As a member of the great herd of Recovering Catholics, I have been fascinated by the recent outrage expressed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops regarding “religious freedom.”
That phrase has become a rallying cry as they press a lawsuit against the Obama administration, insisting that they not be obliged to offer women’s reproductive health services as part of the insurance package provided to employees of Catholic institutions — even though those institutions are not required to pay for them. These health services, of course, include abortion services as well as birth control methods that might well reduce the number of abortions.
Listening to the bishops’ fulminations, it’s hard to avoid a few rich ironies implicit in their current position, unbending and absolute as it is.
Most obvious is the fact that at no time in history has the Church itself ever provided “religious freedom” to anyone. It was never in the playbook. Even the most casual student of European history knows that over many centuries, wherever it held dominion, the Church was especially zealous in rooting out even the slightest deviations from its orthodoxy.
From the Arians to the Cathars to Galileo to indigenous peoples of the New World, the Church never hesitated to use torture and death, or the threat of it, to achieve at least outward conformity.
Powered by the winning combination of certainty and self-righteousness, the conformity requirement might still be in force today had powerful monarchs not stripped a grotesquely materialistic papacy of its temporal power, and the Enlightenment not stripped it of its intellectual power.
Had none of that history come to pass, and had Spanish settlers populated the shores of North America, it is likely we would all be speaking Spanish and living in a theocracy that, though Catholic, would have a lot in common with present-day Iran.
So it’s pretty rich to contemplate the idea that the American bishops have waxed indignant about a freedom they enjoy only because it was established by those who threw off the shackles that Catholicism worked so long and hard to bind humanity with. Some fine black humor. The Church’s position is a little like the instigator of a lynch mob now demanding his rights of due process.
But let’s give the Church a mulligan on this. Sure, it exercised its power in shockingly brutal ways, but it is equally true that, until the 19th century in Europe, mass killings fueled by religious intolerance were not limited to Catholics. Lutherans, Calvinists, Huguenots, and others got in on the action.
And today, even when the red Gucci slipper is on the other foot and the Church is without secular power to impose its will on Americans, the U.S. government could obviously never react in the old, barbaric ways. Because it’s just not American in the end, is it? It is too far outside of the Enlightenment tradition we inherited from thinkers such as Locke, Hume, and Diderot. In our world, so much more enlightened than that of rigid, grim orthodoxy, everyone deserves a hearing, a chance to make their case. And so: the Church now receives the due process it never previously granted anyone.
Another irony that makes the bishops’ religious freedom case and its attendant lawsuit more embarrassing for them to pursue is the position of their leader, Pope Francis I.
In recent months, the new pope has done more than prod the bishops to move in another direction: he’s put the sharp end of a pin in their balloon. He has done this not by assaulting the sand-bagged, entrenched position the bishops have staked out — which is ultimately his own doctrinal position as well — but by blurring the edges of the issues, pointing out what he sees as the real “heart of the Christian message” in a bid to improve the battered public image of the Church.
He is quite correct in telling the bishops that it is wrongheaded to obsess about cherry-picked issues such as birth-control and same-sex marriage, casting into outer darkness all those not in lockstep with their version of the Christian message, rather than emphasizing constructive dialogue with people of good will.
Good for him.
He is also telling them that the “idolatry of money” is an ultimately corrosive force in society.
But, if in continuing to cultivate his image as the love child of Jesus and Will Rogers, he means that every single steely-eyed, rule-crazy, dogma-drunk cleric needs a wakeup call, then he is including himself and the Church as a whole in that exhortation/indictment. And, of course, the weight of history and Church bureaucracy would be a millstone around his neck in trying to steer a new course to address real issues confronting real people.
It is more than a longshot to expect even a “liberal” pope (great oxymoron!), much less the thoroughly fossilized U.S. bishops, to awaken to the truth: that their doctrinal obsession with topics like clerical celibacy or the ordination of women is particularly absurd when contrasted with their silence in the face of cuts to U.S. government programs like free school lunches for disadvantaged children, or early childhood education — while huge subsidies and tax loopholes are left in place for the wealthiest citizens.
It’s about as un-Christian as you can get. Without simply going back to burning people at the stake, I mean.