As many of you have probably heard by now, last week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a document protesting what they see as an unprecedented attack on religious liberty by the Obama administration.

I have lots of thoughts about this document but for now I just want to call attention to a significant omission.

The bishops cite the following as “concrete examples” of the fact that “our most cherished liberty,” religious freedom, is under attack:

— “The HHS mandate for contraception”

— “State immigration laws” which would  punish Catholics and other religious people for giving aid to undocumented immigrants.

— “Altering Church structure and governance”

— The denial of student organization status to a Christian group at the University of California Hastings College of Law. (Of course Christian colleges treat LGBT students at least as bad and probably worse than public universities treat Christian students– LGBT organizations are similarly denied official student organization status at many Catholic and Protestant Universities and, at many Christian colleges, one can be expelled simply for being gay.  See Bridget’s excellent post for more on this.)

— Catholic foster care and adoption services having to place children with gay parents.

— The fact that New York City refuses to let various churches rent NYC public schools on weekends to hold religious services even though it lets non-religious groups do so.

— The fact that the government wants Catholic humanitarian organizations “to provide or refer for contraceptive or abortion services.”

It is not my intent here to assess whether or not the bishops are right that each of the preceding constitute grave violations of religious liberty.  I wish only to point out that in light of the preceding the bishops’ lack of concern for the religious freedom of Catholic soldiers seems strange.

In this document, the bishops articulate a rather expansive notion of religious liberty (which I am not necessarily objecting to).   For the bishops, religious liberty is more than the right to do whatever one wants within the walls of one’s church, synagogue, or mosque.  It also includes the right to be able to live in accordance with the moral teachings of one’s faith without penalty (i.e., to be able to harbor undocumented immigrants without going to jail).

Interestingly, the bishops also seem to think that the government should actively support and facilitate the Catholic church’s ability to live in accordance with its moral teachings.  In other words, the government should not simply let religious people be religious, they should help them be religious.  In the case of  Catholic humanitarian services, for example, the government is not saying, “provide contraceptive services or we will throw you all in jail;” it is saying, “provide contraceptive services or we will stop giving you federal funding.”

As far as I know (and if I am wrong on this, somebody please correct me), the federal government is not trying to keep Catholic humanitarian organizations from doing humanitarian work, they are simply saying, “if you are unwilling to provide contraceptive services then we are not willing to pay you do such work partially in our name.”

In light of this more expansive definition of religious freedom, the bishops’ lack of concern about the religious freedom of Catholic soldiers seems even more egregious than it did before they issued this call to arms. (To read more about why I think this way about the military and religious freedom, click here.) What about the religious freedom of Catholic soldiers who, because the U.S. military does not recognize the rights of selective conscientious objectors, can be forced to either fight in an unjust war or face punishment and/or be denied advancement?

How can this be tolerable when all these other things are not?

10 thoughts

  1. You say: for example, the government is not saying, “provide contraceptive services or we will throw you all in jail;” it is saying, “provide contraceptive services or we will stop giving you federal funding.”

    This is not true. Instead, what they are saying is (to everyone even those receiving no federal funding), “provide contraceptive services or we will fine you substantially, in some cases, out of existence.”

    1. not quite, jennifer.

      in regards to humanitarian services, my understanding is that the government is saying that it will not pay Catholic groups to perform certain services partially in their name. I don’t see how this can be considered a fine.

  2. Well stated, Katie. I’m delivering a paper at DePaul next year on Catholic identity and nationalism, and you’ve given me a good reminder here to reflect upon and generate further ideas. Thanks!

  3. I think they weasel out of this by making appeals to Just War theory and then applying a healthy dose of ¯_(ツ)_/¯. Is that somewhat accurate?

    1. I’m not really sure. Although, in theory, an individual soldier could use Catholic just war theory to judge a certain war or military action unjust. My understanding is he could not refuse to serve without serious penalties.

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