American Catholic social thought has been critical of what Mary Ann Glendon called “rights talk” for its litigiousness rooted in an absolute sense of entitlement. The Catholic rights tradition acknowledges the need to adjust rights claims to one another and upholds the role of political authorities in promoting the common good. It is disconcerting, therefore, to witness how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has begun to cast so much of its agenda as a struggle over religious liberty.
To be sure, anti-Catholicism remains an unspoken American prejudice. There are also legitimate issues to address: threats to conscience clauses for Catholic professionals and institutions, for example, and the increasing pressures brought by the A.C.L.U. and professional groups against such accommodation. Other issues, like alleged prejudice in denying grants to Catholic service providers or the administration’s failure to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, however, are more difficult to characterize as violations of religious liberty. There are, of course, strong differences of policy, but they do not rise to the level of a violation of the religious liberty of Catholics or of the church.
Extending the litigious model of the “zealous advocate” to a broader public policy agenda is highly imprudent. It will reduce the church’s still considerable influence in many fields, like migration, overseas development, education and health care; and by labeling every disagreement, dissatisfaction or fear a basic rights violation it will diminish the credibility of the bishops as teachers of social morality. An approach by which people look to accommodate competing rights claims, where they show respect for the prudence of elected authorities and where the church continues to advocate for its policy agenda would be more consistent with the Catholic rights tradition.
Visitors to Penn State University will easily notice the centrality of both football and the legacy of the school’s head coach, Joe Paterno. An addition to the school’s main library is named for him, and the local ice cream store features “Peachy Paterno.” In Happy Valley, as the area is called, Mr. Paterno was seen as the public face of the school. But allegations about Jerry Sandusky, a longtime defensive coach, of having committed serial sexual abuse of minors since 1991 led to the firing of Mr. Paterno and Graham Spanier, the school’s president. The similarities between abuse in the Catholic Church and at Penn State are obvious. In both cases accusers reported their concerns to higher-ups, whose response was inadequate. Trusting in the leadership, those who came forward assumed that the matter would be dealt with. Most tragically, in both cases more young people were hurt by predators.
The Penn State scandal also shows that sexual abuse is not a “Catholic thing” and does not stem from celibacy (Mr. Sandusky is married). Sexual abuse infects many institutions that work with children—religious organizations, the Boy Scouts and public schools among them. In every institution, in families and in society at large, abuse must be combated with education, vigilance and universal agreement that the first reporting must be to the police.
But there is an important difference. Once those at the highest levels of authority discovered proof of crimes, the university’s board of trustees acted decisively, unlike church officials. While Penn State can learn something from the institutional standards of the U.S. Bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, the church may be able to learn something about what it means to hold its top leaders accountable.
A Vote for Civility
Russell Pearce, the state senator who authored Arizona’s controversial immigration law lost his seat in a special recall election on Nov. 8. The Arizona law requires immigrants to carry documentation papers at all times and, among other provisions, allows police with a “reasonable suspicion” of a crime to question anyone about his or her immigration status. So far these provisions have been blocked from taking effect. After a lower court ruled them illegal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the ruling. But Arizona is still pursuing its case in court.
Meanwhile, organized opponents of Senator Pearce’s hard-line approach to illegal immigrants had gathered the requisite 10,000 signatures to force the vote. Although Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County campaigned on his behalf, Mr. Pearce lost the election to a political novice, Jerry Lewis. The two candidates have much in common: both are white, conservative, Mormon Republicans. Mr. Lewis, however, ran a shoe-string, door-to-door campaign under the banner “civility as a sign of strength.”
Few observers think this election will do permanent political harm to Mr. Pearce, whose views are still popular throughout Arizona. Yet in ousting an extremist, voters won a victory more significant than the west Mesa district seat. They embraced civil discourse, which could embolden other voters and candidates to do likewise, in Arizona and in other states.