The Fortnight For Freedom has begun.
Extending until July 4, the Catholic Church in the United States has called for “prayer and public witness for religious freedom” to call attention not only to the issues raised by the HHS mandate for contraception coverage but also to the important role of religious expression in American society.
One of the most often raised questions regarding the Fortnight for Freedom is “Whose freedom are we talking about?”
But a better question is “What do we mean by freedom?”
That is the question that seems most pressing to me, not only as I look at the public discourse leading up to the Fortnight for Freedom but also as I reflect upon how many American Catholics feel increasingly belabored and belittled.
Some of the strongest critics of the bishops’ position maintain that the Catholic church wishes to curtail the freedom of others. Since Catholic institutions do not exclusively serve Catholics, not providing support for contraception limits the freedom of those who do not subscribe to Catholic teachings about human sexuality. Underlying some of these criticisms is the point that the Catholic Church, with its all-male clergy and hierarchical structure, is an organization that doesn’t appreciate the full freedom of its members.
A response to some of these points was made by Baltimore Archbishop William Lori during a recent address as chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. Lori called attention to what he characterizes as “strange inversions” in the public debate about the HHS mandate. Against the claim that the Catholic Church is attempting to encode its doctrine in law, Lori observed that the Catholic Church does not want “to force anybody to do anything.” Instead, the issue is government demanding uniformity and coercing religious employers to violate their own values. While Lori did not address those who criticize the very structure of the Catholic Church, he argued that in the name of diversity and choice the government is effectively doing away with diversity and choice in the public sphere. Indeed, one of Lori’s central concerns is that HHS mandate relies on a very restrictive understanding of what it means to be a religious person -after all, people do not leave their religiosity behind when they leave their mosque or synagogue, church or temple.
If we were to place Lori’s points alongside those of the American bishops’ critics, we could clearly see reversed images that reflect different understandings of how to define freedom in a civil society. Not only do differing views on contraception involve strong normative claims about what it means to be “free,” there are differing understandings of what constitutes free expression in the public realm.
The context for American Catholic bishops’ position can be seen in Pope Benedict’s comments on religious liberty in the United States. Speaking to a group of U.S. bishops on their ad limina visit, the pope warns against cultures that seek “to close doors to transcendent truth.” Central to the pope’s argument is that Catholic teaching concerns what is necessary for human flourishing. Restricting how and in what contexts that teaching can be expressed impoverishes society because it limits our understanding of what it means to be a free person.
The Fortnight for Freedom seeks to reclaim a place for religious expression in American civil society. It is about acknowledging how religion can inform our conceptions of individual and collective freedom; it is also about ensuring that religious groups are free to be what they are without undue government interference. To their credit, the bishops have developed a series of reflection questions that consider some of the most difficult issues in this debate, such as what are limiting cases for religious freedom and also what sense can be made of competing religious claims.
Of course, the Catholic Church, as well as many other Christian denominations, has history of uneven and selective support for religious liberty--a point forthrightly acknowledged in a recent declaration of evangelicals and Catholics concerning religious freedom. To the extent to which the Fortnight for Freedom leads to an appreciation of religion’s contribution to American society, then it can be counted as something important and successful. To the extent to which the Fortnight for Freedom prompts wild invectives against those who understand freedom differently in this case, then it will have defeated its purpose.
The Fortnight for Freedom comes at an especially troubled time for American Catholics when issues concerning freedom are particularly pressing. Part of my support for the bishops’ general approach is informed by my own scholarly work on marginalized religious groups, often described as “cults” or “sects.” On one level, I see how the Fortnight for Freedom might contribute to more robust safeguards for minority religious groups. On another level, I see popular attitudes towards Catholics and Catholicism sometimes reflecting many of the same derisive attitudes often expressed toward other much smaller religious groups that also make strongly counter-cultural claims. While I do not subscribe to some of the dire warnings about totalitarian secularism, I do know that many Catholics--myself included--find themselves having to explain and justify their Catholic identity in unexpected and uncomfortable ways and contexts. I often wonder whether the outlines of the public debate would assume a different form if the central issue was not associated with Catholic belief and practice.
Of course, differing notions of what freedom means are very much a part of internal Catholic tensions regarding doctrine and authority that have manifested themselves in the wake of recent Vatican actions and on-going revelations about clerical sexual abuse. The Fortnight for Freedom will certainly not put an end to those internal Catholic tensions. But if it can bring Catholics and others together for a discussion about the society we want to create, then it will have contributed to making our public discourse a little more civil, and a little more free.
Mathew N. Schmalz teaches religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.