Contracepting Religious Freedom

Thank God the bishops are using their clout against the attempt of the Obama administration to force Catholic institutions to pay for contraception. Although I do not agree with Paul Moses entirely, I believe he has a point in suggesting that the effort could backfire.  But that is a risk we have to take.

Unfortunately, politics today is largely part of our sound bite culture.  So many people are more interested in the outcome of the Twitter war than they are about having an in-depth and clear understanding of the problem at hand.  Political persuasion is to a great extent about perception. Winning a debate  seems more important than dealing with the fundamental issues. Clarifying first principles often clouds the particular agenda and appeals more to the intellect than it does to the emotions. Emotional arguments work better.

Partisanship is also an issue.  I am all for distinctions and hard ones when they reflect reality, but Republican vs. Democrat generally does not reflect the complex reality of peoples real interests and positions.  Certainly, neither political party represents the fundamental interests of the Catholic Church.

Yet the current problem does reflect a reality that could be conveyed easily on Twitter.  It is President Obama against the Church.  The interests of the bishops relative to this issue are not political.  They are not even confessional.  It is the age old problem of the Church maintaining its liberty from incursions into relgious matters by civil authorities.  And the issue even simpler than the current debate frames it.  The real question is not whether religious institutions should be exempted from paying for something considered immoral by their confession.  The real question is why anyone at all is being forced by the government to act contrary to fundamental religious convictions rooted in natural law and in legal history of our country.

During the last presidential campaign Doug Kmiec successfully convinced many Catholics that Barack Obama was the most pro-life candidate in the race.  Many of us were astounded.  Recently, Kmiec wrote to the president in respect to the present debacle.  He said:

In deciding against a reasonable accommodation of Catholic concerns in the implementation of the health care program, you lost sight of your own beliefs.  For this reason, your words this morning touched neither soul nor heart in the room. . . .

Today, Sir, I ask you no longer as an Ambassador, but simply as a friend, why put the cold calculus of politics above faith and freedom?  Please respond, for friendship will not permit me to disregard duty to faith and country.  The Barack Obama I knew would never have asked me to make that choice.

I still think Kmiec is very naive–at best.

Politicians, journalists, pundits and bloggers will now “soundbite” and “twitter” us with irrelevancies about women dying from a lack of birth control because Catholics don’t want to pay for it and about how the bishop’s are too conservative and partisan.  Unfortunately, many will buy it, which is very ironic, since the official voter’s guide of the USCCB is hardly a conservative or partisan representation.

Another irony is Paul Moses’ suggestion that the bishops employ the methods of Saul Alinsky.  This, he says, could build consensus.  Moses counsels the bishops to garner enthusiastic support by community organizing.  Grassroots support, of course, if helpful.  However, the quintessentially alinskian element here is the way in which grassroots support is generated by the ulterior motives of radicals in order to implement a preconceived and elitist agenda.  Moses rightly points out that Obama knows all about this.  But this is not the mission of the bishops. The Church is a voluntary society.  No one has to belong to it, but those who do have an inalienable right to follow its precepts without the interference of the state.   This is not about political maneuvering.  It is about keeping the claws of the government out of religious matters.

Politics is tricky.  We cannot do without consensus because politics is a matter of persuasion.  However, I can hardly think of a situation that is more simple than the present one.  The Church must not sacrifice her independence and the general principle of religious liberty for the sake of some vague measure of political coexistence and popular support. There is hardly any way to prevent those who support Obama’s agenda from casting the bishops’ position as a partisan one.  Caesar must not be conceded an inch of God’s territory even if there are political costs.

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St. Francis, the Sultan and Pope Benedict

The following excerpt is from yesterday’s Wednesday audience of the Holy Father in which he offered a reflection on the life of St. Francis.  This particular passage concerns St. Francis’ meeting with the sultan in Egypt in 1219, (my unofficial translation from the Italian):

Also the successor of Innocent III, Pope Honorius III, with the bull Cum dilecti of 1218 supported the singular development of the first Friars Minor, who went opening missions in various countries of Europe, and in Morocco. In 1219 Francis obtained permission to go and speak, in Egypt, with the Muslim sultan Melek-el-Kâmel, in order to preach the Gospel of Jesus there also.  I wish to underscore that this episode of the life of Saint Francis that has great relevance.  In an age marked by an ongoing conflict between Christianity and Islam, Francis, armed only with the faith and his personal gentleness, effectively followed the path of dialogue. The reports speak about a benevolent acceptance and cordial reception to us from the Muslim sultan.  It is a model that even today must inspire relations between Christian and Muslims: promote dialogue in truth, in reciprocal respect and mutual understanding.  (cfr Nostra Aetate, 3).

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St. Francis, the Sultan and the President

I wrote the following essay some weeks ago, but never found time to edit and post it.  Since today is the feast of the Protomartyrs of the Franciscan Order, St. Berard and Companions, I thought it would be an auspicious time to bring this to light.

While I realize the historical figure of St. Francis lends itself to romanticizing and mythologizing because of the singularly extraordinary nature of his person, as a Franciscan it irritates me to see his life used as a political tool.  Paul Moses on the CNN Opinion website, does precisely this as he attempts to have St. Francis sucked into vortex of Obama-mania.  In addition to being the author of the CNN article entitled “Is Religion about War—or Peace?” Mr. Moses is the author of a new book called The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace. Mr. Moses is at pains to state that he does not “mean to liken Obama to Francis,” but, goes on to do precisely that and, in the process of expressing his admiration for Mr. Obama, he historically misrepresents the Seraphic Saint. Continue reading