A Tale of Two Churches: the Bishops and Religious Liberty

by | Jun 23, 2017 | Faith & Politics

Imagine you and I are debating the best way to slice bread. It shouldn’t be that controversial. Slicing bread is not difficult, and, even if we do disagree on how to do it, our difference should not engender moral judgments against each other. But somehow we find ourselves in a heated dispute over bread-slicing, a dispute that quickly becomes personal and contentious.

Halfway through the conversation, however, you realize that I mean something different then you do by the word “bread.” What I call bread you call income tax, and suddenly it makes sense why I keep insisting that bread requires extensive dialogue and careful analysis before we can really talk about how to cut it, and why I have become upset that you don’t see cutting bread as a crucially moral issue.

This is a silly scenario, but nothing is quite as common in our politics as the situation I am trying to illustrate. Everyday we have arguments about justice, freedom, rights, and equality, only we don’t mean the same thing by those words. Indeed, some of the words most fundamental to public discourse – like nature, politics, even the human person – just don’t connote the same meanings for us.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this dissonance is the word “freedom.” The word can mean virtually anything, from the freedom to do absolutely anything that doesn’t harm others, to the freedom to pursue one’s ends and purposes according to what is good for one. In such a welter of meanings, one person’s freedom can look like slavery to another.

And so it’s notable that the US bishops are kicking off their annual “Fortnight for Freedom” for religious liberty this week. Begun in 2012 to underline threats to religious freedom in the U.S and abroad, this year’s Fortnight is a bit different, as it features a renewed emphasis on the connection between religious liberty and immigration. The two issues are closely linked, the bishops argue:     

National and local Catholic charitable agencies around the country have long provided services to people in need, regardless of immigration status. However, several states have passed laws that forbid what state legislatures consider “harboring” of undocumented immigrants—and what the Church considers Christian charity and pastoral care to those immigrants.

This linkage is clever. Just as religious liberty has been cast as a conservative issue, care for the immigrant and refugee has sadly been presented as a boutique concern of the Left. But the bishops’ move pushes back against such ideological boundaries. Many have argued that the bishops pay more attention to religious liberty than to immigration, and implicitly that they are in the conservatives’ pocket. But the linkage between the two issues ought to show that the bishops are not just conservatives, and that they intend to challenge both the Left and the Right. In short, linking immigration to religious liberty promises to expand our vision of religious liberty beyond conventional partisan boundaries.

But will it?


One reason to think that it will not is past experience: the US bishops have linked immigration to religious liberty before, but to little effect. Perhaps those Catholics already persuaded of the need to bolster religious liberty support that message and ignore the immigration dimension, whereas those turned off by that push won’t be drawn in by the immigration angle.

After all, American Catholics are good at cherry-picking policy statements they like from the bishops, and criticizing the bishops for those they don’t like. So politically conservative Catholics quote the bishops on a series of policies called “pro-life” issues, but then dismiss them on the economy and immigration. Politically liberal Catholics similarly endorse the bishops’ stance on a menu of topics usually called “social justice” issues, while decrying their pro-life politics. For many Catholics, in other words, it must be rather confusing, if not distressing, to see the bishops agree with them on other policy issues, but not on others.

Here we need to sit with a difficult truth: the bishops are complicated political actors. Like most intelligent people, the bishops’ political views transgress partisan divisions. And unlike most people, even intelligent ones, the bishops seek to put their faith ahead of their politics. And whereas most Americans feel completely justified in speaking on any political matter they wish, no matter their level of competence (or lack thereof) on the matter, the bishops must constantly justify their statements, explaining to often suspicious audiences why in general they teach on political and social topics, and in particular why they are addressing this or that issue at hand.

All of these factors play out in the bishops’ appeal to freedom. And this is where freedom looks a lot like our bread example.

For many on the Right, religious liberty is an essential check on government authority. But if the “freedom” of religious liberty is a freedom from government, what is it a freedom for? As the GOP has become increasingly influenced by economic libertarianism, it has in general become less preoccupied with what freedom is for: the personal character and virtues that build up families, churches and communities, and have traditionally been the concern of conservatism. It then becomes difficult to explain how the freedom from governmental authority ought to be connected to a freedom to help and serve others, notably in this case immigrants. And so for many on the Right, they applaud the bishops’ emphasis on liberty, but ask that they not be told how to make use of that liberty. The bishops’ challenge thus has to show the connection between liberty and virtue.

On the Left, freedom is profoundly moral, but in a way that is deeply ambivalent about authority and truth.1 As Robert Kraynak argues, the Left often “defends dignity with doubt”: it protects personal freedom by denying that anyone can have access to the kind of truth needed to make claims about how communities should be organized.

Because of the Left’s ambivalence toward authority, it tends to worry that public interventions of organizations like the bishops’ conference are plays for power disguised as disinterested statements of truth. For the Left, then, freedom is not normally used to bolster public bodies like the Church, but to limit them. And so for many on the Left, the bishops’ language of “freedom” will not seem to be a call for authentic liberty, but cover for a power grab. And so the bishops’ challenge is to proclaim the truth in a way that moves past such skepticism about truth and suspicion of power.

This is what the bishops are up against in so provocatively linking immigration to religious liberty. The bishops are trying to address what can at times feel like two different churches, Left and Right, in the midst of a much broader culture of secularism. Can the bishops craft a message that transcends such divisions and draws Catholics and US citizens toward common ground? And can American Catholics – and all Americans of good will – respond generously to such efforts toward finding common ground?


Image courtesy Catholic News Service.

  1. I mean primarily the secular Left, but partisans of the Left within the Catholic Church are more likely than members of the Right within the Church to espouse this ambivalence.

Bill McCormick, SJ

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