Ethics & Public Policy Center

Religious Freedom IS Social Justice

Published in National Review Online on March 12, 2012


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


In his March 12 column, Washington Post writer E. J. Dionne Jr. attempts some fraternal intimidation of the Catholic bishops of the United States prior to the meeting of the bishops’ conference administrative committee on Tuesday and Wednesday. The argument, such as it is, doubtless reflects certain currents of thought within the Church in the United States — those currents that are deeply uncomfortable with the bishops’ emphasis in recent years on a robust assertion of Catholic identity. But that is about as much as can be said for it; as a matter of theological or political reasoning, it’s pluperfect nonsense.

Dionne warns the bishops that, if they do not back off from their strong defense of religious freedom and find some way to reach agreement with an administration he insists is trying to accommodate their concerns, they risk becoming a church that no longer stands for both life and social justice. Worse, they risk becoming “the Tea Party at prayer.”

What this tack conveniently ignores is that, in a Catholic understanding of public life, religious freedom is a social-justice issue. When the Second Vatican Council taught that “the human person has a right to religious freedom,” that this right means that everyone should be “immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups, and every human power” in acting on religious convictions, and that this right is exercised “in private or in public, alone or in association with others,” the Council fathers were outlining some of the basic requirements of a just society: The just society recognizes the right of men and women to seek the truth freely and adhere to it freely, and embodies this right in constitutional and civil law; the just society does not use governmental coercion in matters of belief, nor does it attempt to control the internal lives of religious communities, in themselves or as their convictions compel those communities to be agents of charity in society; and the just society recognizes that both individuals and religious institutions enjoy these rights.

Thus when John Paul II, addressing the United Nations in 1979, described religious freedom as the first of human rights, and when the same pope, in the same venue in 1995, cited the role of religious freedom in the helping bring about the collapse of European Communism, he was making a profound statement about social justice.

Social-justice concerns, it might be added, are not the preserve of self-styled progressive Catholics such as E. J. Dionne. Indeed, progressive Catholics were noticeably reluctant to press social-justice issues such as religious freedom during the Cold War, a failure once analyzed by no less than Vaclav Havel in a brilliant essay, “The Anatomy of a Reticence.” Furthermore, in the ongoing debate over Obamacare, it is those “right-wing bishops” whom Dionne now deplores for their influence in the current debate who raised some obvious social-justice questions about the Affordable Health Care Act: Namely, how does this massive transfer of power to the federal government (one expression of which is the HHS “contraceptive mandate”) sync with the core Catholic social-justice principle of subsidiarity, its concern for the primary institutions of civil society, its warnings about the Leviathan-like tendencies of all modern states, and its preference for mixed private/public-sector solutions to social problems over state-dominated social-welfare schemes?

Dionne quotes a “wise priest of [his] acquaintance” who asks whether the Catholic Church is “abandoning its historic role of being a leaven to become a strident critic of government?” With all due respect to Dr. Dionne’s sacerdotal friend, one really must wonder where he’s been, and what he’s been watching, over the past two months. (It being Lent, I’m sure — or at least I hope — it’s not a matter of what Father has been drinking.)

The government tries to impose an outrageously coercive mandate on the Catholic Church, one that demands that the Church do what its settled moral convictions tell it that it cannot do; the Church’s leaders firmly and politely state that this is wrong as a matter of constitutional first principles. The government then proposes an “accommodation” of the bishops’ concerns that is an insult to the bishops’ intelligence, being nothing less than a cynical shell game; the bishops promise to study the “accommodation,” and then politely and firmly state that it is unacceptable. The bishops seek a legislative remedy, in the form of the Blunt Amendment in the Senate, and are met by the serial calumnies of the administration’s Senate myrmidons; the administration’s allies in the press, in the chattering classes, and in the activist world commit slander against the Church while lying about the nature of the mandate, its scope, and its implications. The White House press secretary is sent out to opine that the U.S. bishops have never been interested in health-care reform, which in fact they’ve been interested in since 1919, four and a half decades before the press secretary was born.

Who is being “strident” here? Who is coercing whom? Who has declared a culture war on whom? Only those lost in the intellectual fog of their own partisanship can fail to see that the bishops have in fact been that “leaven in society” that the brave Father Unnamed wants them to be — and they have done so precisely by leading a public reflection on the meaning of religious freedom in full, at a moment when that first of American liberties is being whittled down by the present administration to a private right of worship.

One of the most maddening aspects of this otherwise bracing debate has been the refusal of those who support either the HHS mandate or the bogus administration accommodation to debate honestly, in terms of the facts, and fairly, in terms of the rhetoric. This leads one to the suspicion that the administration’s defenders know that they have a losing case. The administration will likely continue its intransigence, for it cannot meet the bishops’ full concerns without enraging some of its (most well-heeled) allies. There is no remedy in Congress, thanks to Democratic control of the Senate, and the enthrallment of the Democratic party to those who would make Sandra Fluke a 21st century Joan of Arc. But the bishops have a winning case in the courts, on both First Amendment grounds and because of the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Indeed, serious constitutional scholarsbelieve that any test of the HHS mandate in the federal courts will result in a victory for the bishops of the magnitude of the Hosanna-Tabor decision in January, where the administration lost 9-0.

The shrewder defenders of the administration know this. That is why they and their allies in the Catholic Lite Brigade, including the Lite Brigade’s journalistic regiment, are trying to roll the bishops now, before the courts get to work. Having failed even to engage the substantive arguments, they are now resorting to intimidation tactics — “You’ll seem partisan! You’ll look like the Tea Party!” — in order to soften up the ground for another “accommodation.”

All of which, in truth, is as insulting to the bishops as the intellectual contempt the administration showed in its February 10 “accommodation.” But that is the sorry state to which the administration and its Catholic apologists have come.

- George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon chair in Catholic studies.

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