Last week I forwarded an email containing a new call to action by US Catholic bishops. The statement called for a “fortnight for freedom” to pray, fast and engage in political action against unprecedented threats to religious freedom. The bishops left no doubt that the principal threat comes from the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate to force employers to violate their religious beliefs:
Most responses that I received applauded the bishops. However, a few responses criticized the bishops, and some of the criticism came, not on behalf of the Obama administration, but instead from the political right. The writers are angry because the bishops also challenged laws, like one in Alabama, that are now trying to prohibit Church ministries from including illegals in their programs to feed, clothe and help the poor in their neighborhoods. As the statement also points out, “This new Alabama law makes it illegal for a Catholic priest to baptize, hear the confession of, celebrate the anointing of the sick with, or preach the word of God to, an undocumented immigrant. Nor can we encourage them to attend Mass or give them a ride to Mass.”
To some, the Alabama law might seem to make political sense — “We need to discourage illegals.” But the bishops were right to focus on a very different concern: as Jesus taught us, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s but render to God the things that are God’s.
Opponents of the HHS mandate need not worry —- the bishops “get it”. They aren’t reverting to some unfortunate bishop statements in past decades that did more harm than good. Too often, those statements caused the horrendous effect of providing unintended political cover for even the greatest of social evils, including abortion. That was because while they spoke out strongly against abortion, their desire to avoid seeming to take political sides too often made their statements seem to be saying that Congressional defenders of cataclysmic evils like abortion and other moral calamities were no worse than another Congressman who opposed some obscure new regulation on, let’s say, mercury-based paint. There’s plenty of blame to go around but what number of wrongheaded positions on the right could possibly measure up to causing the deaths of more than 50 million brothers and sisters? Because of those statements that failed to consider the magnitude of one threat as compared to another, abortion advocates were able to win the support of millions of pro-life voters by saying: “Sure you might disagree with me about abortion, the defense of the family and a few other issues, but just look at all the many other issues where the bishops are opposing the positions that our opponents are taking!” That was back in a long departed era, before those calling for legalized abortion also were calling, at almost every opportunity, for other programs that undermine moral decency and that also toss out constitutional safeguards based on an arrogant belief that five liberal judges are more astute than the founding fathers and the four conservative judges who uphold the Constitution’s intent.
In any case, the latest statement by bishops leaves no such doubt whatever: the Obama Administration has produced a grave crisis that Catholics are duty-bound to resist. No “moral equivalence” confusion here.
But defense of moral priorities must never prevent bishops — or any of us other believers, for that matter — from addressing other wrongs as well: defending what is just, right and moral no matter whose ox might get gored. If concern that the bishops might help Obama and Democrats because of what they said about immigration this week is our foremost concern, the problem is us, not the bishops. We may be altering our responsibility to God based on political maneuverings straight from some Machiavellian political playbook. At very least, doesn’t this kind of thinking say that religious belief must take the back seat to some perceived “real world” that is ruled by a political agenda?
But let me make a personal disclosure here about work with illegal immigrants. When my wife died eleven years ago, I left the practice of law to become a Franciscan friar for three wonderful years until unexpected family responsibilities called me in a different direction. As a friar in New York, I worked in both the pro-life and the Hispanic apostolates. In the second apostolate, I learned that some scoundrels would often pick up illegal day workers at a street corner in Yonkers to work on lawns and gardens, yet often would not pay them at the end of the day, knowing that the illegals wouldn’t complain because they feared what might happen if they were to draw attention to their legal vulnerability. So I helped organize the Obreros Unidos, not to oppose sound enforcement of immigration laws but to get CBS and other local investigative reporters to go after the thieving employers. We were quite successful.
Yet I favor strong enforcement of immigration laws — massive illegal immigration poses a grave national crisis. But, as the Republican presidential candidates including Romney and Gingrich recognized, answers won’t come easy. We need secure borders and also must discourage illegals in the future, such as by prosecuting those who hire them and by prioritizing deportations, starting with those illegals who persist in criminal activity. But we have neither the money nor the will to deport everybody — and that’s a good thing. Since the presence of illegals is a ubiquitous fact of life, churches should be praised for helping to feed, clothe and help with job training for those who remain. Surely conservatives will recognize that it’s also a lot better for everybody when churches act to relieve the nation’s social ills instead of turning to big government as the sole answer for every problem.
Alabama’s law is seriously misguided because it penalizes churches who do nothing more than the gospel commands. And while such laws don’t pose the grave threat to religious freedom that the Obama HHS mandate does, bishops would have been remiss in their duty and would have seemed partisan if they failed to mention them, especially since bills in other states are now trying to clone Alabama’s bad judgment. This new Alabama law makes it illegal for a Catholic priest to baptize, hear the confession of, celebrate the anointing of the sick with, or preach the word of God to, an undocumented immigrant. Nor can we encourage them to attend Mass or give them a ride to Mass.
Besides the HHS mandate and the Alabama law, the statement by the bishops also focuses on other challenges to religious freedom, all of which come from the political left:
- A bill in the Connecticut Legislature has tried to force Catholic parishes to be restructured according to a congregational model, blatantly trying to interfere with the Church’s religious freedom.
- University of California Hastings College of Law has denied student organization status to the Christian Legal Society, because it requires its leaders to be Christian and to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage. It is the only group the law school has refused to recognize in more than a century.
- Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and the state of Illinois now prevent Catholic Charities from providing adoption or foster care services because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit.
- New York City has tried to bar the Bronx Household of Faith and other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools.
- The federal government is trying to end the Church’s services for victims of human trafficking by requiring it to provide or refer for contraceptive and abortion services in violation of Catholic teaching.
Like other people of faith, bishops were right to address the need to feed and clothe the poor. That is not inconsistent with sound enforcement of immigration laws. Nor does it signal any blindness to the far more serious threats coming from the Obama administration. The bishops, as good shepherds, must continue to speak out in support of the gospel. That includes distancing themselves from those of any political persuasion who might try to turn the Church into their own political pawn.