Suppose you called a crusade and next to no one showed up? That happened in 1198, and it is likely to happen in 2012 as the call from the U.S. bishops to crusade for religious freedom has been confronted by indifference in Catholic America. At a time of high unemployment, when social services face severe cutbacks and the global financial system is wobbly, threats to religious liberty seem remote from public concern. Whether or not birth control pills are covered by health insurance or if gay couples can adopt foster children are not questions that echo in the body politic. In fact, polling about the religious liberty issue shows it is virtually invisible.
The bishops consider an attack on religious liberty the proposed decision by the Department of Health and Human Services to include contraception as a preventive measure to be covered by insurance plans. It is not that Catholic people would be forced to use birth control against their will or that a religious institution would have to compromise its beliefs by fostering behavior it considers sinful. The decision only affects agencies that are not strictly religious, like not-for-profit agencies that do or might receive public funding. The government reasons that if an agency is open to tax payers’ money, it is bound by the laws that protect individual rights. A similar logic says include gay couples among those eligible to adopt foster children. Likewise, in providing services to the victims of sex trafficking, the government wants the funded agency to provide education about contraception and abortion to those made pregnant by forcible rape. I find it hard to accept that requiring this information constitutes “anti-Catholic bias.”
A cynic might equate the bishops’ crusade with a Karl Rove strategy. First, adopt a high-sounding cause that none can oppose like “defense of religious liberty.” Next link that premise to a particular action of the Obama administration. Finally, demonize the president and strike fear of a “slippery slope” if Democrats continue in power. For the record, I am not a cynic. I believe that the bishops are making an honest effort to re-brand sore points of church-state relationship in order to move beyond a single issue like abortion and also include concerns of other religious groups.
But is this an attack on religion or just the government drawing a “red line” about tax dollars? Strictly religious organizations entitled to conscientious exemptions are on one side, but on the other are agencies that must observe current laws against discrimination. The problem I find with the Obama administration’s logic is that there are actually three groups: a category of the “religious affiliated” comes in-between the purely religious and the purely secular. Thus a Catholic hospital is not completely religious but neither is it completely secular.
President Obama has met with USCCB head, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York in an apparently productive meeting to discuss a solution to this latest twist on church-state relations. I believe that with some open cooperation, a solution can be found by tweaking administrative policies. For instance, since Jewish and Protestant prospective adopting parents are often referred from Catholic agencies to other organizations of those faiths, it would not be such a stretch to do the same for prospective gay adopters. Religious freedom is about individual choices, not using tax dollars to enforce particular church doctrines. Just as Jehovah Witnesses pay taxes that are used to run government-funded blood-banks and still freely practice their faith, or Catholic agencies treat divorced-and-remarried couples with dignity, the church-state relationship accommodates very many grey areas and still finds a common good.
But by choosing abstract principles over a more pragmatic case-by-case approach, I fear that the bishops have chosen a shaky premise upon which to do battle. Their cause may be noble, but their approach is suspect. Most people think the church’s role is to persuade Catholics to take personal responsibility for their actions when choosing services. The burden is upon individuals; don’t ask the government to legislate for one religion’s teaching over others. Besides the Obama administration has funded Catholic agencies more generously than did the Bush administration. Why not negotiate rather than unfurl battle flags of a crusade?