Bishops have lost generosity of spirit

Commentary in The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA)

By Robert M. Kelly


LEE: St. Joseph's grammar school on North Street, now demolished, consisted of eight grades packed neatly into a two-story brick cube. My mid-1950s tenure might be counted a success since the nuns drilled into my head at least one doctrine: that each person on the planet, rich or poor, strong or weak, fortunate or not, has dignity and an equal claim on our solicitude. The Catholic people are kind and even-handed. We have a duty to be so.

How then can we reconcile this generosity of spirit with the reaction of our Catholic hierarchy to the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage? The leader of the American bishops, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, called the decision a "tragic error" and said that "the nature of the human person and marriage remains unchanged and unchangeable." He and other bishops plan to mobilize their objections "as citizens," to quote Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston. Their campaign will undoubtedly include attempts to activate the Catholic vote for legislation which they favor.


The reconciliation of our bishops' attitude with the generosity of spirit mentioned above is complex, but a timeline can be established. It begins with the events around 1776. The Catholic Church had been dominant in some countries and a minority religion in others. But, in America, religious pluralism was the native condition under a constitutional government of limited powers. The founding documents acknowledge a supreme being, but our founders allowed for religious belief without mandating it. Governmental care for religion would consist in allowing all religions to follow their spiritual mission, provided they respected the rule of law.

The other great revolution of the 18th century in France was the first exercise in totalitarian democracy, a horrific result that church leaders were anxious to avoid. The 19th-century popes, notably Leo XIII, believed that natural law and divine revelation confirmed the rightness of Catholic dominance in society. The thesis, or ideal, was that every person in every country should be Catholic. When the church could not achieve dominance, the hypothesis — tolerance — came into play. Under this rule other religions could be tolerated, if it was not possible to exterminate them, that is, to force their doctrines and influence outside the bounds of society.

Catholic progress toward cooperation with government and other religions was painfully slow. Leo XIII even pronounced an anathema on "Americanism" around 1900, but fortunately this heresy based on the separation of church and state was short-lived. By the mid-20th century an aptly-named document of the Vatican II conference, "Dignitatis humanae" (Of the Dignity of the Human Person) finally conceded that all people should enjoy freedom of religion, even where the Catholic church was dominant. This new doctrine rejected coercion in favor of humility and restraint. Meanwhile, the American experiment had proven many times over that a limited government without religious uniformity could be stable and productive.

The political part of this story came to a head in 1993 with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which created new rights for religious believers. Where the 1990 Smith decision of the Supreme Court had respected "neutral laws of general applicability" this legislative reaction, led by Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, enshrined belief over actions.

Under RFRA, according to a recent statement by the U.S. bishops, "any exercise of religion" must prevail in a conflict of interests whether that exercise or belief was "acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible." The broad sweep of the definition explains why, even though the federal RFRA has been found unconstitutional as applied to the states, new RFRAs at the state level are continually being proposed.

A pitched battle over RFRAS, state by state, looms. It's too early to tell if the bishops' civil strategies to support them will prevail. The Catholic culture within each state where RFRAs are proposed will be important, perhaps even decisive.


But, even if the bishops win the civil argument, and help pass legislation which legitimizes intolerance, there is still the matter of the moral consensus within the Catholic community, which is far from resolved. It's not so much that the bishops are on the wrong side of history. It seems to this observer that they seek to float above history, unencumbered by and unconcerned about the evolving needs of those around us.

Surely this is not the Catholic way as taught by the Sisters of Saint Joseph on North Street.

Robert M. Kelly is an occasional Eagle contributor.