Political Animal


April 12, 2012 3:04 PM Bishops Escalate the Culture Wars

By Ed Kilgore

Anyone wishing or hoping that “culture-war” politics will subside now that the GOP nomination contest, with its serial pandering to cultural warriors, has ended, needs to read the “Statement on Religious Liberty” just released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For a detailed analysis of the statement—particularly its explicit and implicit defiance of federal court decisions rejecting their point of view—you should read Sarah Posner’s take at Religion Dispatches. Another essential commentary is from Catholics For Choice president Jon O’Brien, who focuses on the redefinition of “religious liberty” the Bishops are championing.

I can’t really improve on Posner’s and O’Brien’s take on the substance of the Bishops’ “statement.” But I will note the dangerous rhetorical escalation it represents. It treats the highly indirect impingement (at most) of “conscience rights” by the Obama administration’s contraception coverage mandate as at odds with the fundamental grant of religious liberty made in the First Amendment, and indeed, before the First Amendment, the statements of religious tolerance set out in colonies like Maryland. It embraces the aggressive alliance of conservative evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics formed by Charles Colson and the late Richard John Neuhaus in the 1990s. And it explicitly endorses the recent manifesto by that alliance in the theocon magazine Neuhaus founded, First Things, which conflates physical persecution of Christians in developing countries, the “established secularism” of Europe, and adverse court decisions in the U.S. as part of “the greatest period of persecution in the history of Christianity”(!).

While the Bishops’ statement does acknowledge that religious liberty is “at much greater peril” in countries other than America, this tempering of militancy is rather decisively undercut by a call for a “fortnight of freedom” this summer framed by feasts dedicated to the martyrs St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. And then there is this toxic little remark:

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.

Resistance to totalitarian incursions? Really?

There is nothing in this statement that reflects the willingness to compromise exhibited by the Catholic charities, health care providers, and educational groups most affected by the contraception coverage mandate, and not even a nod of acknowledgement to the liberty interests of Americans who object to the Bishops’ rejection of anti-discrimination laws, or of Americans (including most Catholics) who don’t share the Bishops’ views on contraception.

This is a fairly open declaration of partisan war, which, as Posner notes, seems timed to coincide with this summer’s quickening general election.

And for what? To give the Bishops the “freedom” of special privileges. As O’Brien sums it up:

The bishops have failed to convince Catholics in the pews to follow their prohibitions on contraception. Now, they want the government to grant them the legal right to require each of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to set aside our own guaranteed freedom from government-sanctioned religious interference in our lives. This is a strange definition of the ‘common good’—a central Catholic belief. The bishops’ concept of religious liberty means they would get the liberty to deny ours.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • SYSPROG on April 12, 2012 3:16 PM:

    OK I'm pissed off now. These child diddling SOBs can stay the F* out of AMERICAN POLITICS. It's NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS. We have separation of Church and State and it we WERE to pick a church it sure as hell wouldn't be THEM. They have overstepped. I will fight them with every bone in my body. I'm talking to YOU RYAN and your 'faith based budget'. LEARN from the teachings of Jesus instead of re-writing his beliefs!!!

  • Josef K on April 12, 2012 3:20 PM:

    Now I'm just getting embarrassed to have belonged to the Catholic Church (fortunately, I woke up at 11 and realized how silly it all is).

    Mayhap now would be a good time to quietly end all tax exemptions on all churches. These guys want to play as a political entity, fine, they can pay the fare like the rest of us. I think it was Madison who advised against making churches tax-free entities.

  • Andy Olsen on April 12, 2012 3:23 PM:

    The bishops have been increasingly partisan and political for years. The Vatican assigned an ultra-conservative bishop. Robert Morlino, here in Madison, Wisconsin and he openly campaigns for the Republicans by stressing abortion and cultural wedge issues while ignoring workers issues, economic justice and other positions supposedly held by the church.

    Indeed, unless they are allowed to impose their religious doctrine on everyone they will cry "persecution." Combine that dishonesty with their shameful protection of, and obstruction of justice for, child predators on an international scale and the Catholic Church hierarchy forfeits respect. They are a political institution.

  • TR on April 12, 2012 3:23 PM:

    I'm a lapsed Catholic, one who's been thinking about getting back involved with the church now that I have kids.

    But we meant to Easter mass and were treated to a homily about the evils of abortion, and now all this. So I think I'll stay lapsed.

    Best of luck to the church and its dwindling Tea Party demographics.

  • Vokoban on April 12, 2012 3:30 PM:

    "The bishops’ concept of religious liberty means they would get the liberty to deny ours."

    Isn't that the very definition of liberty in the US? The liberty to exploit any weakness? Isn't that the exact definition of liberty US foreign policy brought to nations in South America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East? Iran, Chile, Nicaragua anyone?

  • SteveT on April 12, 2012 3:39 PM:

    It sounds like it isn't enough for the bishops to be able to treat Catholic women as second class citizens. They want to see ALL women relegated once again to being brood mares and kitchen drudges.

    I wonder how soon the bishops will start demanding their First Amendment rights to torture confessions out of heretics before burning them at the stake.

  • howard on April 12, 2012 3:45 PM:

    unless i have been badly misled by sensation-seeking journalists, it seems to me that there are some in-house problems of criminality and cover-up that should be consuming the bishops' attention.

  • jjm on April 12, 2012 3:45 PM:

    This church has absolutely NO moral authority in our civic affairs, and is rapidly losing whatever authority it had over its own members' morality. For Pete's sake: how can they have hundreds of priests forcing homosexuality onto young boys in their care and then screaming loudly against homosexuality.

    The height of hypocrisy and basically an effort to assert their total authority over issues they themselves have proved to be bankrupt on.

  • David in NY on April 12, 2012 3:47 PM:

    So where were these guys in 1933-45 in a certain middle-European country, eh?

  • Gene O'Grady on April 12, 2012 3:51 PM:

    Josef K repeats a common misconception. The way to go after the bishops, at least immediately, is not to go after the tax exemptions, although Catholic business institutions like medical labs should not be exempt. The thing to do is to campaign to change the way Church property is held by some damned bishop as a corporation sole and mandate that they be held by a corporation of Catholic lay people, who are, after all, the ones who put up the money. Recall that the very conservative former governor Keating quickly concluded that when it came to law and money the bishops made the mafia look good by comparison.

  • BillFromPA on April 12, 2012 3:56 PM:

    I'm thinkng there may be a little juijitsu going on here. As has been noted, the Men in Funny Hats are not selling their snake oil to the flock in the pews, so perhaps the strategy here is to push the envelope so far that a severe backlash occurs, see some of the comments here, and the result of that, it might be hoped, would be a 'rally 'round the cross' reaction by the faithful. The flock might not follow their shepards, but perhaps they'll unite in defense of the Church if it semms to really be under attack.

  • Fess on April 12, 2012 4:07 PM:

    The Catholic Bishops want a Catholic theocracy, the Mormons want a Mormon theocracy (it's specifically part of their doctrine), and the evangelicals want an evangelical theocracy. Personally, I like that wall of separation to protect me from the nutters who feel called to organize my life for me. If I wanted a theocracy, I'd move to Iran.

  • T2 on April 12, 2012 4:21 PM:

    I think the Bishops need to concentrate on molesting little boys.....they suck at politics.

  • chopin on April 12, 2012 4:38 PM:

    Fess @ 4:07..... What I want is about a thousand more sects that want to establish their own theocracy and let them all beat the crap out of each other so the rest of us can live in peace.

  • Christiaan on April 12, 2012 4:45 PM:

    Give them a finger...

  • ottercliff on April 12, 2012 4:55 PM:

    The "greatest period of persecution in the history of Christianity" was the Inquisition.

  • FlipYrWhig on April 12, 2012 4:58 PM:

    No one in the history of Western civilization has ever defined "religious liberty" in this cockamamie way. Religious liberty is about individual rights of worship and conscience. It does not give powerful institutions the right to flout the secular law.

  • joanneinDenver on April 12, 2012 5:15 PM:

    Score one for the Bishops. Everyone is talking about "religious liberty." No one, including the MSM, is talking about the criminal trial in Philadelphia. You know where the Catholic Administrators of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are accused of being criminal liable for the covering up the crimes of priests. It is a see saw. Whenever the molestation news gets really really ugly, the Bishops appear and claim to be persecuted. Look at the bloggers here sprout the usual crap. Well done, Red Hats. Well done.

    Did anyone catch Dolan on Reilly complaining that the White House is trying to put a wedge between the parish priest and his congregation by pointing out that Catholics use birth control? I didn't think so.

    Keep talking to yourselves.

  • JM917 on April 12, 2012 5:39 PM:

    I am as furious as the rest of you at the bishops' latest incursion into partisan politics, but I agree with BillFromPA and Gene O'Grady that we don't want to play into Their Eminences' hands by attacking the church's tax-exempt status. That would only provoke a huge backlash from Catholics across the board (including the likes of E.J. Dionne and many Catholic Democratic politicians). Besides, if you start down that road, you also have to go after all the fundamentalist megachurches--and the black churches, too.

    The bishops are doing a great job of turning off the majority of the RC "faithful" by insisting that priests preach heavy-handed anti-abortion and anti-contraception sermons, as well as denigrate Obama in general, while at the sdame time continuing to resist inquiries into their shielding of child-molesting clergy.

    I truly wish that we COULD "crush the infamous thing" (Voltaire), but I think we have to settle for a war of attrition.

  • stratplayer on April 12, 2012 5:58 PM:

    The equation of rank authoritarianism with "liberty" has got to be one of the most profoundly Orwellian maneuvers I have ever witnessed.

  • JR on April 12, 2012 6:09 PM:

    I'll begin to take the bishops seriously when they call for the release of Father Flannery, currently forced into isolation by the Vatican. Things are getting interesting in Ireland...

  • DisgustedWithItAll on April 12, 2012 6:33 PM:

    Do these Catholic bishop buttholes understand with what contempt they and the Catholic church is held in after their pedophilia act has been exposed? I guess not.

  • Doug on April 12, 2012 7:52 PM:

    It IS very interesting that, as joanneinDenver noted, the Bishops' FIRST outburst preceded the commencement of the criminal trials in Philadelphia by only a week or so. I believe another in KC is in the works, too. This time a Bishop, I believe. Coincedences CAN occur, however...
    Oh, by the way, does Karl Rove freelance?

  • TCinLA on April 12, 2012 9:44 PM:

    What did anyone expect from 30+ years of that great "freedom-loving progressive (not)" John-Paul II and his annointed successor Ratzi the Nazi, appointing the "progressive" wing of the Catholic Church (not) to follow the example of that great aberration John XXIII??

    If you want to know what the Catholic Church is really like, tune in to the new season of "The Borgias" on Showtime. The more things change...

  • Steve P on April 12, 2012 11:36 PM:

    We get Thomas More because someone saw a movie once--Cranmer's "once you get an idea into that head you'll never it out again" comes to mind.
    But More's a poison pill; look into his duties as Chancellor and they included prosecuting and executing heretics--Protestants, that is--which he did without hesitation.

  • Texas Aggie on April 13, 2012 2:45 AM:

    Tangential to this discussion, Pope Ratzinger recently visited Mexico which is only a couple months away from a presidential election. The candidate for PAN, which is the catholic/wealthy party, is not doing well, and the thought has appeared that Pope Ratzinger visited in order to give his candidate a boost.

    Some of the political cartoons are rather amusing. A kid's t-shirt says, "I saw the pope and wasn't raped by any priests." Another is a button saying, "I (swastika) The Pope.

    Since before JP II the catholic church has been on a tear to populate its upper echelons with the most conservative people available. What we have now, Pope Ratzinger who believes that the souls of the Indians were crying out for the Conquistadors to kill them after converting them to catholicism, and the American Bishops who are so concerned about their power but could not care less about their duties, is a result of that movement.

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