Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"The Effort to Americanize the Catholic Church"

John Carroll, Bishop of Baltimore, became the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States in 1789. As Daniel Walker Howe notes in his Pulitzer Prize winning history, What Hath God Wrought, just how he became bishop is worthy of note: he was "elected bishop by his clerical colleagues."

Those who know how the Catholic Church operates know that this is not how things are generally done in Rome. It was, however, how things were generally done in the United States. So Rome discreetly (and wisely) let that one slide.

Howe says that Carroll "undertook to demonstrate to a skeptical public that his church could reconcile itself to republicanism" and that "American Catholics embraced freedom of religion." When the pope appointed John England Bishop of Charleston in 1820, England
carried the effort to Americanize the Catholic Church still further, creating a written constitution for his diocese that included participation by elected delegates, clerical and lay, in an annual convention.
All of these efforts to be more American had a single source: the knowledge that the overwhelmingly Protestant majority did not trust Catholics, believed they were under the direct control of the pope, and thus were not really good Americans, because they could not be good republicans.

The connection between anti-republicanism and Catholicism was not just a paranoid Protestant delusion. In fact, the Catholic Church in Europe at the time was closely aligned with the post-French Revolution conservative ideology that explicitly rejected constitutional government.

Writing in 1814, Joseph de Maistre, perhaps the foremost conservative thinker of his time, said the idea that a "sovereign could reign legitimately only by the deliberation of the whole people, that is to say, by the grace of the people," was an absurd idea "which will never happen."

That absurd idea also happened to be the cornerstone of American government, as stated in the Declaration of Independence: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

For de Maistre, constitutions were "divine" in origin and not to be written down by men:
What is written is nothing.... Man cannot make a constitution, and no legitimate constitution can ever be written ... almost always these declarations are the effect or the cause of very great evils, and they always cost people more than they are worth.
This conservative ideology in Europe was supported by the Catholic Church. It was antithetical to American constitutional government. That was the root of the suspicions American Catholics needed to overcome in American politics. No wonder Carroll and England made a point of choosing leaders "by the grace of the people" and having a constitution for the diocese.

The tension between the moral absolutes of religious beliefs and the demands of pluralism in a religiously diverse republic has always been there. It emerged again rather dramatically last week.

I come from a Catholic family and attended Catholic schools for twelve years, so I was not terribly surprised when the bishops objected to the requirement that the health insurance offered by Catholic universities, hospitals, and charities cover contraception.

Given that Catholics have long been a part of the Democratic Party's coalition, I was also not surprised that there was backlash within the party against the Obama administration's decision, nor that the president quickly realized that he needed to find a way to accommodate the objections.

What surprised me somewhat was the rejection of that accommodation by the bishops.

Before that, I think one could argue that the bishops had the moral and political high ground. But once Obama made a good faith effort to accommodate their objection, by making the insurance companies themselves responsible for offering contraception coverage, and not requiring the Catholic institutions to pay for it, they ceded that high ground.

By rejecting the president's proposal, they have reversed the religious liberty dynamic. Before, they could plausibly claim that the rule amounted to forcing them to act in a way contrary to their religious beliefs. But their new demand is "removing the provision from the health care law altogether." In other words, because the Catholic Church finds contraception morally objectionable, no employer should be required to provide insurance that covers contraception.

By insisting that the Church (and any other employer) be granted the right to deny certain coverage to their employees--even if those employees do not share their faith, even if the coverage is being offered free of charge to the employee directly by the insurer--the bishops have now entered the realm of insisting that their religious beliefs trump the rights of their employees.

As a result, this is no longer (if it ever was) about the government imposing its views on the Church--it is about the Church seeking to impose its beliefs as government policy. And that the Church has no right to do.

That the bishops cannot see the difference between these two things shows an unthinking ignorance of American history and the American system of government. Those early American Catholic bishops understood that they had to find a way to both faithfully practice their religion and politically assimilate to the culture within which they tended to their flock.

Despite their best efforts, for well over a century and a half, American Catholics labored under the bigoted assumption that if they gained national political power, they would try to use it to impose their religious beliefs on others. Over the last fifty years, that bigotry has largely disappeared.

(This line made the rounds on Twitter last week: "Fifty years ago, they were afraid JFK would listen to the pope. Now they're mad that Obama doesn't.")

Ironically, now that it is no longer burdened by that bigotry, the Church has seemingly lost its sensitivity to the political culture. Encouraged by opportunistic Republicans (who also don't really understand the difference), the Catholic bishops have put themselves in a position where one can plausibly argue that the bishops are trying to do the kind of thing the bigots always said they would do.

In doing so, the bishops have done a terrible disservice to every American Catholic over the last two hundred plus years who labored long and hard to demonstrate that Catholics can be good Americans, ones who can practice their faith devoutly without seeking to impose it on anyone else.

1 comment:

  1. agreed. Those lately who choose to push issues beyond their nature borders are facing a greater backlash of results. This goes for the prop8 issue as well as this birth control attack. (Did the GOP really think it made sense to not have women on their birth control panel?)