TheBishopsandReligiousLiberty,” the cover topic in Commonweal this past week, brings together opinion by six Catholics who know their way around and through issues of “church and state.”
What prompts the issue is the action by Roman Catholic bishops in the United States to declare war against government proposals and policies, which the bishops declare to be a war against liberty.

While all the writers find something or other to criticize in administration concepts and actions on the “health care” front, they all are critical of the bishops and ask them to “cool it,” not to exploit the scene for political advantage and more.

Several critics also argue that the bishops are hurting, or likely to hurt, themselves, their church and their cause, not because they are wholly wrong but because of their stridency and refusal to deal with the government when it adjusts and compromises.

It’s “winner take all” for them at the moment. 

Let me lift out some summary sentences by the writers and editors.

“There are compelling reasons within modern states to carve out a protected space for dissenting moral voices. But in the end, the tensions between the laws of the state and the demands of faith cannot be fully resolved.”

Amen. We’ve long argued that there is no way to draw lines between “religion and the civil authorities” (James Madison’s term) in ways that can satisfy all legitimate but necessarily conflicting interests.

William A. Galston, Michael P. Moreland, Cathleen Kaveny, Douglas Laycock, Mark Silk and Peter Steinfels, authors whose names will be familiar to anyone who reads “church-state” arguments, have sympathy for the bishops, but find their present arguments of no help.

Thus, the “bishops cannot base their teachings on opinion polls, but if they intend to argue effectively for religious liberty, they need to acknowledge the difficult ground on which they stand.”

The ground is difficult partly because the wider public and Catholic faithful are highly aware that the bishops have not convinced their own faithful of their case, certainly as it is, against birth control, less every year on same-sex marriage, though they hold their own against (most cases of) abortion.

Many Catholic theologians point out, as the authors in this Commonweal insist, the bishops are not making an argument; they are not even trying to make an argument.

They are merely asserting, insisting and declaring their viewpoint when they should set out to make their case. (Some of the arguments by some of the authors in Commonweal provide some arguments bishops could use.)

Since regular readers know that I do not butt in on intra-church arguments, I turn such over to Sightings readers. (You can follow thisCommonweallink and acquire online what takes up 15 pages in Commonweal!)

However, in this case – as in so many other church-state issues – the church leaders are engaging in public sector arguments and make no secret of the fact that they want directly to influence the forthcoming election, continuing legislation and urgent court decisions.

Peter Steinfels here reminds readers that Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses and, come to think about it, no other thoughtful and intense religious people will be able to have all their interests satisfied, and their consciences quieted.

That’s how things are in a republic, including this one, where there is not, our writers agree, a war against religion.

Instead, there are legitimate conflicts that await legitimate argumentation. Commonweal supplies some of that, in an argument without end. An argument which, in a healthy republic, cannot end.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.

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