American Freedom and Catholic Power

It was only a matter of time before this sort of thing was bound to appear, though perhaps it is somewhat disappointing to see it in the pages of US News and World Report. The specific claim seems to be that by granting an emergency stay in the Little Sisters of the Poor case, Justice Sotomayor is waging a “war on women” because she is imposing her Catholic views on the rest of the nation in violation of the law. But that claim is buried within lots of other mud, and I’m afraid I can’t do justice to it without letting much of the rest hatch out:

The lady from the Bronx just dropped the ball on American women and girls as surely as she did the sparkling ball at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Or maybe she’s just a good Catholic girl.

The Supreme Court is now best understood as the Extreme Court. One big reason why is that six out of nine Justices are Catholic. Let’s be forthright about that. (The other three are Jewish.) Sotomayor, appointed by President Obama, is a Catholic who put her religion ahead of her jurisprudence. What a surprise, but that is no small thing….

Sotomayor’s blow brings us to confront an uncomfortable reality. More than WASPS, Methodists, Jews, Quakers or Baptists, Catholics often try to impose their beliefs on you, me, public discourse and institutions. Especially if “you” are female. This is not true of all Catholics – just look at House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. But right now, the climate is so cold when it comes to defending our settled legal ground that Sotomayor’s stay is tantamount to selling out the sisterhood. And sisterhood is not as powerful as it used to be, ladies.

Catholics in high places of power have the most trouble, I’ve noticed, practicing the separation of church and state. The pugnacious Catholic Justice, Antonin Scalia, is the most aggressive offender on the Court, but not the only one. Of course, we can’t know for sure what Sotomayor was thinking, but it seems she has joined the ranks of the five Republican Catholic men on the John Roberts Court in showing a clear religious bias when it comes to women’s rights and liberties. We can no longer be silent about this. Thomas Jefferson, the principal champion of the separation between state and church, was thinking particularly of pernicious Rome in his writings. He deeply distrusted the narrowness of Vatican hegemony.

Now, as it happens, I am Catholic. And, as it also happens, on the legal merits, I am persuaded that the statutory argument in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor as to the issue of accommodation of non-exempted nonprofits is strong–stronger than the arguments the government advances. I also believe that a strong free exercise clause claim can be made in light of the individualized exemptions that have been meted out, though to date this argument is generally not being made. These are all legal claims, and so to the extent that any judge agrees with these claims, it would seem to me that they are putting the law first in ruling as they do. Others disagree with my legal views, and they, too, are putting the law first. They are acting and speaking appropriately about their views of the law–in good faith and by their best lights. I think it is a terrible error to believe that anytime a person disagrees with one’s legal views, the reason must be that they are acting in bad faith.

I will say that outside of the legal fight, and as to larger political questions, I do not see why exempting the members of “a nunnery” (as the author so tenderly puts it) from the compulsion to be provided with free access to contraception would constitute a Catholic war on women. I am informed that the members of the Little Sisters of the Poor are women. They seem not to want these products. I don’t believe anybody is waging a war on anybody else; it degrades the horror of war to speak in these terms. And yet, if anyone is conducting a hostile campaign against women, it is those seeking to compel these women to do what they don’t want to do.

Furthermore, if the author were even marginally more serious about providing evidence for her claims, she might have investigated how many of the other judges who have granted injunctions in these cases–18 other such courts, by my current count, and more judges than that–are Catholic. If they are all Catholic, is it also her view that they are all imposing Catholicism on the nation in violation of the law? If they are not all Catholic, what explains their legal findings? Are they all imposing their non-Catholic religious views notwithstanding the law? What if some of the judges who granted injunctions have no religious affiliation? Are they also imposing their non-religious views in finding for the Little Sisters? Or is it only when a judge is Catholic that it can be assumed that she is imposing her views? And what about the judges who denied injunctions? Are any of them Catholic? If they are not, are they imposing their views on the rest of us too? If they are Catholic, I suppose one could claim that they are the good sort of Catholic—Catholics like Nancy Pelosi, as the author puts it–judges who don’t impose their views at all. Still, it would be useful to have this information in order to assess the cogency of the claims.

I recognize that for people who write columns like this one, arguments of this sort are not likely to be persuasive. Indeed, once Ms. Stiehm identifies the source (me), she will surely dismiss out of hand anything that follows without bothering to read it. That is regrettable, but it follows directly from the reality that Ms. Stiehm is not really interested in law or argument at all. She’s interested in rhetoric; unfortunately the rhetoric that interests her is sloppy and misinformed.

Here is a different uncomfortable reality that columns like this should compel us to face. The long history of American hatred of Catholics is alive, and well, and flourishing. It is kept in fine and proud form by people like this, and given space to breathe in all kinds of prominent venues. It will intensify in the months and years ahead. Dark times are coming.

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