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My Take: Catholic bishops against the common good
The American Catholic bishops celebrating Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
April 15th, 2012
08:00 PM ET

My Take: Catholic bishops against the common good

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN)–The U.S. Catholic bishops who claim, increasingly incredibly, to speak on behalf of American Catholics hit a new low last week when they released a self-serving statement called “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” As this title intimates, the supposed subject is religious liberty, but the real matter at hand is contraception and (for those who have ears to hear) the rapidly eroding moral authority of U.S. priests and bishops.

On Easter Sunday, Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CBS that the controversial Health and Human Services contraception rule represents a “radical intrusion” of government into "the internal life of the Church.” On Thursday, 15 of his fellow Catholic clerics (all male) took another sloshy step into the muck and mire of the politics of fear.

In “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” there is talk of religious liberty as the “first freedom” and a tip of the cap to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. But first and foremost there is anxiety. “Our freedoms are threatened,” these clerics cry. “Religious liberty is under attack.”

But what freedoms are these clerics being denied? The freedom to say Mass?  To pray the Rosary?  No and no. The U.S. government is not forcing celibate priests to have sex, or to condone condoms. The freedom these clerics are being denied is the freedom to ignore the laws of the land in which they live.

When I first heard of the HHS rule requiring all employers to pay for birth control for their employees, I thought it should include, on First Amendment grounds, an exemption for Catholic churches. And in fact it did.

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Moreover, when Catholic bishops and priests opposed the contraception mandate, HHS modified its rule, exempting not only Catholic churches but also Catholic-affiliated hospitals, universities, and social service agencies. (For these organizations, employees would receive contraceptive coverage from insurance companies separately from the policies purchased by their employers).

Once the Obama administration presented this compromise, I thought Catholic clerics would withdraw their objections. I was wrong. Instead they acted like political hacks rather than spiritual authorities, doubling down on the invective and serving up to the American public an even deeper draught of petty partisanship.

The bishops refer repeatedly in their statement to “civil society.” But think for a moment of the sort of "civil society" we would have if religious people were exempt from any law they deemed “unjust” for religious reasons.

Mormon employers who object to same-sex marriages could deny life insurance benefits to same-sex couples.

Jehovah’s Witnesses who object to blood transfusions could deny health care coverage for blood transfusions.

Christian Scientists who oppose the use of conventional medicine could refuse to cover their employees for anything other than Christian Science treatments.

And Roman Catholics could demand (as the bishops do in this statement) state financing for foster care programs that refuse to place foster children with same-sex parents.

As the Roman Catholic Church has taught for millennia, human beings are not isolated atoms. We live together in society, and we come together to pass laws to make our societies function. Virtually every law is coercive, and care must be taken not to violate the religious liberties of individual citizens. But care must also be taken to preserve the common good.

In their statement, Catholic bishops accused American political leaders of launching “an attack on civil society.” They also attempted to cloak themselves in the mantle of Dr. King. But theirs is a vision of an uncivil society, and their cause has nothing to do with the civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement succeeded because its cause was just, and because its leaders were able to mobilize millions of Americans to bring an end to the injustice of segregation. The effort by male Roman Catholic leaders to deny contraception coverage to female employees who want it does not bear even a passing resemblance to that cause. And even the bishops behind this so-called "movement" must admit that it is failing to mobilize even American Catholics themselves.

At least since the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, Catholics worldwide have been asking, “Who is the Roman Catholic Church?” Is it the hierarchy–a collection of priests, bishops, and cardinals overseen by a pope? Or is it the "People of God" in the pews whom these leaders are ordained to serve?

In recent years, this question has jumped by necessity from the realm of Catholic theology into the rough and tumble of American politics. Does American Catholicism oppose contraception? It depends on who speaks for the Church. The 98% of American Catholic women who have used contraception?  Or the 15 male clerics who issued this statement?

According to “Catholics for Choice,” which has published a rejoinder to "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," “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."

The bishops' statement gives lip service to “civil society” and the “common good,” but what these 15 clerics are trying to do here is destructive of both. To participate in civil society is to get your way sometimes and not others. To seek the common good is to sacrifice your own interests at times to those of others.

I will admit that the HHS contraception rule does ask these Catholic clerics to sacrifice something. But what is this sacrifice? Simply to allow the women who work for their organizations to be offered contraceptive coverage by their insurers. To refuse this sacrifice is not to uphold civil society. It is to refuse to participate in it.

Toward the end of their statement, the 15 bishops who signed this statement called on every U.S. Catholic to join in a “great national campaign” on behalf of religious liberty. More specifically, they called for a “Fortnight for Freedom” concluding with the Fourth of July when U.S. dioceses can celebrate both religious liberty and martyrs who have died for the Catholic cause.

As Independence Day approaches, I have a prediction. I predict that rank-and-file American Catholics will ignore this call. They will see that the issue at hand has more to do with women’s health than with religious liberty. And in the spirit of Vatican II, which referred to the church as the “People of God,” they will refuse to allow these 15 men to speak for them. Whatever moral capital U.S. bishops have in the wake of the sex abuse scandal that rocked the nation for decades will be insufficient to win over lay Catholics to what has been for at least a half a century a lost cause.

These 15 clerics write that American Catholics “must have the courage not to obey” unjust laws.  I think the courage called for today is something else—the courage not to obey those who no longer speak for them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Bishops • Catholic Church • Church and state • Culture wars • Health care • Leaders • Politics • Religious liberty • United States

soundoff (783 Responses)
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    November 27, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
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    September 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  3. PaxChristi2U

    Unfortunately the "Professor" contradicts himself so many times that his article ends up rather worthless. After implying that the Bishops position is not based on the "common good," he goes on to tell us what the common good is – clearly merely HIS opinion. Second, if America is so much against the Bishops' position (mentioned 4-5 times), why worry? Finally, does the professor even know what "civil society" means? It means the sector of society which is not government or the economy; and it the right of all the organizations and groups of that society to voice their opinion ina democracy.

    July 9, 2012 at 4:18 am |
    • Nathan G.

      @PaxChristi2U: [Unfortunately the "Professor" contradicts himself so many times that his article ends up rather worthless.]

      Really? I read this thing a couple times and see no contradictions. He makes a point, and then backs it up with facts.

      [After implying that the Bishops position is not based on the "common good," he goes on to tell us what the common good is – clearly merely HIS opinion.]

      Incorrect again. His definition of the common good is correct. Common good means that it is good for more than just one group of people – by definition that means that sometimes you need to sacrifice things that are good for you so others can have some of that "good", and vice versa.

      [Second, if America is so much against the Bishops' position (mentioned 4-5 times), why worry? ]

      It is an educational opinion piece. He published it because it is of concern to him, and as it relates to religion it was published in the religion section of CNN. The point is that the leadership of the Catholic church is out of touch with the needs of its followers.

      [Finally, does the professor even know what "civil society" means? It means the sector of society which is not government or the economy; and it the right of all the organizations and groups of that society to voice their opinion in a democracy.]

      He didn't deny them that right. He merely expressed his right to respond to their opinion with his own that theirs was a load of crap, and to show he wasn't just pulling that opinion out of the air he explained why he feels that way. You cannot claim the right of free speech and then denigrate someone else for using theirs.

      July 11, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  4. RASL

    Thanks for a terrific article, Stephen.

    July 6, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  5. SuZieCoyote

    OK. I went and read your touted Humanae Vitae. Something a celibate male made up. Yawn. Next.

    July 6, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  6. CW

    Allowing all American women to make their own choice on contraception is not a violation of religious beliefs. It's one of our rights as Americans. I wonder what Jesus would think of these old white men hypocrites. The Catholic Church is rotting from within as the result of being run by old white men.

    July 6, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  7. sortakinda

    Keep in mind that this smug attack on the Catholic Church first ran in April. This half wit thinks he determines what the common good is. What is the "common good" today is nothing unless it can withstand eternity.

    July 6, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  8. CJ

    Thank you for this excellent opinion piece. As a convervted Catholic, I was excited to join the church 21 years ago. I am one of the 98% of Catholic women who have used contraception for my health. At this past Sunday's service when the Decan began to discuss the loss of Freedom that the HHS decision has inflicted on the Catholic church, I got up and walked out and took my donation with me. I am no longer excited about my catholic faith, and seriously considering a conversion to another faith. 15 men will not speak for me and my choices for health care needs.

    July 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • sortakinda

      So you took your football and went home. Is something wrong with your reaction? You really should have read Humane Vitae by Paul IV before you converted. Maybe you wouldn't have.

      July 6, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Make that Paul VI.

      July 6, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Primewonk

      " So you took your football and went home"

      No. She took her brain and said this is not a rational concept.

      July 6, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Primewonk, why do you even try?

      July 6, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • messenger

      Then you obviously didn't learn anything about your Catholic faith....which is the major problem with the majority of Catholics today. They recieve the sacrament of confirmation and, at that point, assume that they have learned all there is to know about the Catholic Church and its teachings. In fact, what you have learned up to confirmation, is the very bare minimum of what it means to be Catholic. Confirmation does not mean you know everything about the Church, but are now ready to begin taking responsibility for your own education. Unfortunately, few Catholics do this which is why so many of them do not understand why the Church stands against things like the HHS mandate and why non-Catholics like the author of this article don't understand it as well.

      July 6, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  9. Leigh

    I am a Catholic. I am so not because a bunch of men told to be or taught me to be. I am so because of one reason only: I believe that when Jesus Christ gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, THAT is when the Catholic church began. It descended from Jesus Himself, that is a fact. However...what it has become is a corrupt mishmash of mens' laws...not Jesus Christ's...on subjects that do not concern them with no room for discussion or equal time for anyone EXCEPT the views of those same men who are unyielding to their own self-made laws. ESPECIALLY where it concerns women, whom the church has considered unclean second-class citizens for centuries...EXCEPT if they are married and procreating yearly and obeying their husbands. Then and only then are they worthy of being "good Catholics" according to these men. I think Jesus would think differently, especially since Mary Magdalene was one of his most devout apostles and instead of being lauded, the Church demonized her for centuries and still does.

    There are but two reasons the Catholic clergy are so adamant against birth control of any kind (never mind the failed "rhythm system" which is supposedly permissible but is not encouraged)...it empowers women (OMG can't have that!) and if means fewer future generations of Catholics in the pews. Plain and simple, that's it.

    I do not find my "religious liberty" being threatened by this decision in the least. If any woman...Catholic or non-Catholic...who happens to work for a Catholic-affiliated organization wants to use birth control, I think her insurance should be able to cover it. I think more than enough compromise has been given on this subject, but the bishops are still hollering because they want to control every uterus in this country and thereby force their dogma on all females. Which will NEVER happen. If a law was passed stating that all Catholics were to be imprisoned or executed and churches closed and/or burned down...THEN I would find my religious liberty threatened. Until that time peeks over the horizon, I would suggest to these "sky is falling" people to readjust their thinking and get a grip on what religious liberty REALLY means. A clue: it does NOT mean pushing man-made Catholic dogma on everyone by force of law.

    July 6, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • holtee

      Another misguided, uninformed soul. Do some research on Humanae Vitae and Theology of the Body before you continue your comments. It will be good for your soul. Pax.

      July 6, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  10. Jeff

    Shame on you Stephen. The minute we surrender our freedoms to someone else's version of the common good is a step away from liberty and towards tyranny. Just because you happen to agree with the tyrannist here, doesn't mean our religious liberties are not threatened. I would love to see how you would react if you were being forced to violate your religous beliefs. I pray that you never have find out.

    July 6, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.