What’s Good for the Bishop

Ophelia Benson

If you’re ever feeling a little sluggish and under-motivated, a visit to a Catholic bishop’s Facebook page might be just the ticket. (Yes, Catholic bishops do have Facebook pages.) Reading one or two of their latest editorials and seeing what they expect from all of us in the way of deference and obedience can deliver a nice jolt of adrenaline.

It’s interesting how combative the Catholic Church is, how aggrieved, how determined to pick a fight. It doesn’t have to be. We’re so used to this by now that it seems normal, but it could perfectly well be otherwise. The church could simply see itself as separate, a refuge, the heart of a heartless world, an alternative to the secular arena of jobs and competition and money. It could make itself attractive and welcoming, generous and loving, a realm where people don’t have to fight for acceptance but are embraced without preconditions. Its employees could try to get more business by simply appealing to the potential customers.

They could, but they don’t, at least not when talking to all of us in the public sphere, where some of us have the audacity to be not-Catholic. Instead, they get down in the mud and brawl, making it very clear that they want and intend to impose their dogmatic rules on all of us, as if it were still 1300 and the Inquisition were roasting people at will. They see secularism as the enemy, and a usurper: they should be the ones making the laws and personally enforcing them, a priest in charge of every neighborhood. What they want from the laity is obedience, full stop.

The particular bishop who sparked this train of thought is James Conley, bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, who does indeed have a Facebook page on which he shares the columns he writes for the Southern Nebraska Register. He published a column on the Hobby Lobby ruling and what he takes to be its implications on July 11.

He begins with a bit of deck-stacking: “Sunday, June 30th, 1776, was an important day in our nation’s history. On that day, the Founding Fathers would have been in Philadelphia’s churches, praying for the will of God in the founding of our nation.”

Note the words “would have been”—he doesn’t know that they were in the churches, he’s just assuming it. That’s no way to argue. It’s hardly fair to try to browbeat us with “our beloved Founding Fathers were in the churches” when you don’t know that they were. But we know what the bishop is doing—he wants us to feel guilty for being disloyal to the Ancestors.

The core of what he says is that he and his church and the believers are in a war with secularism: “In its aftermath, the Hobby Lobby decision has exposed the bald aggression of secularists, whose loyalties lie more closely with unfettered sexual libertinism than with respect for fundamental rights of conscience, of religion, or of personal dignity. In short, the Hobby Lobby decision has exposed the secular tendency towards atheocracy—the systematic hostility and marginalization of religious believers who engage in American public life, a kind of practical atheism established as a norm.”

The rudeness of that remark about unfettered sexual libertinism is quite startling. Way to address your fellow citizens, Bishop! I suppose he has in mind things such as not accepting the idea that sex is Sin and not sharing the church’s loathing of what it still calls homosexuality and not agreeing that contraception is mysteriously wicked. If that’s libertinism, then yes, many secularists are on board with “unfettered sexual libertinism.” But what we don’t think should be unfettered is a priest’s liberty to molest the children in his parish. We also don’t think much of the church’s loyalty to its molesting priests at the expense of their victims. The bishop should give that some thought before he lectures us about our unfettered sexual libertinism.

However, the remark about libertinism was a little jab in passing; the core of his essay is about the peril of secularism. The passage continues: “Hobby Lobby is a victory for human dignity. But it is also a mandate. What’s clear, in the aftermath of the decision, is how toxic our culture has become to faith in public life. The hostility we face won’t be overcome by the assertion of our rights in courts of law. That fight is important. But litigation can only fight the symptoms of our broader problems. Religious liberty will be threatened in our nation as long as secularism is the prevailing cultural leitmotif.”

That claim is completely wrong; it’s the opposite of the truth. Secularism is not the enemy of religious liberty, it’s what makes it possible. Religious liberty includes, very obviously, liberty to change one religion for another, to leave religion altogether or to take it up, to join a congregation or to create a religion of your own. That means that no one religion or branch of a religion can be dominant, and that entails separation from state power.

Facebook works much the same way, after all: it’s secular, yet the bishop is able to use it under the same conditions as everyone else. (If he posts photos of nursing mothers they will probably be removed, but photos of graphic violence will probably not.) The bishop can post his columns attacking secularism there, and we pagans can ignore them or argue with them. If anyone gets tired of it, there is the ability to block people and never hear from them again.

What the bishop seems to want is not religious liberty but religious power and authority. He wants to impose his religion’s rules and taboos on all of us, including people who don’t share his religion. He must be very confident that no rival religion will come along to impose its rules and taboos on him . . . but one wonders why he’s so confident of that.


Ophelia Benson is the editor of the website Butterflies and Wheels. Her books include Does God Hate Women? (with Jeremy Stangroom, Continuum, 2009).

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).


In an authoritarian Facebook post, one Catholic bishop reveals more than he might have meant to.

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