Catholic Bishops Winning “Liberties,” Losing Humans

With Lent winding down and Easter nearly upon us, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan wants to know what’s happened to the strict Lenten observances of yore. In a blog post, he laments that Catholics seek dispensations from “the measly eight days of fasting left” and “continue to schedule celebrations, parties, and fundraisers during what should be forty somber days of penance.”

And don’t even get him started on basketball: “Our Catholic colleges will compete in ‘March Madness’ even on Good Friday, and coaches in our parishes will complain that CYO games cannot be scheduled on Holy Thursday and Good Friday.”

What the cardinal seems to be yearning for is the public performance of Lenten rituals beyond #ashtag selfies, harkening back to the days when Catholics filled the pews for Lenten weekday masses and wouldn’t be caught dead in anything other than devotional repose between noon and three on Good Friday afternoon to commemorate Jesus’ time on the cross (although my mother surreptitiously cleaned the house).

Catholics were so closely associated with the public performance of Lent, especially the ban on eating meat on Fridays, that McDonald’s created a “Lenten goodie” just for them:


But, alas, no more says Dolan, as Catholics shy away from “external signs” of their religiosity, unlike, for example, pitching legend Sandy Koufax, who in 1965, “informed the manager of the Dodgers that he would not be able to pitch on the Jewish high holy day, Yom Kippur. For Sandy, his faith was more important than even baseball.”

Well, perhaps, but Yom Kippur is one day, not 40, and more equivalent to Easter for Catholics than Lent, and you don’t find Catholic basketball teams playing on Easter. But clearly I’m missing Dolan’s point. It’s not about comparing holy day apples to oranges, but about the public performance of religion:

Last week I was taking a walk in Central Park and stopped at a cart for a bottle of water. But, the attendant was not to be seen. I walked around the cart hoping to find him, and there he was, a faithful Moslem, on his knees for his duty of prayer.

Now I see where this is going. Dolan and his friends at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have been successful (in fact, spectacularly successfully, according to a new analysis by FiveThirtyEight) in creating a whole new space for “religious liberty” so Catholics are ostensibly free to act out their Catholicism in public spaces.

According to FiveThirtyEight, “religious liberty” has now replaced “gay marriage” in GOP talking points, up from none during the GOP debates in 2008 to 29 so far this year:

Mentions of “religious,” “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” appeared more than ever in this year’s debates when referring to the rights of business owners to refuse services to gay customers.

The Catholic bishops created the “religious liberty” meme out of whole cloth in 2011, combining their antipathy to same-sex marriage with objections to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. But what are ungrateful Catholics doing with this newfound religious liberty that the good prelates have cooked up for them? Are they refusing to buy gay cupcakes and taking birth control away from their employees before going to pray in Central Park? No, they just keep filling out their March Madness brackets. Only 25 percent even bother to attend Sunday mass, notes Dolan, “seem[ing] to prefer Starbucks and sporting events.”

Maybe it’s not them, Cardinal. Maybe it’s you. Maybe the pews are empty and the Starbucks are full because the hierarchy is more concerned about the public performance of a very specific type of conservative Catholicism that infringes on the rights of others than on fostering a genuine Christian community that actually creates a sacred space. Where’s the Catholic Sandy Koufax? He’s probably at Starbucks.