Playing the Birmingham Jail Card

Of all the claims made by U.S. Catholic bishops about their alleged victimization at the hands of Barack Obama, perhaps the most daring has to do with the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement. As they left church this past Sunday, Catholics nationwide were handed parish bulletins with inserts promoting the hierarchy’s “Fortnight for Freedom,” two weeks of public events and protests against purported attacks on religious liberty in America, leading up to the Fourth of July. The one-page message from the bishops was wrapped within the timeless story of African American struggles for racial justice.

The Catholic leaders called special attention to King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he quoted St. Augustine—“An unjust law is no law at all.” They elaborated: “When fundamental human goods, such as the right of conscience, are at stake, we may need to witness to the truth by resisting the law and incurring its penalties.”

Their April 12 statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” started the bishops on this path toward calling for unspecified civil disobedience if that’s what it takes. At the time, the prelates announced their Fortnight for Freedom, hastening to add that it would coincide with the feast days of several Christian martyrs.

This 12-page exhortation was not penned in a squalid prison cell. It was probably drafted in the splendid headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in northeast Washington, D.C., or in a cardinal’s mansion. That aside, the bishops appear to be making an astonishing claim. They’re suggesting a sort of moral equivalence between their grievances under Obama and those of the Negro under segregation.

In the bulletin insert, the hierarchs did not even get around to talking about their campaign until halfway through the message, after mingling their gripes with the “dark history” of racial oppression.

The litany of complaints begins with the Obama administration’s ruling in January that employees of Catholic hospitals and universities must have access to contraception coverage through their healthcare plans. And it extends to other disputes including whether local Catholic Charities should receive government money for adoption services if they refuse to place children with gay couples. (This past spring I covered a refreshingly civil debate on these matters for Boston College Magazine, and the article is available here.)

Consider a few juxtapositions between the April 12 letter from a distressed hierarchy and the epistle from a Birmingham jail.

Lynching and Licenses

The bishops: “Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and the state of Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services—by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both—because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit.”

King: “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity …”

The bishops: “New York City enacted a rule that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and sixty other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools for scores of other uses. While this would not frequently affect Catholic parishes, which generally own their own buildings, it would be devastating to many smaller congregations. It is a simple case of discrimination against religious believers.”

King: “ … when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) … when your wife and mother are never given the respect title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

Just and Unjust Laws

The bishops: “An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought … Catholics in America must have the courage not to obey [unjust laws].” And, the bishops, quoting directly from King’s letter: “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”

King: “Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.” (Note: By this standard, the contraception mandate is not unjust because it applies equally to everyone.)

There are fair contentions on both sides of the debate over whether government is going too far in one or more of the cases exhibited by the Catholic hierarchy. The matter of the bishops and Obama is not a simple one. But the question of their campaign and the historic struggle for civil rights is plain enough: there’s no comparison. The issue of segregation was black and white morally as well as racially, a simple matter of decency and justice. The fight that the bishops have engaged has little of that clarity.

The bishops would do us all a favor by positioning themselves as religious leaders who object to what they see as a debatable public policy, rather than as martyrs in the making with God and the GOP on their side. …read more

From a Reporter’s Notebook: Values and Votes in 2012

TheoPol has been out in fora land this week, attending two public forums and a few less-public discussions in Washington and Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. The public highlights were “Election 2012: The Values Behind the Issues,” a forum sponsored by Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center on Tuesday night; and “Is Religious Liberty Under Threat in America?” held one night later at Boston College under the auspices of BC’s Church in the 21st Century Center and Law School. Here are some noteworthy remarks by the notable speakers at those events.

Heard in Georgetown

E.J. Dionne of Brookings Institution and the Washington Post: The Catholic Church’s job in the political order is “to make us all feel guilty about something, to force liberals to think about the life issues and force conservatives to think about the poor. The Church now may be falling down on about half its job, making only half of us [the liberals] feel guilty…. I worry very much that the focus is on attempting to push Catholic social teaching and social justice to the back of the bus.”

Amy Sullivan of Time magazine, referring to explanations by spokesmen for the bishops that they haven’t the time to address both social issues like abortion and matters like peace and justice: ”The bishops are certainly skilled enough to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

David Gibson of Religion News Service, adapting a witticism often heard in relation to American Jews: “Mormons really are like everyone else, but only more so…. They’re clean-cut, clean-living. They lead upstanding lives. They’re the perfect amalgam of the American dream and the Protestant ethic.”

Tom Roberts of the National Catholic Reporter, after citing an Illinois Catholic bishop who compared “extreme secularist” President Obama with Hitler and Stalin: “When you’re using the most extreme language, there’s no way to step back, no way to admit nuance or different ways to think about an issue…. Religion in the public realm is almost destroying itself, because it isn’t real religion. It’s politics.”

… in Chestnut Hill

The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir of Harvard Divinity School, speaking of the mandate for contraception coverage in President Obama’s healthcare reform law and efforts to reach a compromise with Catholic institutions that oppose the mandate: “You go for the [negotiated] common ground, but if you can’t get to common ground, you keep the law and allow a broad exemption” for all religious institutions.

Cathleen Kaveny of Notre Dame Law School, on that same point: “We’ve got to protect religious institutions, but I keep thinking of the people who work for them and who might not agree with them [about the alleged immorality of artificial contraception]. What do we owe to the people who disagree with them?”

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, on the largely ignored question of religious liberty worldwide and the estimated 150,000 Christians who die in sectarian violence each year: “In the past hour, 17 Christians have been killed on this planet.”

Vincent Rougeau, dean of Boston College Law School: “We need to think about how we could engage [and support] Christians and other religious believers around the world,” in a genuine campaign for religious freedom. …read more

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