freedom of conscience and religion

Here is my latest catholic dialogue column for the Prairie Messenger, Freedom of conscience and religion.

The issue of religious freedom has been challenging my mind and heart in these past weeks. News headlines abound in Canada and the US of bishops demanding that laws be changed or broadened to accommodate our Catholic teachings and beliefs.

This week, a bill was passed in Ontario that required all publicly funded schools, which include the Catholic school division, to allow gay-straight alliance (GSA) clubs for students if students request them. Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins, had made head-lines fighting the proposal. To give the Cardinal credit, he will no longer fight this fight and has issued a statement that Catholic schools will follow the law.

In America, the bishops are promoting a ‘Fortnight for Freedom’  June 21 to July 4 to rally the troops in support of their contraception coverage agenda. And, yes, it is coming across as more and more of an agenda rather than a genuine fight against religious freedom. Yesterday, chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, held a press conference to deny allegations that the campaign is politically motivated.

I consider myself a faithful, though questioning Catholic woman. I cringe every time our church and her leaders makes the news promoting an issue that is not supported by the majority of Catholics. The issues are usually around women, sexuality, and the gay community. All the quoting of scripture or official teaching does not take away the growing perception that Catholics are against women’s equality, are obsessed about sexual issues, and are anti-gay.

In these moments I want to distance myself as far as possible from the bishops who are fighting so vigorously for our ‘rights’. I pray for all my friends in the US. Here in Canada, Cardinal Collins has shown the wisdom to end a fight that was causing more division and harm than good. I hope and pray that the American bishops can show similar wisdom.

Here’s hoping that the ‘Fortnight for Freedom’ will be not be the success that the bishops desire. Here’s hoping that more voices will rise demanding that our thoughts, time and energies be redirected to the issues of true importance; issues of justice and peace, the integrity of creation, and fighting against inequality in all its forms.

And what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness
and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

pelvic politics

A mighty debate is taking place in the USA between the Obama administration and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The issue revolves around religious freedom and the right of Catholic institutions to exclude coverage of contraceptives in their health care plans. On January 20th it was announced that the religious exemption is not in effect. All nonprofits that presently do not provide contraceptive coverage will have one’s years grace to comply with the new regulation.

As you can imagine, internet discussion boards and editorials are heating up on both sides of the issue. Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter wrote an especially scathing piece titled J’ACCUSE! Why Obama is wrong on the HHS conscience regulations, going so far as to withdraw his vote for Obama. The ensuing discussion board makes for an interesting read – though an extremely l-o-n-g one. A rough survey of responses shows more people siding with the right to a woman’s access to contraception than those who stand up for the teachings of Humanae Vitae.

The best responses, I believe, are those that look beyond the polarizing rhetoric of good Catholic-bad Catholic. The core issue is whether we believe in our personal freedom of conscience. I believe in it, but it comes with responsibilities. (see an informed conscience…please!)

Bishops’ conscience model makes light of practical reason by David DeCosse is a well-written and logical appeal to respecting the gift of conscience,

At present, the model of conscience used by most bishops is problematic in two ways. First, it emphasizes obedience, law, and hierarchical authority and thus departs from the Catholic tradition’s close linkage of conscience, practical reason, and freedom. Second, on account of this departure, these bishops needlessly lapse into using a sectarian model of the Catholic conscience ill-suited to the Church’s mission in a democratic pluralist society like the United States.

An emphasis on obedience and law can provide an easy, black and white paradigm of morality. The Church says this…therefore if I do this and don’t do that, then I am good. But,

the bishops’ emphasis on law as the pre-eminent category of conscience means that they leave little room for practical reasoning to help the conscience figure out what to do in the face of complexity.

Almost all women and men know the “face of complexity” when it comes to conception. Discerning when to have children, and how many is not an easy issue. It has huge practical consequences that cannot be written off with a naive and pietistic pronouncement to be ‘always open to life’.

Our parents came from the generation that saw the dawning of effective birth control, but were preached to by priests of their intrinsic evil. The choice given to them was simple. Be open to raising large families, or suffer the guilt of mortal sin and eternal punishment. Raising children in a larger family is a gift. But it is not a gift to all. How many families faced physical, emotional, and economic hardships out of obedience to the law.

I also heard stories of compassionate priests who would counsel couples to “follow their own conscience” in the matter. And, God bless them!