Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Religious freedom and ugly assumptions

By Don Clemmer | U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Religious freedom is the odd duck among the issues.

In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops hold up six areas of concern for voting Catholics to weigh while forming their consciences, including abortion and other threats to human life, a broken immigration system, efforts to redefine marriage, domestic poverty and international peace. While all these issues certainly affect Catholics, these involve a dynamic in which the Church addresses what’s going on in the rest of society.

Religious freedom, on the other hand, deals with the Church itself and its role in society. Placing this issue alongside such foundational Catholic values speaks to its importance, as does the newly-issued statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” In it, the bishops celebrate the value of living in a country founded on respect for the rights of people of all faiths. They also address emerging threats to religious freedom in the United States.

Some of these have garnered media attention in recent years, such as the Health and Human Service mandate that forces religiously affiliated hospitals, charities and others to cover contraceptives in their employee health plans, or Catholic Charities in Boston, San Francisco and elsewhere being driven out of adoption services because they refuse to place children with unmarried couples, either same-sex or opposite-sex.

For others, the religious freedom dimension is more subtle, such as the Alabama immigration law that made it illegal for a priest to baptize, hear the confession of, celebrate the anointing of the sick or preach the word of God to an undocumented immigrant.

As the bishops draw connections between these seemingly disparate dots, some of the ugly assumptions that underscore them come into focus. For instance…

There’s the assertion/assumption that, in order to be a participant in the public square, it’s somehow necessary for a group or entity to buy into certain cultural values. This is evident in the Catholic Charities cases: “If you want to provide adoption services, you have to buy into our views of marriage and family.” It’s evident in the bishops’ own Migration and Refugee Services losing human trafficking contracts with the government: “If you want to do this good work, you must provide and/or refer for abortions and contraceptives.” It’s on display in the HHS mandate: “If you want to serve the common good and have employee health plans …” And so on.

There’s the assumption that the government can suddenly dictate what’s religious and what is not. In the HHS mandate, churches and houses of worship are exempt, but religiously-affiliated organizations that serve the common good, like hospitals, universities, charities and other social services, are not. Does the government view these organizations as somehow less religious because they specialize in service rather than worship? Catholics know that the Gospel mandate to serve those in need is as much a part of being Catholic as going to Mass.

Related to this is the idea that freedom of religion merely means “freedom of worship.” Again, the bishops would view that as a pretty anemic definition of religion. In their new statement, they write, “Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the rosary at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith?”

One final, particularly smug and ugly assumption is the cultural dismissal of the importance of the work of the Church and religion in general. “Catholic Charities won’t comply with the new marriage law? Fine. Who needs ‘em?” “The Church won’t provide abortions and sterilizations at their hospitals? Fine. Give us the keys.”

It takes a special kind of nerve to be cavalier about the societal contributions of an institution that provided food services to 7,146,490 people in 2010 alone, to say nothing of the housing-related services to 497,732 people, counseling services to 405,848 people, immigration services to 323,312 people, addiction services to 81,866 people, pregnancy services to 93,542 people and adoption services to 38,829 people. (Source: Catholic Charities USA)

Megan McArdle at The Atlantic addressed this beautifully in an article on the HHS mandate, noting, “These people seem to be living in an alternate universe that I don’t have access to, where there’s a positive glut of secular organizations who are just dying to provide top-notch care for the sick, the poor, and the dispossessed.”

The bishops themselves note in their statement, “It does not serve the common good to treat the good works of religious believers as a threat to our common life; to the contrary, they are essential to its proper functioning.”

And this is why religious freedom should matter to the Catholic voter, because it’s directly tied to the Church’s ability to advocate and work for the common good in the public square. In that sense, religious freedom is at the heart of faithful citizenship.

Don Clemmer is the Assistant Director of Media Relations for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.