Wednesday, March 21, 2012

More reflections on the bishops' "Religious Liberties" campaign...

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  This is the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

In a previous blog article I said I wasn't a Constitutional law expert so I wouldn't enter the debate.  After reading the Amendment, case law, secular and church history, and reflecting upon all, I decided to offer some more reflections about "religious liberty." 

The First Amendment was written by people who came from European countries where secular and religious governments were intertwined if not synonymous for centuries.  In Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was crumbling as people rejected church/state entanglement.  The Catholic Church was losing secular control but not without a fight.  For example, many Calvinists came to America fleeing religious persecution such as the Huguenots whom the 1700s Roman Catholic Church in France persecuted for their religious beliefs. The Church of England had broken from the Holy Roman Empire and was imposing its own form of control on other minority denominations as well as persecuting Roman Catholics so as to keep the Roman Catholic Church from regaining secular power in England.   

As denominations broke free from state religions such as the Holy Roman Empire or the Church of England, they endured persecutions or even death.  But the conscience of people prevailed despite persecution.  Thus, by the late 1700s, Europe had a patchwork of different Christian denominations where for centuries it primarily had the Roman Catholic Church.

In the American colonies, Catholics were a minority and experienced widespread religious persecutions.  This is likely attributable to colonists, with recent memories of persecutions and control suffered at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church, trying to prevent the recurrence of a power structure which allowed those atrocities.  Sadly, it is common for a persecuted people, once freed, to impose persecutions upon their former persecutors.  It’s not any more right, but history shows it is a common reaction. 

Nonetheless, the 1787 American Constitutional Convention reflected Europe’s religious patchwork but carried a predominance of delegates that were not Roman Catholic, a reflection of the colonies’ population demographics but an inversion of Europe’s demographics.  The 55 delegates had these religious affiliations: 49 Protestants (28 Anglican, 8 Presbyterian, 7 Congregationalists, 2 Lutheran, 2 Dutch Reform, and 2 Methodist), 3 Roman Catholics, and 3 other.  Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine were anti-clerical and/or deists – not really subscribing to any denomination.

The Framers of the Constitution seemed to want to protect religious organizations from imposing their morals upon others.  They saw the ill effects of religious institutions that carried secular power.   In their minds, things like the Roman Catholic Church’s Canon Law should not impact those who did not wish to be subject to it.   

We fast forward to today where the Catholic bishops are twisting the First Amendment in an attempt to regain and expand religious institutions’ secular powers.  In bishops’ interpretation of the First Amendment, the “free exercise” of religion includes granting religious institutions control over individuals in as broad of domain as the religious institutional leaders define.  And, boundaries of what falls within the church’s domain of control expand back towards those exercised in the Holy Roman Empire days.  The bishops believe that an individual’s “free exercise” of religion includes insisting individuals – even those of different faiths – relinquish control of their lives and bodies to the bishops if the bishops feel they are within their span of control – and more and more people seem to fall within what the bishops believe is their span of control.   

Furthermore, if the bishops believe something is within the Roman Catholic Church’s domain of control, then they believe Roman Catholic Canon Law should supersede U.S. laws.  Thus, they seem to be using the First Amendment to justify religious institutions’ governing bodies as legitimate alternative governments to U.S. secular governments.  These religious governing bodies operate within the United States independent of and immune to secular laws while at the same time being protected by those same secular laws that grant them such sweeping powers.   Isn’t this a form of moral relativism? 

Are the bishops indirectly trying to re-establish the Holy Roman Empire on U.S. soil?  Should Canon Law be imposed upon people who are not Catholic?  Does the bishops’ interpretation of the First Amendment constitute respecting the establishment of a religion, a violation of that very amendment?

Most prominent in the public dialogue is the bishops’ battle over insurance coverage for birth control.  They claim that providing such healthcare coverage would prohibit them from freely exercising their religion.  The church teaches that the use of artificial contraception is immoral.  And the bishops extend this one step farther that by being forced to provide contraceptive coverage, they are required to do something immoral because they are aiding an immoral act.  As an aside, the bishops don’t mind funding other immoral acts such as paying alcoholic priests’ salaries which enables them to buy alcohol, drink it, and exhibit destructive behavior.

Regardless, the contraceptive coverage rule has been changed.  Alternative funding sources will be used, so the bishops wouldn’t be paying for the coverage.  But, the bishops do not relent.  Instead they expand their boundaries of “religion”.  Now they don’t want anyone paying for contraception for their employees or students who attend their universities.  The religious freedom they want protected is for them to have mullah-esque control over the social practices of their employees and students.    

This expands their religious control in a way that greatly dehumanizes individual employees and students.  The individuals’ religious conscience takes a back seat to the bishops’ belief in institutional religious control.  Their argument really seems to be about which governing body gets to control people.  Should the bishops be allowed to impose their dogmatic beliefs on others, or should the U.S. government be able to impose its belief of how best to abide by the U.S. Constitution’s mandate to “promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty” for its citizens in a modern society?

The contraceptive coverage debate is not the only topic that the bishops are using the First Amendment to expand their control of Catholics’ and non-Catholics’ lives.  They are trying to use the First Amendment to make themselves and their priests immune from prosecution in criminal and civil proceeding for things like sexual molestation of children.  Their logic is that priests are religious employees subject to their bishops and Canon Law (the Roman Catholic governing model).  Thus, the Roman Catholic governing model should be allowed to handle sexual molesters as a religious matter rather than involving any secular governments, laws or courts.  This is another example of building a religious governing sub-culture within U.S. culture. 

Sadly, in country after country, the bishops are exposed as dealing with priests who sexually molest children in a way that protects the priests, bishops, and church institutions more than protects the children.  I know of few people who believe it’s a good idea to let the bishops handle sexual molesters independent of secular law.    

Also, Canon Law does not offer liberties to individuals.  The church has no Bill of Rights for its members.  So, in the bishops “religious liberty” campaign, aren’t they trying to use a secular laws’ religious freedom guarantee to force people to give more credence to their Canon Laws, which will in turn strip people of their rights?  Should religious laws be allowed to supersede secular laws?  And, if so, doesn’t that constitute the government establishing a religion?  Regardless, Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world.  So, why do religious leaders wish to dabble in secular power structures?

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