The Catholic Bishops have been embroiled in a rather intractable argument with the Obama Administration over a number of issues -- mainly contraception and gay marriage. They have waged the debate along the lines of religious liberty. It appears that one of the constituencies where they are losing the debate is within the Catholic Church. Martin Marty brings to light a critique of the bishops by Catholic writers in the magazine Commonweal. These authors are sympathetic in ways to the Catholic position, but suggest that the Bishops aren't so much engaging in a debate as asserting their position as the only relevant position. This doesn't seem to be working, but the Bishops continue insisting, and thus raising the specter that they will in the end hurt themselves and the church. Martin Marty invites us to consider the reality that in a republic such as ours we will not have everything done in a way that is satisfactory. It requires both give and take, and so the question is -- how do we navigate this world? Take a read and consider Marty's questions.
Commonweal's "Bishops and Religious Liberty"
-- Martin E. Marty
“The Bishops and Religious Liberty,” the cover topic in Commonweal this week, brings together opinion by six Catholics who know their way around and through issues of “church and state.” What prompts the issue is the action by Roman Catholic bishops in the United States to declare war against government proposals and policies which the bishops declare to be a war against liberty. While all the writers find something or other to criticize in administration concepts and actions on the “health care” front, they all are critical of the bishops and ask them to “cool it,” not to exploit the scene for political advantage, and more. Several critics also argue that the bishops are hurting, or likely to hurt, themselves, their church, and their cause, not because they are wholly wrong but because of their stridency and refusal to deal with the government when it adjusts and compromises. It’s “winner take all” for them at the moment.
Let me lift out some summary sentences by the writers and editors. “There are compelling reasons within modern states to carve out a protected space for dissenting moral voices. But in the end, the tensions between the laws of the state and the demands of faith cannot be fully resolved.” Amen. We’ve long argued that there is no way to draw lines between “religion and the civil authorities” (James Madison’s term) in ways that can satisfy all legitimate but necessarily conflicting interests. William A. Galston, Michael P. Moreland, Cathleen Kaveny, Douglas Laycock, Mark Silk, and Peter Steinfels, authors whose names will be familiar to anyone who reads “church-state” arguments, have sympathy for the bishops, but find their present arguments of no help. Thus the “bishops cannot base their teachings on opinion polls, but if they intend to argue effectively for religious liberty, they need to acknowledge the difficult ground on which they stand.”
The ground is difficult partly because the wider public and Catholic faithful are highly aware that the bishops have not convinced their own faithful of their case, certainly as it is, against birth control, less every year on same-sex marriage, though they hold their own against (most cases of) abortion. Many Catholic theologians point out, as the authors in this Commonweal insist, the bishops are not making an argument; they are not even trying to make an argument. They are merely asserting, insisting, and declaring their viewpoint when they should set out to make their case. (Some of the arguments by some of the authors in Commonweal provide some arguments bishops could use).
Since regular readers know that I do not butt in on intra-church arguments, I turn such over to Sightings readers. (You can follow the link provided below and acquire online what take up fifteen pages in Commonweal!) However, in this case—as in so many other church-state issues—the church leaders are engaging in public sector arguments and make no secret of the fact that they want directly to influence the forthcoming election, continuing legislation, and urgent court decisions. Peter Steinfels here reminds readers that Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and, come to think about it, no other thoughtful and intense religious people will be able to have all their interests satisfied, and their consciences quieted. That’s how things are in a republic, including this one, where there is not, our writers agree, a war against religion. Instead, there are legitimate conflicts which await legitimate argumentation. Commonweal supplies some of that, in an argument without end. An argument which, in a healthy republic, cannot end.
“The Bishops and Religious Liberty,” Commonweal, June 15, 2012.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found atwww.memarty.com.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.