Religious Freedom, the Supreme Court, & the Catholic Hegemonic Impulse

The Catholic Church is not a democratic institution. Even in my lifetime, it called for and accepted government favor and authority when it could; and such struggles continue in places like Poland.

In the USA this call for official preference has been somewhat muted due to our First Amendment and (increasingly beleaguered) heritage of religious toleration. But the impulse has persisted, manifesting in various ways.

The worst example of this spirit is, of course, the massive, ongoing international conspiracy to protect the widespread priestly cult of pedophilia. This scourge, though increasingly unmasked and under siege, has nonetheless tainted many American church priests and leaders, and reached even the throne of Peter,  including the papacy of “Saint” John Paul II and the reign of the Vatican’s current occupant.

Less visible is the church’s oppressive internal history, involving the Inquisition, heresy hunts, official homophobia, misogyny, and censorship, plus its long acceptance of slavery and racism. I still remember vividly my own encounter with the Church’s 400 year old “Index of Forbidden Books,” described here.

To be sure, there are Catholic liberals and radicals, like Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker movement. I have been honored to stand and march with some of Day’s successors for peace and against public crimes of torture.

Patrick O’Neill, a Catholic Worker activist, at a protest against U.S. torture in the “War on Terror.”

But these figures, some more deserving of sainthood than many in the officially haloed Registers, are marginal to the institution. They may save its soul, but meantime its institutional hands, in alliance with other would-be theocrats, are clawing at the liberal order to advance the old authoritarian agendas.

Which brings us to the Supreme Court.

With Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination, writes NYTimes columnist Elizabeth Breunig, we are confronted by another opportunity to ponder the disputed and shifting frontier between church and state.

“Generally, contemporary American Catholics aren’t particularly beholden to the church; as I wrote recently, the logic of partisanship has replaced the moral primacy of the faith. That means that, for most Catholics, their religious beliefs never clash with their civic interests in a disruptive way. When they do, the solution is typically some kind of exemption from particular legal or civic obligations.

Judge Barrett has meditated on this matter herself, as a co-author of a 1998 law review article addressing this genre of conundrum. The essay considers the options of Catholic judges hearing capital punishment cases, which the state permits but the church forbids. Judge Barrett and her co-author maintain that Catholic judges must or should recuse themselves from such cases, concluding that “judges cannot — nor should they try to — align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge. They should, however, conform their own behavior to the Church’s standard.” With individuals, this kind of resolution usually suffices.

But Catholic institutions are another story: It is in their fortunes that [liberal philosopher John] Locke’s suspicions [about church power] have proven most prescient. Roman Catholic schools have warred bitterly over their exemption from anti-discrimination employment statutes, scoring a win in a case argued before the Supreme Court as recently as this summer. Catholic hospitals have found themselves embroiled in court battles for refusing to perform or even discuss abortions, regardless of state or federal law. And, perhaps most famously, the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns that operates nursing homes for low-income seniors, fought the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate all the way to the Supreme Court, and won.

In each case, Catholic institutions have asked for exemptions to various laws, citing the First Amendment. In Lockean terms, they have argued that business putatively conducted in the civil sphere actually belongs to the religious one, and thus ought not be subject to the rules of civil government. They are staking out and reclaiming jurisdictional territory from the state, in other words, and each victory adds ground to the church’s domain.. . .”

Barrett’s likely elevation to the court is expected (and by many, feared) to increase its willingness to carve out additional chunks from the public sphere, endowed them with increasing protections in favor of various religious preferences and prohibitions.

One particularly disturbing aspect of this trend, for me at least, is an expected push, sooner or later, for the resurrection of the “crime” of blasphemy, outlawing speech and expression that offends various definitions of the “sacred.”

The Beatles & John Lennon “more famous than Jesus”? Can’t have that. A poster at Kent State University, Ohio.

Here reactionary Catholics can find allies among zealots and militants of numerous other sects. And with blasphemy will come censorship.

These latter two are very much alive in much of the world, usually under cover of various pietist rationalizations.  For Elizabeth Breunig, this struggle, which is not new even in the (once liberal) United States “seems poised to keep us in shocking, surprising times.“

That may be an understatement.

5 thoughts on “Religious Freedom, the Supreme Court, & the Catholic Hegemonic Impulse”

  1. Where are these Catholics that are calling for blasphemy laws? There may be a few fringe people, but I haven’t seen any serious talk like this.

  2. I hear, appreciate, and share your concern for freedom of speech and of conscience. But much of this writing reminds me uncomfortably of the long ugly American history of anti-Catholic prejudices and conspiracy theories, back to the Know-Nothings, who claimed that Catholicism was fundamentally anti-democratic and that Catholics were plotting to force their religion on America and install the Inquisition, and to Maria Monk, who also believed in an international conspiracy to conceal a widespread Catholic habit of child abuse.
    I do see that child abuse is a real and terrible thing. I’ve loved, admired, grieved for, and tried to help various survivors of such abuse. And it troubles me when concern about child abuse twists into animus against some specific Other group, whether that’s Catholics or Democrats or… So far as I know, the horror of people in trusted positions in religious communities preying on children, and the further horror of religious communities trying harder to save their reputations than to protect the children, has happened in a wide variety of religious communities, including some Quaker ones.
    I do see that there’s a great danger of “religious freedom’ for a preferred group (here in the US, Christians) being used as a cover for undermining the rights of women, LGBT folks, religious minorities, etc. I think that is terribly wrong on many levels and I think we need to name and oppose it. But I think it is neither accurate nor tactically useful to conflate that opposition with opposition to one particular church.
    (So says this Quaker Catholic Worker who has never been Catholic but has worked and prayed with and admired many who are.)

    1. Poor Dears. Of course in a lifetime of dealing with anti=gay prejudice from this sleazy organization, I as a good liberal should just accept that I am a bad person for my anti-catholic “animus”. The idea that an organization that has had as a middle range managers compensation package the access to the bodies of the little children for centuries gives the normal person pause. The power they have so violently wielded against us for all these justifies they’re immediate expulsion for society.

      1. I’m definitely not suggesting that you are a bad person. I am sorry I gave that impression. I hear you about the pain of dealing with anti-gay prejudice, and I am sorry you’ve had to carry that.

        I do disagree with the suggestion that Catholics should be “immediately expelled from society” because some well-connected Catholics have done horrible things (and no, I don’t think those horrible things are either officially or uniquely Catholic, as I said above). I don’t know any group that hasn’t had prominent members do appalling harm. I think we need to learn to live with each other with some degree of compassion and courtesy.

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