Whose Religious Liberty Is It Anyway? A Question for America's Catholic Leaders

"Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me." --Eucharistic Prayer IV from the Third Edition of the Roman Missal

This past Sunday, like other Catholics throughout the English speaking world, I sat in a pew and listened to yet another installment about the forthcoming changes to the Mass. Being in Church this past Sunday, I couldn't help but wonder whether I'm one of the former members of the "all" that will be lost in the "many" of the newly translated Eucharistic Prayer IV. It is amidst these changes and other issues facing the Church that I'm left asking why Catholics are not occupying the General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) taking place in Washington, D.C. this week. Observing the proceedings of the General Assembly, it's clear that instead of listening to the concerns of the laity regarding this new translation, the USCCB and its leadership have decided to proclaim an attack on religious liberty.

As Catholics around the country stand in bewilderment as to the significance of words such as "dew fall," "oblation" and "coutenance" to their personal spiritual growth and communal celebration of the Mass, Archbishop Dolan attacked what he described as "a drive to neuter religion." At the episcopal gathering, the leadership has argued that government actions related to marriage equality and abortion rights infringe upon individual religious liberty. In fact, Bishop Lori of Bridgeport (who also serves as the Supreme Chaplain for the Knights of Columbus) characterized the United States Department of Justice's refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act "as an act of 'bias and prejudice' akin to racism, thereby implying that churches which teach that marriage is between a man and a woman are guilty of bigotry." The concern that I have with Bishop Lori's statement is that it denies the ability of the state to discern and develop a secular definition of marriage. Perhaps what Bishop Lori forgets is that marriage is not only a Catholic institution, but rather a legal state and sacrament in other religious and secular traditions. Further, Bishop Lori should be careful not to neuter secular institutions of their constitutional responsibility to protect the rights of all and not just the many.

Considering the bishops' statements, it's only natural that we ask the Catholic Church what makes its definition of marriage more accurate than that of other Christian communities? For example, the Episcopal Church, Anglican Church of Canada, Unitarian Universalists, Metropolitan Community Churches, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and others all provide blessings for same-sex unions and/or marriages. Isn't the Catholic Church infringing on the religious liberties of progressive (and I would argue prophetic) Christian communities that have embraced marriage equality? Yes.

For the Catholic Church to argue that its definition of marriage is the only true definition is to deny the validity of other religious traditions to in a discerning manner define their own practices and beliefs. Bishop Lori and Dolan's statements on religious liberty are dangerous, in that if accepted they threaten not only the principle of separation of church and state, but also the ability of the state as well as other religious traditions to exercise their own freedoms independent of the Catholic Church. Demanding that an entire society acquiesce to the USCCB and the Holy See's views on marriage acts to impede not only on the Halls of Congress, but also the mosques, churches, synagogues and other houses of worship that exercise a freedom of conscience that is not, and should not be, subject to Rome.

As the USCCB attacks efforts to pursue marriage equality and to protect the rights of women, I'm left wondering where the moral voice of the Church is on issues of social justice. As thousands of Americans take to the streets with the Occupy Wall Street movement (including many Catholics), Dolan and other leaders have remained silent even though the movement is well aligned with Catholic social teaching on economic justice. If the American Catholic Church were to focus its moral might on an issue like economic justice (in short, follow the Holy See's lead), they would be uniting rather than dividing Catholics and Americans. It saddens me to think that the American Church's episcopal leaders continue to speak out against secular definitions of marriage while failing to adequately respond to the great injustices of our time.

If the Church remains silent in the face of injustice and instead continues to use the religious liberty argument, and succeeds in bullying legislators to accept religious principles and beliefs as secular definitions, the all that are protected by the liberties enshrined in our Constitution may not merely become the many, but rather the few. As Catholics, we should occupy the pews and call out to the Church's leaders to be a voice for justice rather than an institution that seeks to infringe on the liberties of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

When will Catholics start to occupy the United States Conference Catholic Bishops and diocesan offices across the country to demand a moral voice that focuses on Christ's message of love and justice?