The Washington Post opinion piece “‘Fortnight for Freedom’ distorts true religious liberty” by Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, distorts matters when it compares the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on its agencies not providing adoption services to gay couples with segregationist practices in the past. I am not a Roman Catholic, but a Protestant. Still, there is something at stake for all of us, when sound logic is missing from arguments on ethical matters of national import.
Before proceeding to analyze this portion of Murphy’s argument, it is important to answer a few questions for my readers. First, what is the Fortnight for Freedom? The Fortnight for Freedom is championed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is a fourteen day vigil (June 21st to July 4th) that includes the following activities and aims: “this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action will emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty”.
Second, so what led to the Fortnight for Freedom? Namely, the concern on the part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that Catholics’ religious liberties as Americans are not being protected as it pertains to such matters as contraception, abortion, and adoption. Of concern are the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) stipulations that federal funding be provided only to those groups that offer services involving contraception and/or abortion and/or adoption for gay couples (depending on the scope of services such groups provide). Roman Catholic agencies in the relevant spheres do not provide such services based on religious convictions, and as a result would not receive federal funding.
Now to Murphy’s argument. She writes, “Don’t be fooled. It’s about discrimination plain and simple. And it’s not the first time this has happened.” She maintains that Catholics cannot assert their religious liberty in this context. She then proceeds to make connections between the Catholic Church’s stances on such matters as providing gay couples with adoption services and segregationist stances in the past.
This won’t do. For example, there is a major difference between racial segregation and not providing adoption services to gay couples. Regardless of what one makes of the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on this matter, racial segregation is based on skin color. For the Roman Catholic Church, homosexual activity is contrary to nature, while different skin colors are not. For the Roman Catholic Church, not providing adoption to gay couples is based on sexual lifestyle (as part of their theology of the family which entails not simply being, but also activity).
I need to pause at this point. While I disagree with Murphy on the connection she makes between the Roman Catholic position on these matters and segregationists, I am sympathetic to her point that many Christians have used the Bible to dehumanize those whom we see as not holding to a biblical worldview or ethic. It is important that Roman Catholics and other Christians seeking to present a biblically orthodox model of ethics argue for their positions based on what's best for the common good and the humanity we all share (I believe this is how Archbishop Lori argues in his Washington Post op-ed piece noted below; this is also how I seek to promote the common good and affirm people who practice homosexuality while at the same time arguing for heterosexual relations as alone warranted by Scripture in the chapter on homosexuality in Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths).
Now back to the previous argument. Later in her piece, Murphy writes, “And we have the right to act on our religious beliefs – unless those actions harm others.” But from my perspective, I believe this is exactly what is at stake for the Roman Catholic Bishops in the U.S. Whether one agrees with them or not, their stances on contraception, abortion and adoption for gay couples involve beliefs over what is best not simply for the Catholic communion but also for the flourishing of society at large. While Murphy does not mention abortion in her article, the Roman Catholic Church’s official stance is that abortion entails the ending of a human life. So for the Bishops, the religious beliefs and/or other convictions that support abortion’s legalization and choice over abortion actually make possible the harming of other humans. Murphy does not account for the Catholic Church’s stance in her judgment of it. Instead, her logic implies that those who don’t favor such freedoms as abortion harm others. Whether she is knowledgeable or not of the Catholic Church’s overarching theology of life, the Catholic Church sees such matters as contraception and abortion as vitally connected. Going on, the fundamental difference over the status of the fetus is at the heart of the long-standing debate, and cannot be swiftly cast aside regardless of U.S. laws on abortion. For the Catholic Church, what they understand to be natural law is more foundational.
What must not be lost in this case is that the Roman Catholic Church is one of the most able providers of social services in the U.S. to those most in need, including the sexually trafficked. According to Archbishop William E. Lori, due to the HHS’s stance, a Catholic organization was denied grants for providing services to the sexually trafficked based on that Catholic agency’s refusal to provide contraception and abortion services as part of these programs. If and when Roman Catholic agencies are not granted funds and as a result are not able to provide assistance to the victims of sexual trafficking, the government is not doing all it can do to protect those being harmed. In response, the federal government would probably argue that the grants were awarded to other equally capable agencies who were actually doing more to protect those who are being harmed. Moreover, a large amount of people would consider providing contraception and abortions to sex trafficking victims to be protection, both to the victims and to society at large. Even if one were to grant these arguments, limiting the Roman Catholic Church’s access to funding impacts negatively the scores of people in its large spheres of influence that it is well-positioned to reach with social aid. In the end, indiscriminatory logic like that of Murphy’s increases discrimination rather than reduces it.
I appreciate the ACLU’s vigilance over the years in calling on Americans to safeguard our nation’s civil liberties. However, in this case, I fear that the sweeping judgments like Murphy’s are harmful, for they keep the Roman Catholic Church from providing the most effective care for people in need for the many services they do provide—from the sexually trafficked to undocumented immigrants to those trapped in poverty. If the Catholics lose this battle over healthcare reform regulations, please don’t let it be because of a perceived connection between their stances today and those of segregationists in the past. Better yet, support the Catholic Church for what they do champion and don’t let those on the margins slip through the cracks because the able Catholic Church no longer has the resources to provide much-needed support.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths. This volume can be found wherever fine books are sold.