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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sarah Posner and the Bishops

While I have been critical of the bishops’ statement on religious freedom because  its narrow examples invite accusations of partisanship by the bishops. Of course, the same concern about narrowness and partisanship applies to critics of the bishops. As Michael Sean Winters is right to point out, Sarah Posner is guilty of both in her critique of the bishops. In this lengthy excerpt, Winters not only challenges Posner, he makes important clarifications about what the bishops have and have not said.

Here is the opening paragraph from Ms. Posner’s post at Religion Dispatches about the USCCB’s document on religious liberty last week:
As promised at their March administrative meeting, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has released its Statement of Religious Liberty, "our first, most cherished liberty." As expected, it's basically a rehash of the same arguments the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty has been making for almost a year. This document, though, is even more pointed and hostile than previous statements, expressing disdain for (and even a refusal to acknowledge) court rulings against the Bishops, vowing not to obey "unjust laws," and pledging to deploy "all the energies the Catholic community can muster" to resist "totalitarian incursions against religious liberty" this summer.

Of course, throwing around the word “totalitarian” is always sure to catch the reader’s attention. But, the bishops did not say that they were pledging the energies of the Catholic community to resist totalitarian incursions against religious liberty, although presumably they would and so would Ms. Posner. They did not suggest that the current political landscape of the nation was totalitarian. What they said this: “In addition to this summer’s observance, we also 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.” By neglecting the context, and playing around with selective quotations, Ms. Posner makes it seem that the bishops are calling Obama a totalitarian and planning to do something about it this summer. This is a suggestion not born of journalistic attentiveness but partisan hubris.

Posner’s tendentiousness leads her into some curious intellectual territory. She accuses the bishops of “court-snubbing,” and that “the decisions of the courts are not respected by the Bishops, but rather dismissed out of hand as further evidence of discrimination against them.” This is curious. It should come as no surprise that many Americans have questioned judicial decisions in the past. Why should court decisions be viewed as sacrosanct? I wonder if we might have Ms. Posner’s thought on, say, Bush v. Gore or Citizens United? The long history of the nation includes many instances when a prior court decision was subsequently over-ruled by the courts: Should Thurgood Marshall have simply “respected” Plessy v. Ferguson or should he have dismissed it out of hand as further evidence of discrimination?
Even when Ms. Posner finds herself in agreement with the USCCB, she is so uncomfortable with that fact she dissembles and exposes her journalistic sloth. She writes:
Among the "concrete examples" of infringement of religious liberty there's a new twist, added, no doubt, to rebut charges the Bishops are fixated exclusively on matters of sex. The Bishops object to harsh immigration laws, such as those in Alabama, which bar "harboring" undocumented immigrants, "what the Church deems Christian charity and pastoral care to those immigrants." As noble as an objection to these odious laws may be, I find it difficult to see an infringement of religious liberty of the shelterers of undocumented immigrants as their most noxious feature.
First of all, no one said the religious liberty implications of these laws was their most noxious feature. But, had Posner taken the time to do a bit of research – and she could have done it all online – she might have discovered that the USCCB showed how its religious liberty concerns are related to the spate of anti-immigrant laws in its amicus brief against the Arizona anti-immigrant law in ways that are entirely analogous to the USCCB’s opposition to the HHS mandates.

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