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Catholic Bishop Goes Off Script About Religious Liberty, Warns of U.S. Despotism

June 6, 2012, 12:11 pm | Posted by Nick Sementelli

Two weeks ago, the Ethics and Public Policy Center held a conference on religious freedom here in Washington. Though billed as a non-partisan event, the conference featured a who’s who of right-wing political groups and GOP politicians, as well as a Catholic bishop whose remarks undermined the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) claim that their ongoing confrontation with the Obama administration is a nonpartisan dispute about religious liberty rather than a politicized fight about birth control coverage.

Speaking on a panel titled Uniting to Preserve Robust Freedoms, Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland referenced an 1886 speech by Cardinal James Gibbons describing the U.S. as having “liberty without license, authority without despotism.” Reflecting specifically on debates about discrimination against LGBT people for religious reasons, Bishop Cordileone worried aloud that America is moving away from these qualities.

BP. CORDILEONE: My own experience, I sort of backed into this religious liberty debate by my involvement with her Siamese twin–the definition of marriage in the law. And I got swept up in that, not exclusively, but in large degree because I was enlightened by Dr. [Robert] George and other people of his kind as to the erosion of the rights of religious institutions to serve the broader community in accord with their moral principles precisely because of this issue. As well, the rights of individuals to have their freedom of conscience respected.

When I saw what was happening my eyes were opened, it made me fear that we could be starting to move in the direction of license and despotism.”

Bishop Cordileone’s melodramatic comments come on the heels of similar rhetoric by his fellow Bishop Daniel Jenky, who earlier this year said President Obama “seems intent on following the same path” as Hitler and Stalin. Jenky’s comments elicited widespread outrage, but he refused to apologize.

Later in the question-and-answer session, Bishop Cordileone further explained the frame through which he approaches the religious liberty debate:

BP. CORDILEONE: I want to refer to what one of the questioners this morning pointed out…when he mentioned the two commonalities in all of this legislation, the first one that he mentioned was that they all have to do with sexual ethics, basically, advocating sexual license. And that I think is a common thread in all of these three foundational issues of life, marriage and religious liberty. So really the division, I think, gets down to what is the purpose of our sexual difference and the purpose of sex which gets into what is the purpose of marriage.

GEORGE: So the fat was in the fire with the sexual revolution, to divide the culture…

BP. CORDILEONE: Oh absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.

Bishop Cordileone’s admission that he sees religious liberty as the third spoke of the culture war fight against the sexual revolution of the 1960s puts him far off message from the USCCB’s insistence that their campaign against the HHS contraception coverage mandate has nothing to do with sex, women or contraception.

Not to mention, he glaringly excludes two major non-sex-related religious liberty issues: anti-immigrant laws in places like Alabama (which the USCCB deliberately highlighted in a recent statement) and the growing opposition to Muslim communities’ right to build houses of worship — arguably the most flagrant religious liberty violation in America today.

Both of these quotes sound more like right-wing talking points than the measured, pastoral guidance one would expect of a Catholic bishop. This kind of toxic rhetoric that gives the appearance of partisanship in the middle of an election year is exactly what many in the Catholic church, including a prominent bishop, are concerned about. The Bishops would do well to distance themselves from it.

9 Responses to “Catholic Bishop Goes Off Script About Religious Liberty, Warns of U.S. Despotism”

  1. BobN says:

    The Catholic Church has done without “religious liberty” for a long, long time. It’s time for them to lay out what it is they want.

    The right to fire a doctor at a hospital they run if he divorces? No, they’re OK with that.

    The right to fire a gym teacher if she converts to Buddhism? No, they’re OK with that.

    The right to keep a gay man out of the room of his dying partner of 40 years? Yep, that’s one.

    The right to fire the doctor in #1 if he then marries another man? Yep, that’s one.

    The right to fire that teacher if she comes out of the closet? Yep, that one, too.

    I’m noticing a pattern. Violate the absolutely most basic tenets of Catholicism like belief in God, no problem. Violate a teaching and break your vows of Matrimony, no problem. Gay, PROBLEM.

    It’s so pathetically transparent…

  2. Byo says:

    This bishop talks about sexual licence, ethics and revolution in the same breath. He must still be living in the glorious 60′s.
    The USCCB/RCC know that once sex is divulged from procreation, their whole teaching on sexuality collapses on its face.

  3. Mandy Cat says:

    I’m beginning to wonder exactly what it will take for religious bodies to lose their tax exempt status. Installing voting machines at the alter rail? Handing out campaign literature along with the communion wafer?

    Certain denominations have turned into wholly owned subsidiaries of the GOP. Those that haven’t condone with their silence.

    A plague on all your houses.

  4. Kevan Brion says:

    Toxic rhetoric? What is so toxic in what that bishop said? That is an absurd description. Save the hyperbole for something significant.

  5. Elizabeth Sholes says:

    Oh for heaven’s sake – if you do not wish to respect other people’s deep and committed religious and moral values, do NOT take tax dollars to do your work. Exempt organizations – churches, dioceses, organizations propagating a specific faith – are EXEMPT. Those that are not must hire diversely BECAUSE they take our tax money to operate. The Catholic Church or any other religious organization has to decide – use our tax dollars or isolate their work and be exempt. The Church may self fund every single thing they do, use charities, hospitals, and universities to pursue just their own world view. But once they open the doors to others who are not Catholic and take tax funds to do so, they cannot build their religious “liberty” on the backs of everyone they hire and everyone who funds them. Bishop Cordileone – you have a choice. Make it. Do not abuse OUR religious liberty to protect your ideology then make us pay for it.

  6. Jonathan says:

    I am SOOOOO PROUD of the Catholic nus for standing up to the absolutely antediluvian, retrograde, bigoted, in-the-pocket of wealth, and morally bankrupt jokes that pass for the American Catholic Bishops–especially the right-wing mouthpieces like Jenky and Cordolione.

    It’s time the mass of Catholic laity join the Nuns in brining back the New Testament of Christ to the Catholic Church. I say this as a cradle Catholic of 50 years. It’s time for a Catholic Spring.

  7. Dolores says:

    Anyone who knows Bishop Cordileone, knows that calling his public statements “melodramatic” is grossly inaccurate. He is very measured in what he says. Clearly the person who wrote this article has had no interaction with him and seems to be interjecting his own bias on the issue.

    Regarding the comment about not taking tax dollars – I suggest a review of consitutional law and what it says about religious liberty and the separation between church and state.

  8. Caroline says:

    #5 -It’s not just the taking of gov’t money. The church is an employer and it refuses to follow the laws our (flawed) democratic process created to provide those employees with health insurance.

  9. Cath says:

    The entire video of the religious freedom conference that includes Bishop Salvatore Cordileone’s remarks is found here:


    To view the segments by Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, choose speaker in the drop down menu. As evident in the video, Bishop Cordileone is excellent and measured in his rhetoric, his speech argumentative yet to the point. He is a renowned public servant, leader in ethics…. and that is evident in the whole remark in the video.

    This blog and article took part of the beautiful speech, out of context, and changed it to make into something entirely different. Catholics would never act in such an unfair way.