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Civil Liberties and the Roman Catholic Church


The Chapel of St. Toribio Romo

The Chapel of St. Toribio Romo González in Jalisco, Mexico. St. Toribio Romo, martyr of the Cristero War and the patron saint of undocumented immigrants, is a powerful symbol for the traditional Roman Catholic emphasis on the poor and marginalized.

Photo: Leigh Thelmadatter / Wikimedia Commons.
The current position of the Roman Catholic Church on civil liberties issues can be hard to ascertain for many reasons, but I think a good case can be made that its assets—and its liabilities—as an institutional partner on civil liberties issues can be ultimately reduced to an aversion to both sex and violence. Sometimes this aversion seems courageous, sometimes pathological. Sometimes it seems to be the product of an out-of-touch, insulated clergy leadership; at other times, this leadership appears to be completely in touch with, and subjected to the whims of, a prejudiced laity. The Roman Catholic Church is easy to whitewash; it is also easy to vilify; but with over 1.1 billion members, and a heavy institutional focus on social action, it is impossible to ignore.

I am making several assumptions in writing this piece. The first is that the Church is not fairly represented by its scandals—that it is unfair, in other words, to consider the history of clergy sexual abuse to be a part of the Church's civil liberties platform. The second is that the Church really teaches what it intends to teach. The third is that the Church can be fairly judged as a contemporary institution without much consideration of its long-term history; the long-term history of the Roman Catholic Church, like the long-term history of secular governments, poses obvious and formidable problems for civil libertarians.

But if we accept these terms—and I recognize that this is a fairly big "if"—we can see areas where the Roman Catholic Church is a powerful voice for civil liberties. The document most pertinent to the Roman Catholic Church's position as a strong advocate for civil liberties is Pope John XXIII's encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963), a current church teaching that makes some bold points pertinent to contemporary issues. On immigration, for example, Pacem in Terris states:
[E]very human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own State. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men.
In keeping with this teaching, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—conservative on issues of sexuality and gender equality—takes a bold, progressive position on immigration reform through its Justice for Immigrants campaign. The Roman Catholic Church likewise focuses on the needs and interests of the poor, who are often dismissed—even condemned—by the fatalistic Prosperity Gospel that has gained a foothold in evangelical denominations, even as both major political parties avoid discussing American poverty directly. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development directs the attention of the church towards the issue of addressing poverty in the United States. Roman Catholicism also speaks out against the death penalty.

But the Church's progressive and humanitarian position against violence, and the ethnic and economic inequalities that institutionalize it, are generally drowned out in the popular culture by the Church's puritanical approach to sexuality—which has now taken root to the point where the Church is substantially more oppressive than most Western cultures on issues pertaining to gender equality, reproductive rights, and the rights of sexual minorities. When representatives of the Church routinely tell members to abandon lesbian and gay family members, or when they use false data to discourage condom use in countries ravaged by HIV-AIDS, or when they excommunicate the families of child rape victims, or when they threaten the autonomy of nuns on the basis that women cannot be theologians, they are practicing and endorsing a form of violence that is as fundamental to global injustice as racism, nativism, and the worship of Mammon. The challenge the Church now faces is to integrate its fundamental teachings on human dignity with its theology of sexuality. I believe that the Church will eventually—I would even say inevitably—accomplish this, but it has been slower in dealing with these matters than it has in dealing with matters of race, economic status, and national identity. This delay has come with a very high human cost.
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