From The Cardinal Newman Society (CNS) Blog comes this news release:
Earlier today, January 11, 2011, the federal government continued its assault on the religious liberty of Catholic institutions when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Manhattan College could not prevent faculty from unionizing on the basis that it is a religious institution. Despite acknowledging that the College is recognized as Catholic by the New York Archdiocese, the NLRB reviewed College statements and course content, finding “that the purpose of the College is secular and not the ‘propagation of a religious faith’.”
We have a very important moral tale here.
By way of a disclaimer I want to say that I know nothing of Manhattan College in New York and thus I do not direct my remarks specifically to the College. It may well be that the judges in this case was unfair. But, generally speaking, it’s pretty bad when Caesar (i.e. the State) has to tell a Catholic College it’s not Catholic. This of course is really more the role of a bishop, but it would seem that the bishops have largely avoided making such declarations. In this case a government agency gave the college the “come to Jesus” talk.
Another example – Again I am not sure if the “non-Catholic” assessment was fair to this college or not, since I know nothing of it. I am more aware of the situation of another Catholic college in the US, (not in DC), which had a similar problem years ago. The accrediting agency did its five year evaluation of this certain Catholic college and returned the verdict that while the academics were adequate, the Catholic identity advertised by the college was a sham. They gave only a provisional accreditation and required the “Catholic” college to do a self study about how to make it’s Catholic identity a true fact or to be prepared to drop claims to being Catholic. The college in question was, at the time, on Playboy’s top ten list of “party” schools. Drugs, alcohol and sexually transmitted diseases were epidemic. Jello-wrestling and R Rated movies were common in the Student Union. Just about every year students were killed in drunk driving incidents near the campus. The moral life of most students was, thus, in the sewer and campus ministry was ineffective at best. The theology department was also riddled with dissent. Sadly, it took a secular accreditation agency to blow the whistle and demand reform.
Yet another example – About seven years ago a Catholic Charities Agency California was informed by a California judge that they would have to provide contraceptives in their medical benefits plan for employees. He refused to accept a claim of religious exemption and ruled that there was nothing “Catholic” about this agency of Catholic Charities since they took primarily government money and gave it to the poor. Further, none of their literature mentioned Jesus Christ or sought to promote the Catholic Faith. Hence, they were secular, not Catholic, and thus had no claim to religious exemptions. Here too, I cannot say if the Judge was fair since I have no direct knowledge of Catholic Charities in the particular diocese in question.
It is of course possible to see these matters only in terms of religious liberty. But I want to suggest to you that we have some serious reflection as a Church to make. Perhaps a couple of Biblical examples will set the stage.
1. Abram – In the Book of Genesis we are taught how God chose Abram (later Abraham) and called him to set forth to a new land as the Patriarch of chosen people, (Gen 12). In great faith Abram set out and God led him to Canaan where he eventually settled in Bethel (a name which means “House of God”) (Gen 12:8). But there was a famine in the land and, instead of staying and trusting God, he left Bethel and went to Egypt (Gen 12:10), though God had said no such thing. Now Egypt is a symbol of the world and is distinct from Bethel which is a symbol of the “House of God.” And while in Egypt Abram prospered, but sinned mightily by prostituting his wife Sarai, placing her in Pharaoh’s harem so as to secure his own safety and prosperity (Gen 12:11-15).
Now Abram is chosen by God, he is God’s man and God gave him an inheritance. But Abram forsook his glory from heaven and preferred worldly glories and comforts. God would have to shame Abram back to his senses. The biblical text says:
But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” (Gen 12:17-19)
So it took Pharaoh to compel Abram to leave Egypt (the world) and return to Bethel (House of God). Frankly it is a rather embarrassing moment in salvation history.
2. Another example is Jonah. Jonah was God’s chosen man and designated prophet to go to the east to Nineveh and proclaim a word of repentance to them. But Jonah fled to the west on a ship. A storm blew up that so threatened the ship that the experienced sailors began to pray to their gods. But the chosen man of the one, True God, Jonah remained asleep! Finally, after casting lots, the sailors discovered Jonah was the source of their problem and roused him from his sleep to rebuke him:
What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the LORD, because he had already told them so). The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the LORD, “Please, LORD, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, LORD, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him (Jonah 1:11ff)
And thus it was that pagan sailors were more repentant and moral than God’s chosen prophet. Another great embarrassment to be sure.
The fact is that the Church is to be a light to the world, but it sometimes happens that we fall short and God must allow the world itself to rebuke us. The Christian community is supposed to be self-correcting. It is an embarrassing truth that it sometimes takes Caesar to tell us to give to God what is God’s, to be more serious about our Christian walk, and to be true in our claims to be Catholic.
Another example – More widely known than the cases above, is the recent sexual abuse scandal. The actual abuse was terrible enough but was then compounded by the credible accusations of a lack of action evident in certain dioceses, which meant abuse in those places was often unaddressed and even, in some cases, covered up. It really took serious legal penalties to end the problem. The judicial branch of government (which had long been lenient in this matter as well) had to awaken the proper level of outrage. This is perhaps the most lasting disappointment on the part of many towards the Church in this matter.
From the Newman Society blog comes this advice for Catholic Colleges and universities:
It must be noted….that any available exemptions for religious institutions will not apply if a college that was founded as a religious institution has become largely secular. It is therefore vital that Catholic colleges and universities maintain their Catholic identity in all of their programs in order to best protect their religious character and mission.”
For decades since the infamous Land O’Lakes declaration, too many Catholic colleges and universities have straddled the line between Catholic and secular. While the Vatican and bishops have patiently encouraged the renewal of Catholic identity, state and federal regulators are increasingly demanding that Catholic colleges justify their claims to be religious. For all but a handful of faithful Catholic colleges, this is a difficult if not impossible task. … the Catholic Church’s Canon Law and the Apostolic Constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae lay out the requirements for a college to be considered Catholic…..it should be noted that a college that does not faithfully adhere to and apply the Catholic Church’s own law might find it difficult if not impossible to convince a secular court that it is a Catholic institution deserving protection.” 
It shouldn’t take Pharaoh to tell Abram to go back to Bethel. It shouldn’t take pagan sailors to rouse Jonah to obey God. And it shouldn’t take the Federal Government to tell Catholic Colleges to actually be Catholic. But if that’s what it takes, if God has to shame them into it, so be it . God has a history of drawing Israel to repentance by making use of the nations around them to provoke, shame, and punish them. As Scripture says,
The LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance….[Yet] you deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth….[The Lord says], for they are a perverse generation, children who are unfaithful. They made me jealous by what is no god and angered me with their worthless idols. [So] I will make them envious by those who are not a people; I will make them angry by a nation that has no understanding. (Deut 32: varia)
Religious Liberty Threatened – To be clear, there are very serious threats today looming over religious liberty. An increasingly intrusive government and menacing new laws are seeking to unreasonably restrict the Church, and her work of evangelizing the culture. We ought to resist any such attempts to limit religious liberty in this age of highly selective “tolerance.” We have discussed such threats on the blog before.
But the moral lesson in these cases seems to be that we had better get our own house in order. Certain “Catholic” Colleges may go on for a while gleefully dissenting and ignoring Church mandates, but in the end they are going to be called to account by Caesar who will say, “Either give God what God is due, or stop pretending and pay the taxes that every other secular organization pays and observe the requirements every other secular entity does.” In other words, decide what you really are and do so quickly.
For the state to respect the rights of Catholics, Catholicism has to be intelligible. Hence these dissenters also endanger the religious freedoms of those who are faithful. Yes, we need to get our house in order.
One may argue that bishops could have been more forceful, Rome more demanding, or that the Catholic faithful should have voted with their feet long ago and stopped frequenting and supporting fake Catholic institutions . But in the end, God may well be allowing a secular authority, which has no understanding of things religious to insist upon truth-telling. In so doing it may well be that God is following an old pattern where Pharaoh had to give Abram a good swift kick in the pants, and where God used nations like Babylon and Assyria to purge and prune Israel.
Catholic or Consequences – Like it or not, the world demands of Catholics what they seldom demand of other denominations: that what it means to be a Catholic should be clear and that it be lived to deserve the title. The secular government may mean harm in this, but God can use it for good. (cf Gen 50:20)
What do you think? Remember, if this post feels edgy, I am doing that to provoke conversation.