We all know about Martin Luther King Jr.’s resistance to the unjust laws of the Jim Crow South. King believed that achieving justice sometimes necessitated breaking the arbitrary rules that flawed humans devise.
Similarly, in Latin America, where many of our families originated, priests often took a stand against the repressive authority of the oligarchies. Sometimes, as with Archbishop Oscar Romero, they paid with their lives. So it’s clear that religious leaders should urge their followers to disobey laws that are unjust or run counter to the principles of their faith…right?
Well, if that were the case, there would be little debate over the recent news that “Catholic bishops in the United States…have launched a campaign in the name of religious liberty, and say that laws that the church deems at odds with its moral teachings should not be followed.”
Latinos are one of the Catholic Church’s core groups, so the bishops are essentially telling a lot of Hispanics that American laws can sometimes be ignored.
What are some of these immoral government policies? Well, the bishops don’t want laws forcing them to cover birth-control costs for their workers, and some “have shut down their adoption and foster-care programs where the government would require them to place children with same-sex couples.”
OK, that doesn’t sound too much like King or Romero.
To be fair, the bishops are also fighting laws that target undocumented immigrants, and church leaders have been among the most vocal opponents of monstrosities like Arizona’s SB 1070.
Regardless of the specific objection, these clergymen claim a higher moral purpose, and they urge people in the pews to follow their example.
Let’s set aside the fact that religious leaders and their followers are members of society, and as such, have some obligation to follow the law. Let’s also ignore that religious institutions get tax breaks under the condition that they refrain from politics. In fact, many evangelical leaders have gotten into IRS trouble for proselytizing the social-conservative agenda, which they see as a moral issue.
The main problem with the bishops’ stance is that there is a major difference between fighting racial oppression and disapproving of gay people adopting kids. The line between moral outrage and arbitrary church doctrine is thin.
So by advocating for civil disobedience, church leaders have pulled off the impressive feat of simultaneously strengthening and weakening their position.
Yes, it’s true that because the government says, “It’s the law” doesn’t mean that it’s right. However, it’s also true that just because a priest says, “It’s in the Bible” or “It’s what the Pope decided,” doesn’t mean that it’s morally pure.
Each individual must call upon his or her own sense of justice. We must ask ourselves if we’re making truly ethical decisions, or if we’re just giving in to some authority figure, whether he’s a cop or a priest.
We have to take a hard look at both God and government, and ask if either of them know what they’re talking about.