Recipe for a Rights War

In a stirring speech on religious liberty at the U.S. bishops’ plenary assembly last October, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., decried the U.S. government’s propagation of moral relativism — in this instance, regarding criticism of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

“The Department of Justice … has attacked DOMA as an act of ‘bias and prejudice,’ akin to racism, thereby implying that the churches which teach that marriage is between a man and a woman are guilty of bigotry.”

The question is simple: Why are Catholics not bigots?

Bishop Lori noted several warring fronts in the recent conflicts between the Church and the state: contraception, abortion, freedom of conscience and same-sex “marriage.”

The battle line has been named religious liberty, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has observed “with growing alarm the erosion of religious liberty in our country.”

In response to the increasing celerity of attrition between the state and the Church, Bishop Lori ended his address by exhorting the faithful to “stand united in calling for the laymen and women of the Church to put their gifts and expertise on the line in defense of religious liberty.”

The defense against religious infringement is simple. The state cannot violate the conscience and moral convictions of Catholicism because it is a breach of the religious freedom of the Church and her Catholics.

Consequently, Catholics should not be forced to participate in abortion, contraception, same-sex “marriage” or any act that infringes upon their consciences. Bishop Lori’s speech on religious liberty contained an eloquent echoing of the U.S. bishops’ new 30-page document on faithful citizenship. Slotted for national distribution by the bishops, the document submits the following summation:

“Civil law should fully recognize and protect the Church’s right, obligation and opportunities to participate in society without being forced to abandon or ignore its central moral convictions.

So, why are Catholics not guilty of bigotry akin to racism?

In the minds of many Americans, the link between the civil-rights movement of the ’60s and the current “LGBT” movement is cogent and undeniable.

In the former, the Church and a myriad of political perspectives marched hand-in-hand for the rights of black people. However, with the so-called LGBT movement — which claims to be the progeny of the civil-rights movement — the Church stands as an impediment.

Subsequently, the Church is charged with a bigotry as malformed as racism. It is in examining the connection between these two movements that the Catholic line of defense seems to incriminate the Church rather than exonerate her.

Bringing to the forefront moral convictions, conscience and religious liberty, Catholics find their weaponry wanting.

A particular weakness is presented in the realization that, unlike most other moral issues, the Church is not content with securing the right to abstain from same-sex “weddings”; she is advocating the practice be illegal within the overall state. Even the U.S. bishops’ vanguard of religious liberty stumbles to find any footing here.

Opponents of the Church contend the bishops’ conference simultaneously props religious liberty up as a shield between it and the state, and then campaigns for the state to denounce same-sex “marriage,” despite the very real moral convictions and religious freedoms of the homosexual community. Here, accusations of bigotry are brought forth, as it appears Catholics believe their moral tradition can trump the rights and moral convictions of other people and groups.

What of conscience? Arguments of conscience bring little to the forefront. Conscience is formed by habit and principle; thus, while the Catholic conscience feels the moral conviction to defend traditional marriage, a growing number of Americans — self-identifying Catholics included — feel the pangs of their unformed consciences to grant homosexual persons complete marital equality.

In response to the charge that Catholics are bigots, many claim the answer is “Yes.” In fact, the difficulty of handling this exact question has stymied the courage of many Catholics because they cannot articulate the faith without appearing “hateful,” while others have simply abjured Church leadership in favor of a seemingly much more coherent and simple standard of equality for all people. Other Catholics — frustrated by the coupling of their concerns and the inability to voice them — demonize homosexuals as persons as a way to justify being against same-sex “marriage.” They speak of homosexuals as furtive fascists seeking to unravel the moral fabric of a Christian America. Fearmongering is no substitute for valid dialogue and only precipitates more accusations of Catholic bigotry.

Americans are witnessing the inception of a rights war. Each faction has hauled in its own set of moral beliefs and traditions to the front. Multiple and contradictory reference points for what is and is not a proper “right” reveal an often unsaid belief: There is no universal reference point — a rights war is a war of competitive human wills.

America has seen and will continue to see a cacophony of autonomous moral positions willing against one another until attrition and public opinion claim a victor.

By entering into a rights war, Catholics have accepted rules of engagement that desiccate their sacred tradition and reduce them to another subset of relative religious opinions.

What the Church and the state need is not another war, but a shared language — a language for Catholics and non-Catholics alike; a universal reference point for rights and laws. What the Church in the United States needs to remember is nature.

Is the Church bigoted? Absolutely not. Holy mother Church speaks to us in charity and truth. The dilemma is how to season our political dialogue with timeless truths, while not being caught up in a “rights war” that distorts the Catholic position.

This is Part 1 of a Register series on Catholic political thought.

H.H. Ambrose is a writer for St. Peter’s List ( and resides in Pennsylvania.