Pharisees and the Fortnight for Freedom

When I was an undergraduate at Saint Louis University, I studied philosophy. All the seminarians did – and that included me. I was in seminary with the Redemptorist order of priests and brothers for three years and, in spite of everyone who knows John Lesch laughing at the prospect of me in seminary, it provided the formative instruction for my vocational training.  One fine spring day of my freshman year, I and a few fellow seminarians (Vincentians, Jesuits and, in this case one Oblate of Mary Immaculate) were squatting in our customary lunchtime booth at the Marketplace in the August Busch Student Center when a fellow Vincentian (John Letourneau, who years later was in my wedding party) approached our gaggle with a big grin on his face.  At the time, John had been enrolled in a course called “Jewish Life and Thought” taught by Rabbi Schuck.  In that day’s class, Rabbi Schuck had asked the class a question (a majority in the class were not seminarians, but a majority certainly were Catholic – this was, after all, Saint Louis University which, for my fellow Minnesotans’ reference, is pretty much like a Saint Thomas University except in a dumpier neighborhood and which does a better job of acting like it actually cares about poverty issues).  The question the Rabbi asked was, “Do you embrace your faith because it is true?” (a few sheepishly raised their hands) “or because it is meaningful?” (whereupon the vast majority of the class raised their hands).  Rabbi Shuck let out a little belly laugh and then bellowed, “A million priests are rolling over in their graves! You’re supposed to embrace it because it’s true!!!”  Letourneau was still laughing about it when he arrived at our lunch conclave.  Everyone in that class got owned, courtesy of Rabbi Schuck. One of the ironies of that little exchange was that “Jewish Life and Thought” had a course catalog number that started with PHIL (philosophy), not THEO (Theology). This is because it was a course on Jewish theology taught at a Catholic institution – the pezzonovante of which would not allow a different faith’s doctrine to masquerade as “legitimate theology.”  And, for the record, I completely agree with that principle.  It’s a Catholic college, whose mission is to educate people in the Catholic faith. They ought not be required to teach a different faith’s theology in a manner that equates its significance to Catholicism.  This is the principle of religious freedom from which everyone benefits.

And yet, certain bloviating pezzonovante have grown confused about the principle of religious freedom.  Yesterday, the American Council of Catholic Bishops began their annual (5 years now) Fortnight for Freedom, a public relations campaign in which they seek to convince America that “religious freedom” goes well past their right to promote their own faith in a manner consistent with intellectual liberty – as exemplified in the course catalog numbers at Saint Louis University.  They now want us to believe “religious freedom” also means limiting the health care options for their female employees, or firing employees because they’re gay, or denying bedside hospital visits to grieving same sex partners.  To do this they exploit images of pious, overworked nuns laboring in one-room hospital wards populated by impoverished tuberculosis patients.  “Who would dare make these holy men and women forsake their faith by demanding they enable immoral activity?” they ask.  This, of course, is rubbish.  Catholic hospitals today are billion dollar enterprises, with lay CEOs who make multiple millions per year.  They run not just on the talents of doctors and nurses, but also on workforces drawn from poor communities – communities with women, with gay people, and people of other faiths.  If these bishops and CEOs acted consistent with their press releases, they wouldn’t even hire people whose lifestyles they disdain.  But that’s not how they act.  Large Catholic institutions are perfectly willing to benefit from low wage labor, even if it means hiring folks who may believe differently, or who may exercise their constitutional rights to health care options which are legal under common law but not church law.  But when church leaders are advised they’ll have to abide by the constitution’s equal protection clause by making these options available for low wage employees, they suddenly find use for the constitution’s free exercise clause to deny them - all the while refusing to recognize the stark reality that the flock has left them behind.  For example, 98% of Catholic women use birth control, while conservative bishops pride themselves on their head-in-the-sand stands on principle. Word to the wise: no one fondly recalls bishops during the time of Galileo who took a principled stand in favor of a geocentric universe.  And no one believes that their persecution of Galileo on the grounds of "holiness" did anything for the flock, or for God.

Anyone who’s watched the decades-long transformation of so many large Catholic institutions from mission-driven charism to profit-driven power understands the absurdity of US Catholic Bishops again entering the fray of politics under the false banner of piety and poverty.  Minnesota is only 5 years out from an ill-advised political campaign, funded by church money, to outlaw gay marriage in Minnesota.  In 2012, Archbishop John Neinstedt, who spearheaded the official church campaign in Minnesota, distributed a DVD and letter (I still have mine), which asserted, among other absurdities, “the religious liberty of Catholics and others would be threatened” if gay marriage becomes legal.  He trotted out civil rights activists to cloak their campaign in the mantle of righteousness, and it included the Archbishop lamenting that the "ruling elite" of legislators and judges were forcing gay marriage on the rest of us.  Irony abounds.  Speaking of irony, Archbishop Nienstedt had to resign a couple of years back after it was revealed that he actively participated in the placement of priest-predators in assignments with vulnerable children.  In the wake of that investigation, a trove of documents revealed his pattern of sexually harassing other men, in the words of one observer, “cruising for gay sex,” – a revelation which, if proved true, would only supplement the hypocrisy often evident when bishops enter the political arena.  I wish this were not the case. The Catholic Church has so much wealth and power it may bring to bear in healing the wounds of our society, but it remains haunted by high-profile mistakes which tarnish its moral authority.  This is why those who preach in glass cathedrals ought not throw stones.

Their “Fortnight for Freedom” belies a recent history of priorities toward political power over missions and, with healthcare, profit over care.  This probably shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Multiple Catholic health care systems rank on the list of the ten largest health care systems in America, and their individual annual revenues rank in the tens of billions of dollars. When once they competed to save souls, they now compete for quarterly revenue.  Losing political campaigns that seek to outlaw gay marriage, or declaring bankruptcy, aren’t good for a bishop’s political clout, and having to offer gay employees partner benefits isn’t good for a CEO’s annual profit report, so they’ve gotten together on this “Fortnight for Freedom” to take this country back but, as the numbers and opportunities show, they’re not taking it back for the rest of us.

It does not matter what you think of gay marriage, or abortion, or child sex abuse, or surrogacy, or any of the other myriad of political positions presumed to act as labels for a proffered faith tradition, if your faith is merely a smokescreen for your politics, then you’ll never be consistent in your positions.  The Pharisees repeatedly sought to bait Jesus into political positions – snares he repeatedly passed over.  How I wish leaders of the contemporary Catholic church aspired to such wisdom.  And how I wish Rabbi Schuck, and his belly laugh, were still around to remind us why we follow our faith.


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