Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Claude Rains, Call your Agent


Cardinal Dolan is shocked, shocked that the Freedom from Religion Foundation has mistaken the Roman Catholic Church for a political pressure group.

Oh, Cardinal Dolan hasn't said that they've mistaken the Church for a pressure group.  For him, the FFRF ad is Exhibit Z in a long history of American anti-Catholic bigotry.  But look closely.

(Disclaimer: I've been critical of the FFRF, myself, for another ad they placed in the Times.  I lend them no support with these observations.)

Read and re-read Cardinal Dolan's column.  Now read it again.  What is the anti-Catholic claim that the FFRF has made?  What text has he singled out as an attack on the Church?

You haven't found it?  Me, neither.

The closest he gets is characterizing the ad as "a whole-page sneer at 'dogma'" (which hardly is an attack exclusively on Catholics) and where he observes that the FFRF characterizes the Court's majority as "all male Roman Catholic," which is factually true.  He then attacks the Know-Nothings and the KKK, with whom he paints the FFRF guilty by association.

Now look further.  Here is the FFRF ad.  Read it closely.

In fact (contrary to the Cardinal's claims), I do find something like an argument here: "RFRA radically redefines 'religious freedom,' according believers extreme religious liberty, exempting them from laws they claim create substantial burdens on their free exercise of religion."  The ad even encourages us to read FFRF's amicus brief in the Hobby Lobby case--certainly, there we find an argument.

The ad has a strong point-of-view.  We should expect that from an organization devoted to promoting atheism.  But is this an ad hominem attack?  Only, it seems to me, if you cannot intellectually disentangle being Catholic from partisan, political activism.

And that, I suspect, is the Cardinal's problem.  I've been documenting this problem for over two years.  Find my treatments of it here, here, here, here, and here.

The Church must engage the world.  That means that the Church must engage in social and political activism.  But that activism is dangerous and the danger should be recognized.  It is easy to become ensnared in the worldliness of the rough-and-tumble, to lose sight of the actual objectives and stop acting like the Kingdom of God on its earthly pilgrimage.  More than anything else, Cardinal Dolan gives testimony here to how that is what has happened.

Notice that neither Cardinal Dolan nor the FFRF has mentioned that one of the dissenting justices in the Hobby Lobby case--Justice Sotomayor--is Catholic.  They haven't mentioned it because it doesn't fit how they see that label, "Catholic."  The FFRF is using "Catholic" as a synonym for "conservative Republican," and Cardinal Dolan feels stung by an expression of political disagreement that he only can take as an attack on the Church.

What Cardinal Dolan and the FFRF have in common is an inability to disentangle the Church from its political activism.  But the greater culpability belongs to the Cardinal.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched its political campaign while Cardinal Dolan was its president.  FFRF simply has been getting the message that the USCCB has been transmitting.  This is what happens when bishops make themselves indistinguishable from lobbyists.

Here is Cardinal Dolan's summary assessment of the FFRF ad:
as the professors of logic, rhetoric, and speech taught us in college, arguments attacking a person—instead of an idea, viewpoint, or opinion—are the weakest and most vicious of arguments…although, sadly, rather effective in firing up a mob.
And that’s the tactic at work here. An ad soberly criticizing the decision would have been part of the discourse that makes us such a durable democracy…and there have been such ads. But the FFRF, perhaps knowing that their legal arguments fall flat, instead attacks the people on the court, and implies that their Catholic faith makes it impossible for them to protect the cherished Constitution they have sworn on a Bible to uphold.
Judge for yourself.  But it seems to this writer that the Cardinal doth protest too much.  Why else omit any reference to Justice Sotomayor, surely the best evidence available to muster against the FFRF's charges?  Why dwell for so long on the history of anti-Catholic bigotry if not to 'fire up a mob'??

This back-and-forth between the bishops on the Right and the secularists on the Left now is as illuminating as the dueling press conferences at the White House and the Capitol that we get during a government shutdown.  But the impoverishment of that debate has been the bishops' recent work.  Only they can elevate it.

Cardinal Dolan is shocked, shocked that the Church looks like a pressure group to the outside world.  But I'm not.  No on else should be.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Speed and Post



My goodness.

This appeared so quickly after the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision that it's almost as though Archbishop Kurtz had written it before the decision was made.

It's quickness recalls the prefabricated political campaign that rolled out minutes after the Department of Health and Human Services announced its rules for implementing the Affordable Care Act.

We can assume a few things with some safety:

  1. Archbishop Kurtz didn't write this.  Not personally, anyway.
  2. A staff of loyal people at the USCCB prepared this draft, and another in case the Court surprised everybody and ruled differently.
  3. The American bishops have spent the last few years building as slick a political operation as can be found outside K Street.
Before we ask whether Archbishop Kurtz's example of the Presbyterian church and its service to the poor compares even at all to the facts of the Hobby Lobby case and the implicated rights of thousands of Hobby Lobby employees, more at other closely-held firms, we should stop to ask whether this is what Catholics should want from their shepherds.

Should a national conference of Catholic bishops be a lobbying firm?

That question raises a number of issues about evangelization, mission, culture, and the identity of religious groups that I won't try to address in this small space.  But let us say at least that Catholics are entitled to be able to distinguish their spiritual leaders from crass political activists.

That may sound harsh.  But there is one other important fact.  This op-ed did not appear in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.  Rather, Archbishop Kurtz's column appeared in today's edition of Mr. Murdoch's New York Post.  It is interspersed with eye-popping photographs of actress Megan Fox and Australian pop singer Iggy Azelea, as well as an encouragement on its back page for the U.S. soccer team to "GO KICK SOME ASS!"

As one who has had some success and more failure placing op-ed columns in newspapers, I know all too well that you get the column published in the paper that will agree to publish it.  Beggars can't be choosers.  Still, the final decision about where to send the column and whether to let a particular op-ed be published rests with the author.

I will let Archbishop Kurtz's venue speak for itself.  I will not dwell on the fact that it did not find a place in a more reputable, less salacious, less partisan newspaper.  But that fact tells us all we need to know about the USCCB's devotion to pressing its message, its commitment to lobbying.

And, it tells us even more about where Church leaders are coming from.

Monday, June 30, 2014

A Pandora's Box from Hobby Lobby

There is little to add to the commentary already available today about Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, save for this thought.

The Court's ruling--"very specific" as Justice Alito's opinion asserts that it is--is dangerous for the way that it accepts this premise from the respondent's brief to the Court:
...impact on third parties should be irrelevant to the RFRA analysis. Any time a statute takes the form of a mandate that party A must do something for party B, granting a RFRA exemption to party A will make party B worse off. But there is no reason whatsoever to treat exemptions from such Peter-to-Paul mandates as uniquely disfavored under RFRA.
It can be a bit difficult to follow.  But the gist of the argument is nothing more complicated than this: an employer's claim of religious liberty is what matters, and the autonomy of their employees, whatever liberties those workers might like to assert over their own access to healthcare, doesn't matter.

I don't mean to make that sound unusual.  Before the era of the Warren Court and modern constitutional jurisprudence, decisions like the one in Lochner v. New York have done much to shackle workers to the preferences of the person who happened to hire them.  There is nothing particularly novel about the Supreme Court or American constitutional law treating employees as little better than indentured servants.

The danger that lurks in the acceptance of that premise does not threaten the U.S. political system, its economic system, or the structure of our juridical system.  The danger really lurks for the religious groups who cloak themselves in this strange, anti-Christian argument.

"Am I my brother's keeper?"  Not if he works for Hobby Lobby.  Every man for himself, it seems, is the Gospel that Hobby Lobby believes in--a world where I can exercise my rights as though you don't exist.

I've been writing about the strange way that the atomism of modern political ideas has infected the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other religious groups fighting the HHS mandate.  The core difference between a religious perspective on politics and the one that emerged from the Enlightenment is a valuing of the community over the individual, versus the Enlightenment's valuing of the individual over the community.

Now that argument has prevailed in the United States Supreme Court.  It will not discourage religious leaders from pursuing this course.  The damage that can do to the position of religious faith in American life, its ability to offer something distinct from and better than what the secular culture can offer, is greater than any of these people cheering the Court today yet has thought about.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A New Breeze More Like a Harsh Wind

Celebrating his new presidency and the beginning of a new era in 1989, President George H.W. Bush observed that, "A new breeze is blowing," and, "the day of the dictator is over."

He was half right.  Maybe.

But as ISIS engulfs more and more of Iraq--a country itself inextricably linked to the Bush name after two Iraq wars--that new era heralded by The First President Bush appears more marked by missed opportunities than rebirth.

ISIS refers to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as we find it today in the headlines.  Historically, Isis was the mother of Horus, the Egyptian god of war, and also was associated with the wind.  She often was depicted as wailing.  And, so Isis is a fitting symbol for this climactically bellicose moment that follows so many calamitous misjudgments we quite properly should bemoan, a moment when the new breeze coarsely whips at us like a harsh wind.

The Cold War's bilaterally stable world was a historical aberration.  It followed the breakup of colonial empires in the non-Western world at the ends of World War I and World War II.  Those colonial empires tried to imprint Western values and ideas--such as the Westphalian nation-state--on parts of the world that lacked the historical context or cultural undergirding to sustain Western values and ideas without the imposition of force.  Once those empires disintegrated, the colonial framework was held in place by the Cold War's bilateral struggle between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.  When that struggle ended, the framework began to fray.  We saw it in Yugoslavia first.  But the post-Cold War world has been a world marked by the increasing re-assertion of ethnic and religious identity over and above Westphalian national identities.  It is the defining characteristic of the international scene since 1989.

The Westphalian state, we should say here, is itself an unnatural creation.  It's chief characteristics are fixed national borders and full internal sovereignty embodied in a legal framework unto itself.  People have not lived that way throughout most of history.  Historically, a nation is a people united more by culture, language, religion, and ethnicity.  They are who they are wherever they are, and they live according to their own norms and mores wherever they can live  The legal fact of a nation in the sense we mean it typically dates no farther back, really, than 1648, and it has been far from the way that men and women universally have lived since.

The post-Cold War world demanded serious attentiveness to building-up and preserving the institution of the nation-state once its colonial and Cold War supports evaporated.  But Western powers, the most typically characteristic nation-states on the planet, in fact went about quietly undermining the nation-state at an intuitively bedrock level.  The meanings of borders were eroded by free-trade agreements that made national boundaries economically porous, and the growth of multinational corporations with their jurisdiction-shopping, tax-evading ability to evade the sovereignty of nation-states that bloomed prosperously in the 1990s.

Yet, the signal moment in the decline and fall of the Westphalian nation-state came on the morning of September 11, 2001.  The most powerful nation-state on Earth was successfully and devastatingly attacked by a non-state.  That non-state arrested and re-directed the whole national public policy and culture of the United States.  At the deepest level of the conflict, in this sense the non-state actor won.  al-Qaeda succeeded to demonstrate that they understood the reality of the post-Cold War era better than the leaders and citizens of nation-states.  The subsequent years only have demonstrated this more and more persuasively.

Into what new direction did the U.S. lead the world after the 9/11 attacks?  The immediate aftermath of the attacks was a remarkable moment of international solidarity among otherwise quarrelsome nation-states.  France's Le Monde declared "We Are All Americans," and even the Chinese and Iranian governments offered outpourings of shock and outrage.  Did President Bush seize on international sentiment to define the conflict as what it was?  As an existential confrontation between nation-states and non-state actors?  Between the forces of rational civilization and those who want to undo it?  A fight in which every nation-state has a common stake, regardless of other differences?

Nope.  Good and evil.  Black and white.  Those who aren't for us are against us.  And, God help us, we are in a "crusade."  The Bush Administration's response to the 9/11 attacks actually fed the centrifugal forces of culture, language, religion, and ethnicity that have been pulling apart the international order, created new grievances against the West as a colonial other, and sharpened tribal and religious differences in the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, and even in Europe.  We invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, arguably the two most fictional nation-states on Earth, and destabilized the whole region.  Our involvements in those places heightened Arab and Islamic identity the point where an 'Arab Spring' swept over the region and beyond to topple governments.  And, now we find ourselves in a moment when the energy of these developments finally augurs a plainly unapologetic movement to supersede altogether the idea of national boundaries, that core definition of the Westphalian state.  What would define Iraq and Syria?  To be Islamic, not national.  Sic transit the Westphalian order.

What has happened has been the result of profound hubris and intellectual failure since 1989.  Nation-states generally, the United States particularly, have arrogantly failed to notice that our intellectual constructions are not part of the natural order, do not grow from the soil like dandelions and lilies of the field.  They can succeed, have succeeded, and are worth preserving.  But they are more like the delicate orchid, they require cultivation and care.  We have lived so long in the unnaturally accommodating environment of the hothouse, in the Cold War's bilateral stability, that we began to believe the whole world simply would keep growing orchids for us.  We have been wrong.

The nation-state is not dead.  The nation-state, as a symbol of political order, is the best idea most conducive to civilization in the world.  But it is on the ropes, and it needs help.  Like anything else, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that we have one.  We must recognize the real shape of the conflict around the globe in all its shapes and forms.  It will require international cooperation on a shared basis of Westphalian nationhood really to address it.

Else, that harsh wind will gather into a whirlwind for us all to reap.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Two Lents, and Counting

Two Lents ago, Cardinal George wrote that, “Two Lents from now, unless something changes,” there would be no Catholic hospitals or health care institutions in Cook and Lake counties.

This was, he said, because those institutions would be forced to secularize, forced to pay exorbitant fines, sold off to non-Catholic groups, or simply closed down in the wake of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its mandates for contraceptive and abortion services.

To be completely fair to Cardinal George, dozens of lawsuits alleging violations of religious liberty still are pending against the Obama Administration, and the status of these mandates is far from settled.

But we can say at least this much today: Cardinal George was wrong, wrong, wrong that Catholic hospitals and other Catholic healthcare institutions would be gone by now. That he overstated the danger is a plain fact. But, if it has a larger meaning, what is the meaning of the Cardinal’s error?

In the first place, when the Cardinal said that the 2012 Archdiocesan Directory might make a good “souvenir” of a time when the Church was free to operate hospitals, he offered a sort of hyperbole all too typical of what American Catholics have heard from their bishops since passage of the ACA.

Consider—
We see a pattern in these breathless warnings.

An argument that depends on hyperbole is an argument in trouble. Exaggeration arouses emotion, not thoughtful consideration. Overstatements are distractions, and the bishops have served up plenty of them. The question is: What is getting lost in these extravagantly overstated warnings about religious liberty?

Religious liberty is a human right, but the Catholic tradition sees rights differently than most Americans think about them. Secular political thought sees a right as something that belongs only to me. It imposes no duty on me. A right is a blank check to assert myself.

The Catholic tradition teaches that rights correspond to duties, and (in the words of Pope John XXIII), those “who claim their own rights, yet altogether forget or neglect to carry out their respective duties, are people who build with one hand and destroy with the other.”

What duties correspond to the right to religious liberty?

In a theological sense, there is duty only to truth. But these are political questions, too. They have implications that affect non-Catholics. The Second Vatican Council committed the Church to religious liberty, but Jesuit John Courtney Murray observed that “No formal document on the relations between Church and state issued from Vatican Council II.” Any political duty that corresponds to that political right remains undefined by the Church, and this present controversy is the result.

We cannot know the reasonable extent to which the Church can assert religious freedom in politics until the Church’s theology acknowledges some duties its right owes to the rest of the human community.

The beginnings of an answer already are available to us. For centuries, the Church has acknowledged the natural and necessary role of the state in human affairs. The state is a companion to the Church, and is obligated to pursue the common good. That is its purpose.

Martin Rhonheimer, a Swiss priest and a member of the conservative institute Opus Dei, has suggested that a modern constitutional state (like the U.S.) embodies the common good in its openness to all citizens, its procedural fairness, and its deference to the rule of law. That’s an interesting argument. If it’s right, it raises a next set of questions.

What does it mean when a modern constitutional state, through an open political process, imposes these contraceptive and other mandates? What if its aim is to reduce the incidence of disease, make healthcare more accessible and affordable? Public policy is not easy to make. When a broad common good is achieved, even if it poses complications for religious groups, might it not represent a compromise with the political community that they can reach?

Maybe yes, maybe no.

But there can be no exaggerating how little the right to religious liberty can be exercised in a bubble, or how much the Church’s own tradition insists that rights impose duties, too.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pope Francis Travels a New Road





Amid all of the refreshing signs that Pope Francis eschews the ordinary trappings of papal office, the renewal of his Argentinian passport ranks among the most extraordinary.

Reuters carried the story recently of how Pope Francis, who might enjoy a diplomatic passport from The Holy See as a head of state, has instead renewed his Argentinian passport and will travel the world as an Argentinian citizen.

The Lateran Treaty of 1929 settled the territorial sovereignty of the Vatican City State (known in formal diplomacy as The Holy See), and the diplomatic recognition of 180 countries around the world assures the status of The Holy See under international law. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice ruled that the pope is a head of state entitled to sovereign immunity from civil claims, just as a traveling head of state also enjoys diplomatic immunity wherever she or he travels.

While Pope Francis’s new passport does not surrender his sovereign immunity, his own status as a head of state, or the position of The Holy See under international law, it does signal a significant step away from the medieval legacy that gave those privileges to The Holy See in the first place.

For decades, Italian politics was bedeviled by “the Roman question,” the status of the papacy and the Vatican under Italian civil law after Italian unification in 1871. From the time of the Roman Empire until unification, the Italian peninsula had been a collection of small states dominated by the papacy. Even recently, legal scholars have struggled to account for The Holy See’s legal status as anything other than a holdover from its medieval status—an embarrassing problem in an international order begun in the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War.

It seems unlikely that Pope Francis will renounce the Vatican City-State or its status under international law. But to travel the world as an ordinary citizen and not a head of state goes a long distance toward disentangling the mixture of spiritual and political roles that has characterized the papacy and the Church since the Middle Ages. This is a major step down the road toward establishing the papacy as a spiritual ministry to the world, disestablishing it as a political force in the corridors of power.

But even that does not tell the most interesting part of the story.

The Argentinian foreign ministry has published images of the Pope’s new passport and identification card. What they say is extraordinary. In the space for a name, they say “Jorge Mario Bergoglio,” not “Francis,” “Francesco,” or “Franciscus.” Legally, Pope Francis remains Jorge Mario Bergoglio and a legal subject of the Argentinian civil authority.

This is a technical distinction, yes. Pope Francis has not given up his regnal name, and he remains a head of state even in the eyes of the Argentinian government. Still, even as a technical distinction this represents a dramatic shift in the Church’s and the papacy’s self-understanding.

The Roman Catholic Church has not accepted the legitimacy of the secular state with ease. Its consciousness of modern political arrangements was shaped by the anti-clerical French Revolution and the displacement of the Church from French civic life that followed. Throughout the decades that saw Pope Leo XIII lament the separation of church and state and Pope Pius IX condemn it, the Church clung to the idea that “the civil law [should] conform to the prescriptions of the eternal law." Only with the Second Vatican Council did the Church begin to acknowledge the legitimacy of a secular state separate from the authority of the Church. But even recently, the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty campaign has been premised on asserting the Church’s moral teachings against the healthcare law. The Church’s ability to define boundaries between church and state still requires some development.

A pope who does not clothe himself in the medieval privileges of the papacy to elevate himself above the legal authority of the civil state is a pope on the road to defining how the Church can accept the civil state’s authority.

With a new passport in hand, Pope Francis begins to travel down that road.