poor, uninsured, and hard-to-insure with adequate health care, being Christ's work on earth, is a greater good than enforcing doctrine on contraception. If 98% of Catholics were in compliance with Rome on the matter of contraception -- the work cut out for the courts would be entirely different.
But as things stand now, only a small margin of Roman Catholics are approaching the bench, and the courts may have to choose between ruling in favor of the Roman Catholic orthodox fringe - or the larger Roman Catholic Church.
Things will go one way or the other, but if the Supreme Court does uphold the rights of the Roman Catholic orthodox fringe, they could set precedent that groups like the USCCB would not much favor, down the line. When it comes to religious freedom, this much is certain; nobody -- especially the U.S. bishops -- wants to see unlimited religious freedom granted to all religious groups living in the United States. Yet it is conceivable that, in time, catering to the Roman Catholic orthodox fringe might pave the way for Orthodox Mormons to marry plurally, and for Christian faith healers to refuse medical interventions for their cancer-stricken children. We have seen the lengths to which the bishops have gone to pass DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and can well imagine their outrage at the were plural marriage to be written into the law of the land. A ruling in favor of the Roman Catholic orthodox fringe could pave the way for greater freedom for other extremist religious groups, and most Americans, atheists and believers alike, fear that.
Many of those who staff such agencies as Catholic Charities are not Catholic. Many are Catholics who believe -- as part of their Catholic, Christian faith -- that comprehensive national health care for the poor is a moral imperative. How does their religious freedom figure in? 
Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer,
deprived of the essential contribution in education, health
care, feeding the hungry, civil rights, and social services
that religious Americans make every day.
Some Catholics believe that giving birth to more children than one can properly nurture, nourish and educate is sinful. Do their consciences, and their religious freedom not figure in?
The HHS plan does not force any Catholic to have an abortion or to take birth control pills; however, if it prevails, the USCCB would force the 80% of Roman Catholics and members of other faiths (and no religious faith) to act in accordance with the Vatican's views on contraception (and not their own). Does their religious freedom not count?
We all pay for services that violate our religious freedom. Roman Catholics who hold the "deeply" the belief that capital punishment and nuclear proliferation are grave sins have long paid for capital punishment and nuclear weapons. The tax dollars of atheists have long contributed, indirectly, to tax-exempt churches. The tax dollars of women have long supported tax-exempt churches that discriminate against girls and women. The tax dollars of LGBT people have long supported churches that spend fortunes to fight to oppose legal same-sex (civil!) marriage. 
What we ask is nothing more than the right to follow our
consciences as we live out our teaching. This right is not
only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray
the Rosary at home. It is about whether we can make our
contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can
we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without
having to compromise that very same faith?

Not exactly.
The mandate doesn't force bishops to abandon their consciences. The bishops are free to close down their operations and walk off in the direction their consciences dictate. This would be difficult, but it is an alternative.
The bishops are indeed asking for more "than the right to follow" their "consciences." They are asking the secular state to be bound by an orthodox Roman Catholic stance on birth control.
In Comment on the Documents of Vatican II published in 1969, Joesph Ratzinger,commenting on the 1965 Pastoral Constitution Gaudiem et spes, wrote the following:
Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority...
What about the consciences and religious freedom of Catholics who have observed through their work with the poor that women who have access to sound medical care (which would include contraception) are less likely to have abortions? What about the consciences and religious freedom of Catholics who have observed that family planning often protects children from poverty and abuse? What about the religious freedom of Catholics who work with the poor and routinely see children without health insurance forced to manage without the medications they need? What about the religious freedom of those Roman Catholics?

When the Supreme Court justices consider the position of the Catholic bishops in the context of ObamaCare, they will do so knowing that only a small segment of the church opposes the use and distribution of contraception.

Meanwhile, the other 80% are unlikely to answer the bishops' Corpus Christi Day call to action, because spruced up though it may be by Martin Luther King's Jr.'s inspired and eloquent syllables, the 80% aren't buying it.
The 80% know that while the missive sounds good, its authors don't practice what they preach: 
"I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
Isn't it silly for those who traffic in it to shout "discrimination"? How can the bishops insist that conscience have primacy outside the church when within the church, in counts (with them) for nearly nothing? As long as the Roman Catholic hierarchy promulgates laws that degrade human personality on a regular basis, pitches like "Why Conscience is Important" will continue to come off as duplicitous fronting. Meanwhile Catholics of conscience will go on heeding the Holy Spirit within, paying the USCCB no mind, because they 
... know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

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Text of "Why Conscience is Important":

Pope Benedict XVI spoke earlier this year about his worry that religious liberty in the United States is being weakened. He called religious liberty the “most cherished of American freedoms.” However, unfortunately, our most cherished freedom is under threat. Consider the following:  HHS mandateforcontraception, sterilization,and abortion-
inducing drugs. The mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services forces religious institutions to facilitate and fund a product contrary to their own moral teaching. Further, the federal government tries to define which religious institutions are “religious enough” to merit protection of their religious liberty.

 Catholicfostercareandadoptionservices.Boston,San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and the State of Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services— by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both—because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit.

    State immigration laws. Several states have recently passed laws that forbid what they deem as “harboring” of undocumented immigrants—and what the Church deems Christian charity and pastoral care to these immigrants.

    Discrimination against small church congregations. New York City adopted a policy that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services, even though non- religious groups could rent the same schools for many other uses.
Summer 2012

    Discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services. After years of excellent performance by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) in administering contract services for victims of human trafficking, the federal government changed its contractspecificationstorequireMRStoprovideor refer for contraceptive and abortion services in violation of Catholic teaching.

    Christian students on campus. In its over-100-year history, the University of California Hastings College of Law has denied student organization status to only one group, the Christian Legal Society, because it required its leaderstobeChristianandtoabstainfromsexual activity outside of marriage.

    Forcing religious groups to host same-sex “marriage” or civil union ceremonies. A New Jersey judge recently found that a Methodist ministry violated state law when the ministry declined to allow two women to hold a “civil union” ceremony on its private property. Further, a civil rights complaint has been filed against the Catholic Church in Hawaii by a person requesting to use a chapel to hold a same-sex “marriage” ceremony.

Is our most cherished freedom truly under threat? Yes, Pope Benedict XVI has recognized that various attempts to limit the freedom of religion in the U.S. are a serious concern. This threat to religious freedom is larger than any single case or issue and has its roots in secularism in our culture. The Holy Father has asked for the laity to have courage to counter secularism that would “delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.”

What can you do to ensure the protection of religious freedom?
The U.S. Bishops have called for a Fortnight for Freedom from June 21 to July 4. Please visit for more information on this important time of prayer, education, and action in support of religious liberty!

The document:

1 comment:

  1. Hi Michelle,

    You might enjoy reading this:

    A thorough debunking of the longer document the USCCB released to push their Fortnight.