major new statement on religious freedom. It is significant food for thought, filled with some of my favorite historical figures and quotes. What will likely receive the most attention, however, is not the echoes of Richard John Neuhaus that flow through the document but its bold call to organized and determined resistance (or perhaps that too is echoing the feisty Neuhaus?). I can’t think of a document like it in recent American history (I compare it below to Neuhaus’ “End of Democracy?” statement but that did not come from US Bishops), particularly its call to a 14 day “fortnight for freedom”, provocatively scheduled around the 4th of July and numerous dates on the liturgical calendar celebrating martyred Catholics. I anticipate fascinating debate and dialogue at my own parish and countless other places across the country before, during and after that “fortnight”. I am trying not to jump to hasty conclusions about the document. There is much to commend it as a broad statement about the importance of religious freedom for the common good, and I was very pleased to see the strong statement against the Alabama immigration law. I am also mindful of the fact that the bishops seem uniquely unified in their sense that this is a particularly dangerous time for religious freedom in the United States and around the world, a unity highlighted by the strong quote from the politically liberal Cardinal Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles. As a Christian in communion with Rome I feel a special burden to listen with care to a united voice of bishops. I am pleased that the bishops reached out in the document to bloggers/writers like me and invited us to join the conversation and participate in the discussion. I plan to do so more extensively over the coming months, and while I appreciate some of the points that Commonweal has raised in their critical response to the bishops, I am not yet ready to declare myself at odds with the document as a whole like they same to be. I am certainly nowhere near as convinced as the bishops are that the Obama administration’s attempt at a compromise is, as the bishops say, “resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices”. And I detect in some of the language a shrillness bordering on hysteria that is unbecoming of the richness of the Catholic Social Teaching (is it really necessary to urge that “the Solemnity of Christ the King—a feast born out of resistance to totalitarian incursions against religious liberty—be a day specifically employed by bishops and priests to preach about religious liberty, both here and abroad”?). But lay Catholics must be careful in how we speak in response to this document. Progressives in particular should remember that the bishops used perhaps intemperate language and simplistic metaphors in their bold resistance to nuclear weapons and economic injustice in the 70s and 80s. Is there a way for us to discern a core of concerns that we can affirm the bishops are making while trying to challenge the belligerent tone and overly provocative plans in the document? Is there a way to assure that the “fortnight of freedom” is not hijacked into a quasi-Republican rally against Obama’s supposed “war on religion”? This is where I most agree with the editors of Commonweal when they say “the tenor of the bishops’ statement runs the risk of making this into a partisan issue during a presidential election”. I can’t help but feeling like the bishops have gone down a dangerous path. I keep feeling like they have published for the issue of religious freedom the equivalent of the infamous First Things “End of Democracy?” statement on abortion and the Judicial Branch—a statement that had much food for thought, but was irresponsible in the types of actions it suggested. I also found the document misleading in the way that it implies continued unified religious support for the bishop’s resistance to the contraception policy. Reading this document one would have no idea that there are numerous religious bodies/alliances that have expressed gratitude for Obama’s flexibility and concern, including Catholic groups like the Catholic Health Association. I think there will be a justifiable backlash against this document from these religious groups and I think this will only serve to weaken the moral authority of the bishops.
There is much to commend this document, but it is a document that seems to demand obedience and action not just partial appreciation and I can not give that to it. I will respectfully participate in the discussion and I will look for ways to agree with different points, but I do not view this is a moment similar to MLK in a Birmingham jail or Thomas More before King Henry. The bishops heavy handed attempt to imply we are at a point similar to these moments raise troubling questions about the motivations and intentions of some of the documents lay and ordained authors.
Yes, Richard John Neuhaus would love this document and therein lies my appreciation and concern for this document.