What’s Wrong with the Catholic Bishops?
In my last blog, I challenged a statement by the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. I suggested that the document disguises a clear bias in favor of Republican political candidates. Nonetheless, the statement cleverly avoids transgressing IRS regulations that prohibit religious organizations from engaging in partisan politics. The rules are the result of granting tax exempt status to religious organizations. In the process, these same regulations should safeguard the free exercise of religion for everyone. That would seem to include not politically coercing congregations during worship services.
Sadly, some individual bishops, don’t seem to understand. Case in point, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria, Illinois. On April 14, 2012, he preached a homily that was an extreme affront both to the Gospel and to the Constitution.
Jenky does not seem to appreciate the Constitution or the world of debate. Does he truly see himself as so self-important that he (as well as the Bishops’ conference) is always right about everything? That only bishops have the answers to all of life’s questions? He must have failed the course on logic in the seminary, for he appears ignorant of the basic principle of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. The building blocks of compromise and consensus. But his diseased logic is minor compared to the symptom.
He castigated politicians who disagree with the Bishops’ position on health care reform. He then proceeded to compare President Obama to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. He certainly is entitled to approve or disapprove of any politician. He is even obligated to explain Catholic values (as he understands them), and how they apply to policies under consideration by various government agencies and elected officials. After all, freedom of religion does not equate with the elimination of religion. Politics and religion should not be adversaries in the lives of the citizenry.
However, Bishop Jenky is not entitled to abuse the role of preaching the Word of God by using it for partisan politics. He has no right to belittle and demean the President or any other individual politician. He betrays his own corruption by attempting to tell his congregation that they must oppose one candidate and vote for another.
Contraception is at the heart of Jenky’s tirade. Theologically, the Catholic Church is on dicey ground when it comes to this subject. Already, more than 80% of Catholics practice some form of artificial contraception in their sexual activity. Putting that aside, Jenky’s actions are not really about faith or theology.
It seems to me that he is simply drunk with the perception of his own power. His preaching makes a mockery of religion and a caricature of himself.
I do not wish the people of Peoria to suffer because of the vicious rhetoric of a misguided bishop. But perhaps the only way to rein in such hateful speech is for the IRS to investigate and ultimately strip the Diocese of its tax exempt status.
In the meantime, let’s hope that Jenky’s routine only plays in Peoria.
What’s Wrong with the Catholic Bishops?
Two recent statements, one by a Bishops’ committee, the other by an individual bishop, raise serious questions about the competence and integrity of U.S. Catholic leadership. The first deals with religious freedom and the Constitution, the second with the upcoming election.
One of the beauties of the American experiment in democracy is the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment. No freedom, however, can exist unbridled. There are limits. The question will always be whether the common good outweighs the actions of any specific religion. It is part of the price we pay for freedom, democracy and diversity. The alternative is the failed experiences of Christendom and other religiously controlled governments.
In the United States today, as in times past, there are those who would seek—contrary to the Constitution—to severely restrict religious liberty and ban all religious reference from public life. However, the April 12, 2012 statement issued by the Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty is both alarmist and disingenuous. The government is not engaged in an anti-Catholic war.
In sum, the committee’s statement is less than defensible. In part, it is dishonest. The selective quote from Pope Benedict XVI implies that the Department of Health and Human Services requires religious organizations, such as hospitals, to participate in intrinsically evil practices. Such language is extreme and misleading. Whatever the Church’s teaching on contraception, it is not an intrinsically evil act.
A careful reading of the ad hoc committee’s statement exposes a thinly veiled intrusion into partisan politics. It is, in reality, an attempt to arouse fear in Catholic citizens and direct their vote toward Republican candidates. As such, the bishops come close to violating IRS regulations. They do not quite cross the line. However, perhaps because the bishops mask their true intent, they dance so close to the edge as to lose their balance. Collectively, the U.S. Bishops are writing and speaking their way into irrelevance.
The heart of the Gospel, and the message that drove the teachings and actions of Jesus, was and must be non-partisan. It also must be rooted in authentic and compelling theology. The committee’s statement is neither. Would that they engaged solid theological principles and applied them equally to both political parties!
That would be something worth reading and listening to!
For the record, a commemoration has taken place every year since the attacks. The format proposed for this 10th anniversary is the same as those over the last decade. Although many religions have memorials in their repertoire of services, the 9/11 commemoration is not a prayer service and it is not hosted by any religious body.
The commemoration at ground zero is significantly different from the prayer service held at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001. That service was specifically religious and included representatives from several different religious traditions. It was not a civic event and did not foist religion upon the nation, even though the nation was tuned in.
The feigned outrage (I say “feigned” because it is not rational enough to merit legitimacy) of people like Richard D. Land of the Southern Baptist Convention serves only to diminish the value of religious tradition in the United States.
The First Amendment of the Constitution presents us with the establishment and fee exercise clauses regarding religion. A careful reading will reveal that this amendment guarantees not just freedom “of” religion, but also freedom “from” religion. The framers of the Constitution understood the dangers of imposing religion, any religion, on others. This is the reason that courts throughout the land at various levels of judicial review have banned the use of prayer at civic events.
For some reason, people on the fringe of reason, just don’t get it. I find it instructive that the Catholic Archbishop of New York and the President of the Board of Rabbis have voiced no opposition to the format for the commemoration. Perhaps it is because they are both a little more secure in their respective faith traditions.
As a Catholic priest with many years of service, I can attest that people who are grounded in their faith do not need to shout and scream; they do not need to threaten with damnation; they do not need to foist their beliefs upon others. People who are secure in their faith are capable of respecting the traditions of others, even those who have no belief at all.
In his objections, Mr. Land stated, “We’re not France” proceeding to claim that the United States is not a secular society. Actually, we are a secular society. More precisely, we have a secular government for the reasons stated above, coupled with the fact that we (at least some of us) learned through the long and tragic period of Christendom, that governments run by a religion are dangerous and self-defeating.
It is unfortunate that we are not more like France. At the risk of confusing the issue, there were many speeches given to the world community in the build-up to the Iraq War. Yet there was no more eloquent or profound speech than the one given by the French Foreign Minister in opposition to the war. Though not religious, it was rooted in the deepest of moral principles. It was tragic that his argument did hold sway. That oft-lamented hindsight proved him correct.
Any person of faith is entitled to commemorate the 9/11 attacks in a prayer service with his or her fellow believers--or any other believers. There is no law preventing it. However, the national commemoration at the site of the attacks is neither the place nor the time.
This is nothing more than a blatant attempt to hijack this national and international tragedy and politicize it under the guise of religion. In the last ten years, one would hope that we had finally learned that we are not engaged in a religious war. Nor are we engaged in a war of cultures. Whatever the roots or religious beliefs of the 9/11 terrorists, their actions were an attack against the civic structure of this country.
The planned commemoration is exactly what it should be. During the period of silence all present call pray to their God in their hearts. But the commemoration should not be polluted by the misguided intentions of religious fanatics.
The greatest gift that American democracy has to give to other peoples is not the stirring inspiration of the Declaration of Independence. It is not the structural efficiency of the Constitution. It is not even the intrinsic elegance of the Bill of Rights. Yet it is within the Bill of Rights that we find this single greatest gift, namely, the First Amendment. Of the several rights enumerated in this amendment, it is the Freedom of Religion, as expressed and combined in both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, more than anything else, that sets a precedent for the United States, and an example for the rest of the world.
Some history might be helpful to put this in perspective. Broadly put, Christendom can be defined as that era of European history in which a symbiotic relationship existed between church and state. The positive social elements of Christendom enabled the Church to link together the countries of Europe and preserve a certain social unity. It also enabled the Christian faith to grow and expand throughout the Western world. At the same time, it must be viewed overall as a failure.
For one thing, Christianity is not a political religion. The Gospel, itself sets us on a correct understanding when we hear Jesus tell the disciples that they are not of the world, and when he informs Pilot that his kingdom does not belong to this world. Another failure of Christendom can be seen in its disregard for the primacy of the individual conscience and the subsequent lack of religious freedom. That limitation on the freedom of religion is a defining characteristic of any theocracy.
Even before the Reformation, Christendom began to collapse and a tense relationship developed between the church and civil authority. The idea of religious freedom or separation of church and state that found expression in Europe was often one of hostility. But with the American revolution, a new concept of religious freedom emerged. The establishment clause of the First Amendment clearly prevents the government from creating or even appearing to create a state religion. The Free Exercise clause, immediately following, prevents the government from denying people the right to participate in the religion of their choice, which includes the freedom to be a non-believer.
On Sunday, September 12th, we find ourselves at the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's historic speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, in which he defined his understanding of the separation of church and state. American Rhetoric presents a visual excerpt of the speech as well as the text of the entire address. A critical paragraph from the speech reads as follows:
"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President -- should he be Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him."
Seeking to become the first Catholic President, JFK felt the need to explain freedom of religion in order to dispel fears that he would take orders from the Pope. Unfortunately, Kennedy had a much keener understanding of this freedom than do most politicians today. His grasp of this most basic freedom was more accurate than many judges and justices. And his appreciation for this freedom was more grounded than many citizens today.
In the last 20 plus years we have watched as America has taken a steady backward slide on the issue of religious freedom. Catholic bishops and politicians have sought to have public monies used to support the Catholic school system under the guise of "vouchers". Protestant ministers and presidents have sought to have the federal government fund their religious programs under the guise of "Faith-based Initiatives". Politicians and other public figures have called for America to return to God. And most egregious of all, ministers of varying faiths have done exactly what Kennedy said they should not--from the pulpit they have told parishioners who to vote for.
Although it might seem strange, believers, most notably Christians, are profoundly ignorant about values and morality. While the values we hold dear and the morality that springs from them may be a part of many different religious traditions, no individual religion can claim those values as being rooted in faith. Nor can religions collectively make that claim. God pre-exists any and all religion. For believers, God created the universe, but God existed long before human beings appeared on the earth and long before the first religious traditions were formed.
Values and morality are rooted in human nature, what it means to be human. Since I believe in God, I believe that those values are instilled by a loving creator. However, because they are rooted in human nature itself, agnostics can be as committed to the common good as believers. In fact, given that so many "religious" people no longer even speak of the common good, I would suggest that many agnostics are ahead of the curve. As a Catholic priest I can certainly see a value in individuals making or renewing a personal commitment to God and to the community programs that are part of their faith tradition. However, it is essentially contrary to our founding documents to call the nation, as a nation, back to any kind of commitment to faith.
Eventually all theocracies will fail. In Israel, the grip of Orthodox Judaism is losing its hold as more people stand up to the oppressive demands one religious group. In like manner, Islamic states that impose Sharia, suppress human rights and deny religious freedoms will undergo the same failure of Christendom. But what will replace these repressive legal systems?
The United States experimented with a new kind of freedom of religion, and a new understanding of the separation of church and state. For the most part we have succeeded and been an exemplary model for the world. But what can the U.S. possibly say to other nations if they witness us shred the very foundation of our own nation? We must rediscover the dual elements of religious freedom enshrined in our First Amendment. This is our greatest democratic gift to the world. JFK knew that. If there is to be a renewal in our country, let it be to the First Amendment. This September 12th let us once again be the country envisioned by JFK.