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10 Catholic Teachings Conservatives Reject While Obsessing About Birth Control

Santorum and Gingrich are both Catholics, and wear their faith on their sleeves, but they are hypocritical in picking and choosing when they wish to listen to the bishops.

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Religious practices in the United States are trumped by secular law all the time when there is a conflict. Thus,  Native Americans who believe in using peyote as part of their religious rituals were fired from their government jobs for doing so, and the US Supreme Court upheld it in 1990.

Likewise, traditionalist members of the Sikh religion believe that a man should avoid cutting his hair, and should bind it up in a turban. So what if an orthodox Sikh gets a job as a construction worker? He can’t get a hard hat on over the turban. Does he have the right to forgo the hard hat on the construction site, so as to retain his turban? The question went to the US courts, and they said Sikhs have to wear hard hats. If a brick fell on the turban and killed the Sikh worker, his family could after all sue the construction company for negligence since it did not require him to wear a hard hat. 

Or there are many instances in which  Muslim religious laws and practices have been over-ruled in the United States by the courts. American law forbids Muslim-American men to take a second wife, something legal to them in many of their home countries. State law tends to award community property in cases of divorce instead of the much smaller payments men can make to divorced women in Islamic law, even if the couple have specified in their marriage contract that Muslim law (sharia) will govern these issues.

I don’t think there is any question that Federal law, and state law, can trump Roman Catholic religious sentiments, just as they trump the religious sentiments and practices of other religious communities where issues of secular justice and equity are at stake.

The tradition of American progressive thought is tolerant of religion even while usually not being religious itself. In my view this attitude of tolerance is rooted in James Madison’s theory of democracy, which is that it is best preserved by lively arguments among groups in the body politic that disagree with one another. Thus, while the Roman Catholic church authorities adopted a negative stance toward modernity, cultural pluralism, and democracy in the nineteenth century, the Catholic community in the United States nevertheless contributed in important ways to modernity, cultural pluralism and democracy. Arguably, had the US been entirely Protestant, its law and practice would have evolved in a less pluralistic and tolerant direction.

A flourishing Catholic community contributed to social debates and so improved American democracy– witness  Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. And, the reformist theologians of the twentieth century, most of them European or Latin American, cultivated by American Catholics, made important contributions to our understanding– Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hans Kueng, Paulo Freire, and Gustavo Gutierrez. I would argue that Vatican II was an important event in American religious life across the board, not just for American Catholics. It is lack of appreciation of Madisonian conceptions of democracy of pluralism and checks and balances that led the late Christopher Hitchens to disregard altogether the enormous positive contribution of the Church, whether to the education of the poor and working classes or to teaching social justice. (By the way, the argument for democracy depending on diverse voices and vigorous debate is also an argument for the benefits for the US of the advent of Islam in American public life). 

So, the arguments the bishops are making about the balance between conscience and the obligations of civil law should be welcomed by all Americans as part of our national dialectic.