United Methodists, Catholics and Religious Liberty

Attacking Catholics has been all the rage for some, since they have responded to the government’s new insurance mandate as if it were infringing their freedom of religion. Some have been painted them as evil and misogynist. Others deny that the mandate could possibly be considered an infringement of religious liberty. Fortunately, our own United Methodist leader Jim Winkler is one of the more reasonable in his response (http://www.umc-gbcs.org/site/apps/nlnet/content.aspx?c=frLJK2PKLqF&b=7989583&ct=11633085&tr=y&auid=10332870). Reasonable, but more attentive to the talking points of the opponents of the Catholics than of the situation itself. Below I will intersperse my comments with his.

A note: I am not a Roman Catholic. I have never felt inclined to be a Roman Catholic. I do not find their position toward contraception to be in line with my theology or how I read the Bible. I do not speak in their favor here because I agree with their position on contraception, but because I recognize validity in their claim about the mandate.

A second note: I’m only responding here to Winkler. A more positive piece would delve more deeply into the ecclesiological and political assumptions in play. Perhaps I’ll have time to do that in the future.

Finally, thank you to Allan Bevere for calling my attention to Jim Winkler’s piece.

Winkler begins:

“I’ve always appreciated that The United Methodist Church has never claimed to be a victim of religious persecution. Even though we imposed our religious views on others when we pushed through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting sale and manufacture of alcohol nearly 100 years ago, we did not insist our religious liberty was infringed when Prohibition was repealed.”

When we identify so closely with the dominant political ethos – and take that identification as a virtue, persecution is highly unlikely. As to the repeal of Prohibition infringing on our religious liberty being in some way analogous to the current problem, he is clearly missing the point. A better analogy would be our being compelled to buy drinks for everyone to celebrate the end of Prohibition. People for some reason take the Catholic position to be seeking to impose prohibition on everyone now, rather than seeking to not be themselves implicated in the practices.

“We strongly oppose gambling and find war incompatible with Christian teaching. We don’t suggest, however, that the spread of gambling and the constant warfare around the world represent persecution of Methodism.”

No, but we say that “the spread of gambling and constant warfare” are immoral. We don’t want to have a part in spreading gambling or in instigating constant warfare. And we, like the Catholics, have been mostly unable to convince the rank and file membership of our stance. Many of our folks continue to gamble, continue to join and support the military and its missions.

And why is it that the Catholics don’t want to accept the “compromise” offered them?

“Because they don’t want women to have the liberty to choose to use birth control. They want to deny that freedom to women.”

Is that what THEY claim? Can Winkler practice a hermeneutics of charity when it comes to Catholics, and at least recognize that they MIGHT mean what they say?

“Religious freedom is not violated by denying religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and other institutions the right to discriminate on the basis of race or gender.”

How does Winkler know what constitutes “religious freedom?” Is there only one kind, one size fitting all? Is the omnicompetent state (and its allies) the sole arbiter of what it means?

How are the Catholics seeking to discriminate on the basis of race or gender? They’re not in favor of providing male contraception any more than they are female contraception.

“Or, maybe an employer thinks that people contract diabetes due to poor dietary and exercise decisions they’ve made. Therefore, the employer doesn’t want to offer treatment for the disease.”

This sounds like a different subject altogether. If we have these fears – and since responsibility for a care that costs as much as modern medical care leads those who shell out the big bucks to seek ways of controlling costs, fears might be legitimate – then we can take this as an argument for de-coupling employment & health insurance. That sounds like something the UMC might be interested in pursuing. That would make the current dispute with the Catholic church moot, moving it all to the private realm.

“Notice, if you will, that in this debate it is the religious freedom of institutions and corporations that is being addressed, not that of employees. In a world where corporations are declared to be people —where corporations even claim religious freedom — is it possible that real human beings, employees, no longer will have the rights of human beings or the freedom to practice behavior they consider ethical?”

What “freedom to practice behavior they consider ethical” is being denied in this case? I see a desire to not FUND certain behaviors. But funding is a different matter. (I know, I know, I am dead wrong according to many, considering the loud cries of censorship when we hear whispers of defunding instances of artistic expression.)

How would United Methodists feel if they were required to use their apportionments to fund the construction of new casinos and weapon systems? Would we just say, “Caesar says we have to do it, so we’ll be good citizens and pony up the cash?”

I am not a scholar of the history of economics. I know little about the history of corporations. I do know, however, that the Bible and the Christian tradition talk about the “Body of Christ” – “Corpus Christi” in Latin. We are together the Body of Christ – a sort of corporation, or as some have described it, a corporate personality. There may be evil corporations in the world, but they neither originated nor own the notion of people being bound together in one body. Defending the absolute individualism of modern politics is not the way forward for us.

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7 Responses to United Methodists, Catholics and Religious Liberty

  1. James Lung says:

    Reason number 15,642 why Church and Society should be abolished.

    Winkler is an embarrassment.

  2. Wanted to clarify that Winkler is not the United Methodist leader as the article stated and doesn’t speak for the United Methodist Church. And its because he speaks not for the UMC but for what gets him some attention I agree with the 1st comment by James.

  3. Richard,

    Thanks for this excellent post.

    James, just my own perspective here, but I am not sure that name calling furthers the important discussion we are having on this issue. We are all welcome to sit at the discussion table. Responding to the substance of an argument instead of engaging in insults is what is needed from all of us regardless of where we stand on this or others matters.

  4. rheyduck says:

    Winkler IS an important United Methodist leader, as head of the Board of Church and Society. No one speaks officially for the United Methodist Church – only a corporate personality (General Conference) does that. That does not mean, however, that he is not a public face of the church or that his comments are not worth considering. Our church is better off if we have substantial arguments that deal fairly with positions of others and represent what others say accurately. Insults and attacking straw men may make us feel better, but they aren’t helpful.

  5. JAy. says:

    Richard, you are correct both in your post and in your comment.

    Winkler has jumped the substance of the Catholic Church’s argument and taken the easy, opposition position which, in rhetorical terms, is invalid. The Catholic Church has never prohibited its members from using contraception (e. g. excommunicated people over this policy). The Catholic Church does not want to pay for its members to violate its policy, and that I fully support. Your analogy of buying others alcoholic beverages because people do not agree with your position of abstinence is correct.

    Secondly, you are correct that, while Winkler is not the official voice of the UMC, his post does appear as having the weight of the UMC behind it. He is a UMC official. The post is on an official UMC website. There is no disclaimer that the position is that of Winkler and not the UMC in general.

    Thanks for your post and your accurately discussing the issue at hand.

  6. Pingback: What if it’s not about birth control? « sense and nonsense

  7. M. E. Grundman says:

    Having been raised Roman Catholic, but now being a happy Episcopalian, I want to make the point that the Catholic Church strongly opposes abortion, and the argument is also about the morning after pill, which is being described as just the same hormones as contained in standard birth control, but is in truth an abortant. It is also about the government stepping into decision-making affecting employees in their hospitals, and charitable outreach and counseling. It affects Catholic physicians who may be expected to perform abortions. I hope Winkler reconsiders his stand and realizes it’s only a matter of time before this intrusion would affect Methodists, Episcopalians, Jews, all faith-based people.

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