Thursday, March 26, 2009

Don’t Know Nothing

A frontal attack on the Catholic Church aims at religious liberty in general.

By Michael Augros & Father Thomas Berg
March 26, 2009, 4:00 a.m.

‘Catholics and Catholicism are at the receiving end of a great deal of startling vituperation in contemporary America, although generally those responsible never think of themselves as bigots.”

With these words, the historian Philip Jenkins opened his 2003 study entitled The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. Mr. Jenkins might well consider it time to produce an updated edition. In it, he might ponder whether the recent renewal of anti-Catholic politicking is only an opening salvo in an unprecedented campaign to curb religious liberties in the United States. In which case, all of us — not just Catholics — stand to lose big.


On the national level, the Obama administration has not dallied in launching an assault on the pro-life convictions of millions of Americans. President Obama’s 60-day spree of Culture of Death accomplishments, as the Bioethics Defense Fund puts it, has been truly breathtaking. Nor has he shied away from what Catholic institutions must perceive as a direct assault on their exercise of religious freedom: the threat to rescind the “conscience clause” regulations instituted last December by the Department of Health and Human Services, which protect a health-care professional’s right to abstain from participation in what he or she would deem to be morally objectionable medical practices.

But beyond this animosity toward religious freedom on the federal level, a renewed barrage of jaw-dropping anti-Catholic mischief has been at work around the country.

In the spring of 2007, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a law forcing all hospitals to administer emergency contraception (“Plan B”) as part of their rape protocols. No exception was made for Catholic hospitals, whose standing protocols required the administration of an ovulation test (in addition to a pregnancy test) prior to making the oral contraceptive available. Rather than respecting legitimate differences of prudential judgment over whether both tests were necessary, the Connecticut legislature settled the matter with a law that forbids health-care professionals from using the results of an ovulation test in treating a rape victim.

In California, the Catholic Church is the target of venomous scorn for publicly supporting Proposition 8 (the measure that supports a traditional definition of marriage, as between a man and a woman), which was passed by California voters last November. In a recent instance, a Catholic church in San Francisco was vandalized with swastika symbols next to the names of the pope and the San Francisco archbishop.

In New York State, a proposed new law would lift the statute of limitations in cases of sexual abuse, allowing individuals to sue institutions for abuses alleged to have taken place decades ago. But there’s a catch: only if the alleged abuse occurred in a private institution. For abuse in government-run institutions, such as public schools, the current law gives victims only 90 days to file their claim (or, if the victim was a minor, 90 days after reaching the age of 18), and the proposed law would not change that. Never mind that accusations of sexual misconduct against New York City public-school employees are at an all-time high: 595 allegations were made last year alone, of which 105 have been substantiated, as reported by the New York Post. (It appears the New York Times did not deem that news “fit to print.”)

Even more over-the-top was the anti-Catholic bigotry on display in Hartford (again) three weeks ago in the form of proposed legislation that would remove control of church assets from bishops and pastors in the state of Connecticut.

On March 5, the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly, co-chaired by Sen. Andrew McDonald of Stamford and Rep. Michael Lawlor of East Haven, introduced a bill (SB 1098) that would force a radical reorganization of the legal, financial, and administrative structure of Catholic parishes. Titled “An Act Modifying Corporate Laws Relating to Certain Religious Corporations,” the bill sought nothing less than to restructure the Catholic Church in Connecticut. According to the proposed legislation, each parish would be run by a lay board elected by the members of the parish, with the pastor and the bishop effectively excluded.

After an immediate and thundering cry of foul play by thousands of Catholic voices, reaching all the way to national media outlets and culminating in a rally at the state capitol on March 11, the bill was quietly withdrawn from consideration by the committee.

While SB 1098 is dead for the moment, its proponents have asked Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal to render a formal opinion on its constitutionality and on that of existing state laws concerning religious corporations, which differ from one major denomination to another. The different treatment in the withdrawn bill does in fact appear to be contrary to the Connecticut state constitution — but proponents of SB 1098 may solve this difficulty with a new version of the bill that would impose a congregational structure on all “religious corporations” in the state; since many already have that structure, the Catholic Church being the most notable exception, the force of the new bill would be the same.

Now, the stated purpose of the bill was “To revise the corporate governance provisions applicable to the Roman Catholic Church and provide for the investigation of the misappropriation of funds by religious corporations.” Supporters of the legislation cited the sad case of a Bridgeport pastor who was convicted of stealing $1.4 million in parishioner donations to support a lavish (and covertly gay) lifestyle. If that’s the real concern, however, a thicket of difficult questions arises:

* Why was the bill aimed only at Catholic churches? Don’t other denominations and houses of worship fail in this area on occasion?

* Why, indeed, should the bill be aimed only at religious corporations? Are misappropriations of funds more common or of greater magnitude in religious institutions than in, say, the business world?

* Do we accept that any government has the authority to restructure private entities at will, in order to make it easier to enforce laws against fraud? Would we all be okay with our state government telling the Elks or the Odd Fellows how, henceforth, they shall elect officers, or how and where they shall spend their money?

* Since people are free to stop donating to their parish if they believe their money is being misused, but not free to stop paying taxes if they believe tax revenue is being misspent or embezzled, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus such legislation on, say, the General Assembly?

Call us cynical, but these questions poke such gaping holes in the supposed rationale for the bill that we cannot but suspect that ulterior motives were afoot.

First of all, Messrs. McDonald and Lawlor happen to be two of five openly gay members of the General Assembly. They also recently introduced a bill to legalize assisted suicide. (That bill was quietly withdrawn as well, after another outcry from Catholics and right-to-life advocates.) Could McDonald and Lawlor perchance hold a grudge against the church for not endorsing their personal views about homosexuality and life issues?

If a bill like SB 1098 were to become law, in Connecticut or elsewhere, its impact would obviously extend beyond the question of who controls the church coffers. SB 1098 is written to appear as if it restricts the power of the proposed lay boards to financial matters only, leaving the pastors’ and bishops’ authority over doctrinal and liturgical matters intact. But if by law Catholics were prevented from putting money into the hands of their clergy, where does that leave the religious authority of pastors and bishops? Suppose one of these newly constituted parish boards votes to give a paycheck to the first Catholic priest willing to officiate at a “Catholic” gay wedding. What could the bishop do to put a stop to it? Nothing at all if the priest answers only to his parish board. Now, wouldn’t that be a prized turn of events for the gay lobby around the country?

If truth be told, the anti-Catholic bigotry from without has been coupled with secularizing elements from within the church itself. Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) is a group of Catholics who take pride in their rejection of Catholic teaching on any number of substantive questions of faith and morals. It came as no surprise when they prominently supported SB 1098. Activists of their ilk have been trying to socialize and secularize the Catholic Church — along European and mainstream Protestant lines — for years. VOTF’s press release on SB 1098 clearly revealed its ideological bent, dismissing Bishop William Lori’s objections to the bill as “irrational, erroneous, illogical and biased.” As Anne Hendershott so aptly observed in an op-ed in the Hartford Courant earlier this month: “And for organizations like Voice of the Faithful that want the church to become a ‘democratic’ institution, the state becomes a partner in creating an egalitarian church that reflects the will of the people rather than the guidance of her leaders.”

In fact, SB 1098 is unconstitutional, running afoul of the First Amendment right of every American to practice religion free from government meddling. In the case of Connecticut, the proposed bill also trampled the seventh article of the state constitution, which guarantees the right to “support and maintain the ministers or teachers” of one’s faith. The same article also guarantees that every religion will have equal powers, rights, and privileges — again violated by SB 1098, which singles out the Catholic Church for the special privilege of state micromanagement.

Our country has seen its share of anti-Catholic bigotry in its past. Today we are witnessing a kind of Know-Nothingism redux, only with sexier and more sophisticated packaging. That is a tragic step backward in a period of American history hailed as a new age of progress and hope. As the accolades continue, Americans must keep a steady eye on their religious liberties. Open anti-Catholic bigotry is only one part of a much broader project of cultural “change” no one should believe in.

— Michael Augros is vice president and senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of Nature. Father Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.

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