Once upon a time, the U.S. bishops tackled important social issues like war and peace and economic injustice, rightly earning accolades for their prophetic witness. Now, according to an emerging narrative advanced in recent media coverage of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2011 fall meeting in Baltimore, the bishops have “turned inward.” Instead of making the needs of the poor a key priority, they have expended their energies with a defense of the free exercise of religion by Catholic universities, social agencies and hospitals.
On Nov. 14, readers of The Baltimore Sun learned that “Catholic leaders, had fail[ed] to put society’s main problems front and center,” according to a widely circulated commentary by Francis Doyle, a former top staffer at the USCCB.
But Archbishop Timothy Dolan rejects the notion that a robust defense of religious liberty is a dangerous distraction from more important work. As noted elsewhere in these pages, he contends that strong First Amendment rights are needed to protect and secure the legacy of Catholic institutions that serve the poor in Church schools, hospitals and social agencies.
The future of those services actually depends on an effective defense of the Church’s freedom to run its institutions in a way that secures the fullness of Catholic witness to the dignity of the human person.
Exhibit A: This fall, the USCCB failed to receive a new federal grant to maintain its top-rated services for trafficking victims, after the Department of Health and Human Services changed the criteria for approving grant proposals and gave preference to agencies that provide the “full range” of reproductive services. The denial of the USCCB grant proposal triggered an internal investigation at HHS, and the former director of the HHS anti-trafficking program contends that contraception and abortion services may actually facilitate the sexual exploitation of teenaged trafficking victims.
There’s also another way to interpret the emergence of this new narrative about a supposedly inward-looking Catholic hierarchy. The country is heading into a bruising election year, and partisan forces aren’t eager to witness U.S. bishops defending Church programs from a bully in the White House. This problem can be easily resolved, of course, if and when the administration backs off from its campaign.
But however the media spins this fight, we should be clear that the bishops’ defense of religious liberty serves a larger good by limiting the encroachment of the state in every aspect of national life. Indeed, as the bishops wrapped up their meeting in Baltimore, Michael McConnell, the noted constitutional scholar at Stanford University, debated the question, “What’s so special about religious freedom?” at Georgetown University and offered this cogent summary: “Religious freedom is the ‘first freedom’ not because of its location in the Bill of Rights … but because the separation of church and state was the genesis of liberalism. The struggle between spiritual and temporal authorities laid the groundwork for the … limited state.”