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