Commonweal on the Bishops’ Religious Freedom Statement

Over the past week, I’ve written about criticism from the Catholic right of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent statement on religious freedom. Of course, there’s also been criticism from the Catholic left. This week, Commonweal has a negative editorial about the bishops’ statement. More in sorrow than in anger, Commonweal maintains that the statement veers into political partisanship. The  bishops’ simplistic, one-sided language, the editorial complains, makes them sound more like Republican party operatives than pastors. Young people already are turning away from organized religion because it seems too political and conservative on social issues. Surely the bishops do not want to exacerbate that trend?

I wonder about this criticism. It’s true that the bishops’ statement highlights the Obama Administration’s contraceptives mandate. The mandate is the first on the list of threats to religious freedom the bishops identify, and surely served as the prime motivation for their statement. But the second item on the list is state anti-immigration laws, like the recent Alabama measure forbidding assistance to undocumented immigrants. In criticizing these laws, the bishops are hardly mouthing GOP talking points. Republican politicians often favor such measures, while the Obama Administration has filed a lawsuit challenging the Alabama law.

Even with respect to the contraceptives mandate, the bishops could be forgiven for saying that they didn’t start this fight. The bishops surely knew that objecting to the HHS mandate would have the effect of highlighting the Church’s position on contraception, and that this position is unpopular, particularly with Millennials. But what choice was there? It was the Obama Administration that issued the mandate during an election year. For that matter, it was the Obama Administration that argued this Term in Hosanna-Tabor that the religion clauses did not even apply to a church’s decision to fire a minister, a position that a unanimous Court characterized as “remarkable.” If it’s inappropriately partisan for religious organizations to respond when government takes steps like these, then religious organizations can never defend themselves in public debate. That may be a good thing from a spiritual point of view, but I don’t think it’s a result Commonweal would approve.