Barry Hudock is the author of Struggle, Condemnation, and Vindication: John Courtney Murray's Journey Toward Vatican II.
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Religious Freedom or Culture War?
PROVIDING A definition of religious freedom is fairly easy: Every human person has a right to believe, to pray, to worship in community, and to practice her faith according to her conscience. And it’s just as easy to get Americans to agree that religious freedom is an important, even crucial, element of a healthy society. But ask what it means to respect this human right and where it’s being violated, and you quickly find yourself in the weeds of rancorous debate.
On the one hand, conservative Christians have raised religious freedom alarms in the U.S. Television personalities David and Jason Benham, for instance, cite such concerns in their objections to ordinances allowing transgender people to use bathrooms that correspond with the gender with which they identify; a National Review columnist wrote that such policies “would render religious liberty permanently subordinate to the interests and demands of LGBT activists.”
Does sharing a bathroom with a transgendered person infringe upon the consciences of those who consider transgender identity a threat? And even if it does, does the state’s role in protecting the rights and dignity of all citizens sharply relativize this concern? Are the questions perhaps more complex than our binary culture wars suggest?
Or consider: For five years, critics of the mandate of contraceptive coverage by employer health plans under the Affordable Care Act have insisted that the policy violates religious freedom. Several businesses and organizations—Hobby Lobby, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and more—have sued the federal government on the point. And despite its decades-long advocacy of universal health coverage, the U.S. bishops’ conference initiated an annual “Fortnight for Freedom” observance that even some allies find inappropriately partisan.
Some who gnash their teeth over these issues seem unconcerned about other offenses to religious freedom. They said little, for example, about state government efforts to interfere with Christian ministry to migrants and refugees. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence not only withdrew his state’s help to Syrian refugees trying to escape a historic humanitarian crisis, he also tried to convince the archdiocese of Indianapolis to cease its ministry to them.
ON A HOT DAY in summer 2015, Michael Iafrate stared in distress out the window of a tiny Cessna flying over his native West Virginia.
“What I felt,” he said later, “reminded me of what it’s like when you’re driving along a highway and come upon a bad crash. That twist in your gut, knowing that death is happening here.”
Below him was the Hobet Mine site, 10,000 acres of what was once thickly forested mountains but is now a flat and desolate moonscape—the result of three decades of mountaintop removal mining and one of many such sites that now dot the Appalachian landscape.
“It just kept going and going, mile after mile after mile of blank, ravaged land,” said Iafrate, a 39-year-old doctoral student in theology at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College. Flying so close over the scarred landscape that unrolled below the plane, Iafrate thought of the apostle Thomas touching the wounded side of Jesus. “It felt like an encounter with some wounds of Christ on the earth.”
Iafrate’s flight—provided by SouthWings, a small nonprofit group of pilots that advocates for environmental preservation by providing bird’s-eye views of the results of inaction—was one step in a project he’d been engaged in for several years. But it effectively brought many hours of research and writing into a harsh and visceral focus.
There was more to Iafrate’s anxiety than topography. There was also history, because the text he was working on would become a follow-up to one of the most significant ecclesial statements in U.S. Catholic history. Both the land and the past insisted: He had to get this right.
Listening to the poor in This Land
Back in 1975, the Catholic bishops of Appalachia—a swath of territory, marked by intransigent poverty, that stretches from the northern sections of Mississippi and Alabama up to central New York state—published a major pastoral letter on “powerlessness” in the region. This Land Is Home to Me was the fruit of much groundwork by a group of committed laypeople, religious, and clergy called the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA).