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Rabbi Arthur Waskow Headshot

Whose Religious Freedom Is Under Attack?

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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican hierarchy are attacking the religious freedom of millions of American women and the religious freedom of American nuns.

As a rabbi, I am deeply conscious of the transcendent value of religious freedom. I believe that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is indeed one of God's best creations. So I listen with great care to claims it is being violated.

Long ago (1965), the Supreme Court decided that decisions whether to use contraception were up to the exercise of conscience by women and men of our country. Today the Federal government, by ensuring access to affordable, effective birth control for millions of women across the country, is making sure that not only affluent women but all women can actually make those conscientious choices.

And yet, the USCCB now claims that this program violates religious freedom -- even though it is
NOT applied to fully religious institutions like parishes and dioceses but only to Catholic-sponsored colleges and hospitals that are open to all and receive federal grants, and at that is now set up so that insurance companies, not the colleges, foot the bill.

Claiming this program violates religious freedom is an Orwellian perversion of thought -- attacking religious freedom in the guise of defending it.

I vigorously object to this attempt to deny millions of women -- Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, atheist -- their own religious freedom to make choices informed by their own consciences about the most central issues of their lives.

Indeed, the USCCB has failed to persuade even Catholic women - let alone any others -- that contraception is a sin. Between 96 percent and 98 percent of Catholic women use "artificial" contraception. Among other American women, the rate is 99 percent.

Having failed to convince their own "flock" -- who are clearly not mere sheep to be led to the slaughter of their consciences -- the bishops now are trying to use governmental power to force women (not only Catholics) to obey their edicts.

Meanwhile, the Vatican has decided that even nuns are not capable of making their own conscientious decisions about how best to carry Jesus' life and teachings into the world.

For the nuns have insisted that the crucial governmental responsibilities, those that serious Christians should be pressing, are to meet the needs of the poor, prevent the impoverishment of the middle class, heal our wounded Earth and prevent war.

Though these desires are occasionally voiced by the hierarchy, it is usually in an undertone, drowned out by its shouted demands to outlaw abortion, stigmatize gay men and lesbians, condemn masturbation and prevent the use of contraceptives. (Never has any American bishop threatened to refuse communion to any politician who denies food to the poor or medical care to the elderly or supports or carries out the death penalty.)

For these men, "religion" happens only in the genitals -- not in a hungry belly, an inquiring mind, a cancerous throat, a troubled soul.

But the nuns claim that Jesus demanded these concerns be central: the hungry; families thrown out of their homes; the disemployed; those soul-wounded by war, suffering from post-traumatic stress injury; the children of immigrants facing their parents' deportation.

So the Vatican has bitterly attacked the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the crucial gathering of American nuns, and has demanded that it allow the Vatican to set three males in control of it.

Said Jesus: The meek will inherit the Earth. Says the Vatican: The meek must not inherit the Church.

So far, thanks be to God, the nuns have shown no sign of kneeling to the Vatican's arrogance.

Instead, the Leadership Conference described the Vatican's pronouncement as "unsubstantiated accusations," "the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency" and a cause of "scandal" in and to the Church.

Thousands of lay Catholics took part in vigils and signed petitions supporting the LCWR.

Simultaneously, there has been an extraordinarily creative action by Network, a sister organization in which many American nuns play a central role to work for peace and social justice. Network has just announced a bus tour through nine states "to highlight the work of Catholic sisters (a.k.a. nuns), the people they serve, and the harm that would be caused by federal budget cuts." (For information on the Leadership Conference, click here.For Network, click here.)

I deeply identify with these gutsy nuns. But even beyond the admiration due to them is the real issue: Who is "The Church"?

Is it male priests, ruled by male bishops, appointed and controlled by a male Pope?

Or does The Church include the whole community of Catholics -- including nuns who serve the poor, women who use the Pill, men who use condoms, men who ache to celebrate their love for a man through marriage, couples who find divorce less painful than a disordered marriage, adults who were raped by priests as children?

Is "The Church" only the powerful 1 percent -- or does it include the disempowered 99 percent?

That question must be faced first of all by those who think of themselves as Catholics.

But the answer affects us all -- for all of us are affected by the political power now being brought to bear by that 1 percent who now claim to be "The Church."

Rabbi Arthur Waskow founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center Http://www.theshalomcenter.org and is the author of many books on US public policy and on Jewish and Abrahamic thought and practice - most recently, with R. Phyllis Berman, Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness across Millennia (Jewish Lights, 2011).