When Words Lose Their Meaning: The Bishops, Religious Liberty and Dubious Definitions

By Lynn, Barry W. | Church & State, May 2012 | Go to article overview

When Words Lose Their Meaning: The Bishops, Religious Liberty and Dubious Definitions


Lynn, Barry W., Church & State


One of the sayings attributed to Confucius is usually translated: "When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom." I thought about this analect recently as I was reading a document from a decidedly non-Confucian source.

In mid April, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued its harshest assessment yet of policies from the Obama administration, New York City and state legislatures that add up in the hierarchy's mind to "Religious Liberty Under Attack." The USCCB "Statement on Religious Liberty" contains what are labeled "concrete examples," but in each instance, cited facts are misstated, government motivations are twisted and conclusions are erroneous.

And all of this rests on a faulty premise about what "religious liberty" can and does mean in a pluralistic society. In keeping with the famous "stopped watch" analogy, the bishops are right in asserting that "religious liberty is more than freedom of worship" - like going to mass or praying the rosary. Real religious liberty is broader than that.

I'd say it also means that government cannot tell churches what to believe; it means that we try to accommodate religious observance that doesn't have a significant adverse effect on the rights of others; it means government can't play favorites among religions or even between theists and atheists and it means that persons of faith can proselytize, evangelize and even condemn those who don't believe so long as they do it peacefully and on their own dime.

But it does not mean what the rest of the bishops' document demands. I'd paraphrase that demand as something like this: "We in the institutional church have the right to get as much money from the government as our well-heeled lobbyists can squeeze out of it, and we as a corporate entity demand that we be allowed to ignore any and all rules, regulations or civil rights laws that we don't like." (The bishops may not quite see their view that way, but I've never been accused of not calling it as I see it.)

Well, this construction cannot be allowed to stand. With this interpretation, the church ends up setting the rules: anything that violates some claimed tenet of some faith, no matter how trivial it may be, becomes a justification for exemption from laws that apply to the rest of us. Any adverse effect this has on anybody else is just "tough luck," merely the cost of doing the church's business.

Of course, the bishops' document also hits hard against the adminstration's efforts to have nocopay insurance coverage for contraception even though it has repeatedly tried to find a way to keep any connection between a religiously affiliated hospital and the act of providing information about access to contraception at the (to use a Latin phrase) "de minimis" level. …

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