In his March 12 column, Washington Post writer E. J. Dionne Jr. attempts some fraternal intimidation of the Catholic bishops of the United States prior to the meeting of the bishops’ conference administrative committee on Tuesday and Wednesday. The argument, such as it is, doubtless reflects certain currents of thought within the Church in the United States — those currents that are deeply uncomfortable with the bishops’ emphasis in recent years on a robust assertion of Catholic identity. But that is about as much as can be said for it; as a matter of theological or political reasoning, it’s pluperfect nonsense.
Dionne warns the bishops that, if they do not back off from their strong defense of religious freedom and find some way to reach agreement with an administration he insists is trying to accommodate their concerns, they risk becoming a church that no longer stands for both life and social justice. Worse, they risk becoming “the Tea Party at prayer.”
What this tack conveniently ignores is that, in a Catholic understanding of public life, religious freedom is a social-justice issue. When the Second Vatican Council taught that “the human person has a right to religious freedom,” that this right means that everyone should be “immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups, and every human power” in acting on religious convictions, and that this right is exercised “in private or in public, alone or in association with others,” the Council fathers were outlining some of the basic requirements of a just society: The just society recognizes the right of men and women to seek the truth freely and adhere to it freely, and embodies this right in constitutional and civil law; the just society does not use governmental coercion in matters of belief, nor does it attempt to control the internal lives of religious communities, in themselves or as their convictions compel those communities to be agents of charity in society; and the just society recognizes that both individuals and religious institutions enjoy these rights.
Thus when John Paul II, addressing the United Nations in 1979, described religious freedom as the first of human rights, and when the same pope, in the same venue in 1995, cited the role of religious freedom in the helping bring about the collapse of European Communism, he was making a profound statement about social justice.
Social-justice concerns, it might be added, are not the preserve of self-styled progressive Catholics such as E. J. Dionne. Indeed, progressive Catholics were noticeably reluctant to press social-justice issues such as religious freedom during the Cold War, a failure once analyzed by no less than Vaclav Havel in a brilliant essay, “The Anatomy of a Reticence.” Furthermore, in the ongoing debate over Obamacare, it is those “right-wing bishops” whom Dionne now deplores for their influence in the current debate who raised some obvious social-justice questions about the Affordable Health Care Act: Namely, how does this massive transfer of power to the federal government (one expression of which is the HHS “contraceptive mandate”) sync with the core Catholic social-justice principle of subsidiarity, its concern for the primary institutions of civil society, its warnings about the Leviathan-like tendencies of all modern states, and its preference for mixed private/public-sector solutions to social problems over state-dominated social-welfare schemes?
Dionne quotes a “wise priest of [his] acquaintance” who asks whether the Catholic Church is “abandoning its historic role of being a leaven to become a strident critic of government?” With all due respect to Dr. Dionne’s sacerdotal friend, one really must wonder where he’s been, and what he’s been watching, over the past two months. (It being Lent, I’m sure — or at least I hope — it’s not a matter of what Father has been drinking.)