Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the archbishop of Washington. John Garvey is the president of Catholic University of America.
Last month, Pope Francis announced that the Catholic Church would celebrate a Holy Year of Divine Mercy. God’s mercy has been a theme of his pontificate.
We all need God’s forgiveness. The pope has said, “I am a sinner.” The Catholic Church’s response to our human frailty is not condemnation but mercy. There may be no institution that understands this better.
Recent laws enacted by the D.C. Council would have us believe otherwise. The Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act and the Human Rights Amendment Act purport to address “discrimination” by institutions such as ours, the Archdiocese of Washington and the Catholic University of America. The putative victims of this discrimination are people who part ways with church teaching about unborn life and sexual autonomy.
Consider the reproductive health law, which the council says is designed to prevent discrimination against employees who have abortions, have sex outside marriage or seek sterilization or other means to prevent pregnancy. Given the effort expended and ink spilled on this purported civil rights measure, you would think the church was hunting out sexual offenders and fining or firing them. But the church understands that we are all sinners, all equally deserving of punishment (if it comes to that) and all equally in need of God’s mercy. We are not in the business of privileging some sinners over others.
The church’s message, though, is one of mercy, not moral indifferentism. That is why we object to these two laws. They ask for much more than mercy and understanding. Consider again the reproductive health law. It forbids an employer to “discriminate against an individual” on the basis of her “reproductive health decision making.” Suppose your job is pro-life education in the archdiocese’s Department of Life Issues. We can imagine a woman who had an abortion working effectively in that office. (Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement and a great witness to life, had an abortion when she was 21.) But suppose you continue to believe that abortion was the right choice for you to make and honesty compels you to share that opinion with other women in your circumstances. A law forbidding discrimination on the basis of “reproductive health decision making” would seem to prevent the church from challenging or dismissing such an employee, even though she is working at odds with the mission of the office that hired her.
We have similar concerns about the Human Rights Amendment law. It says that religious institutions are guilty of discrimination against gay and lesbian student groups if, in the words of the committee report, they deny them the same “rights and facilities as other officially recognized student groups.” The Catholic Church’s views about sexual autonomy, like its views about reproductive health, are more traditional than those held by the D.C. Council. But it seems peculiar to say that the church discriminates, in some morally objectionable way, by declining to give official support to groups that hold views opposed to its own.
Mercy is not the same as moral relativism. Disagreement is not the same as discrimination. The law goes too far when it demands that the church abandon its beliefs in the pursuit of an entirely novel state of equality.
The D.C. Council has failed to appreciate this point. Reluctantly, we turned to Congress for a resolution of disapproval. This procedure is in keeping with the American tradition of political appeal against political decisions. If that course of action fails, we have no doubt we will eventually prevail in court. The respect for religious freedom that we ask for is enshrined in the Constitution. But we hope that our elected officials can also see that it’s a matter of common sense.
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