This Fourth of July celebrates the closing of two public Catholic events promoting the church’s mission: Nuns on the Bus and the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom. It’s all too easy to cast these two in opposition to each other as if they each expressed a different Catholicism.
However, it would be more accurate to see them as they are: complimentary sides of the same equation. Think: Ying and Yang, salt and pepper, good cop-bad cop. The nuns do not disagree with the bishops that we must defend religious liberty and the bishops join the nuns in opposing the Paul Ryan budget passed by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. What makes them different is the priority each places on their objective.
In a sense, these two events that started in June and conclude on the nation’s birthday maximize the choices behind Catholic freedom. Paired together, they exhibit the full spectrum of Catholic commitments. Much like patrons of a cafeteria can choose either beef or chicken for lunch, Catholics have a varied menu this summer when engaged in social justice ministry. But if one chooses beef for oneself, that doesn’t mean that other Catholics in line are denied the choice of chicken.
This is not to deny a climate in which different sides try to make their definition of Catholicism the only one. The current cohort of bishops seems to be following the top-down non-accommodating model of Pope John Paul II when he was cardinal archbishop in Poland: keep all Catholics unified under the direct leadership of the hierarchy so that when these prelates negotiate with government they have the full power of an obedient and militant laity. I would not deny the bishops’ pastoral charge to preserve the unity of the church. However, that unity is not the same as uniformity with a bishop’s political preferences.
Judging from the enthusiasm that has greeted the nuns on their stops, their event seems to have been better received than the tightly orchestrated Fortnight for Freedom of the bishops. The nuns’ approach is more traditional in the crusade for Catholic social justice: identify a bad law, educate the public of how it contradicts papal teaching and promote action at the polls to change the legislation. The bishops have chosen to argue not only for Catholics but for other faiths and they have framed the issue as a constitutional confrontation with the government that is waging war on religion.
To appreciate the degree of difficulty that separates the nuns and the bishops, consider this l example. The government puts fluoride in water on medical grounds but a church group states this runs counter to their faith. The government protects individual conscience as long as it says to the protesters, “You don’t have to drink fluoridated water.” That’s where the nuns are.
In the same example, the faith group says not only are they against drinking fluoridated water themselves, their ministry opposes anyone else -- of any faith – to drink it. Therefore, they protest that the government uses public taxes to put fluoride in the water. They insist that people who believe fluoride has positive medical effects should pay for such water on their own and not violate the rights of believers who do not support such science.
Moreover, the group is going to open up a faith-based water processing plant that will not use fluoride – but it would be a violation of their religious liberty if the government denies tax dollars to the plant. Without deciding whether or not the bishops have a case, this example shows they have taken on a much more difficult public task than the nuns on the bus. In fact, polls show the bishops’ effort is lagging.