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Op-Ed: Conservative Christians will regret overturning Roe. They’re sacrificing religious liberty to do it

Police officers watch protesters outside the U.S. Supreme Court.
Police officers watch protesters outside the U.S. Supreme Court. Four of the five justices poised to vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade are Catholic. But they are out of step with most American Catholics, who support abortion rights.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

The imminent overturning of Roe vs. Wade is a disaster for women. It is also a disaster for the Catholic Church, whose hierarchy in America has made opposition to abortion central to its mission.

The American Catholic Church is deeply divided, and the bishops’ obsession with matters of gender and sexuality is driving these rifts. Most American Catholics oppose the overturning of Roe vs. Wade (68%, according to a 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center). The bishops pay no heed to their voice but instead seek to silence Catholics in public office who defend women’s reproductive rights.

Ordinary Catholics feel condemned for their views and for the decisions that they and their families make around abortion, same-sex marriage and even contraception, coverage for which the U.S. Catholic bishops sought to exclude from the Affordable Care Act. Time and time again, the bishops have fought against women having control over their own bodies.

It is therefore not surprising that the pews at Sunday Mass are emptying. Today, most young Catholics, who are confirmed in the church in their teen years, have ceased attending Mass by their mid-20s. But it is not just the young and women who feel alienated from the church. There is a disturbing awareness, crossing the lines of gender and age, that the church is not doing the right thing.

The exodus from the church, fueled by moral doubts about the bishops’ actions and teachings, will swell if the Supreme Court proceeds to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Although the American religious group most opposed to abortion rights is white evangelical Protestants, not Catholics, four of the five justices who are poised to strip away abortion rights are Catholic. As the devastating effects on women’s lives become visible after the Supreme Court’s judgment, Catholics are going to feel increasing shame over what their church has done.

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As members of a longtime minority, American Catholics instinctively understand from their own history what their bishops ignore: At stake here is religious liberty.

The American theologian John Courtney Murray was instrumental in the drafting of the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” promulgated in 1965. This was a momentous reversal of church teaching that had previously resisted religious liberty as it became enshrined in the constitutions of democratic societies, because, the church argued, religious toleration (of non-Catholics) would spread indifference to religion. In contrast, American Catholics had embraced a legal foundation for religious liberty because they realized that it protected them in a then-predominantly-Protestant society.

Religious liberty is the historical foundation of all civil liberties because it allows for a political community in which those who participate may profoundly disagree with and dislike one another but still cooperate rather than seek to destroy one another.

Religious liberty did not originate in a period of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue but in an early modern world of bitter religious strife and deadly conflict. For those who were opposed to religious liberty, far more was at risk in their own eyes than the life of an unborn child. They were protecting people’s souls from eternal damnation caused by holding and spreading wrong religious belief. This is why in the early Commonwealth of Massachusetts Catholics were hanged; they were endangering not only their souls but also the souls of others.

Religious freedom carved out a private sphere in which individuals were free to hold any or no religious beliefs and to act on their conscience. In return, they were required not to impose their religious beliefs and the conduct that derived from their conscience on others. In contrast, the public sphere was to operate on empirically observable and rational norms, which would be self-evident to any reasonable person.

Certainly, our understanding of the boundary between private and public spheres has historically evolved and been contested, but the distinction remains important. Many of these boundary shifts have come about through recognition of the rights of women. For example, domestic violence cannot be excused because it occurs in a “private sphere.” The overturning of Roe vs. Wade reverses that trend: It no longer protects women’s bodies from private abuse but subjects them to public control.

Is it legitimate to shift decisions about abortion from the private to the public realm? No. Banning abortion does not rest on established medical and scientific fact and therefore cannot lay the claim on any reasonable person that it become part of public law.

Precisely because the U.S. protects religious liberty, Catholics who oppose abortion rights do not have to justify their religious beliefs and their religiously motivated conduct to me or, more importantly, to a court of law. By the same token, a religiously motivated decision to not have an abortion should not be imposed on those of us who do not share the religious beliefs.

The overturning of Roe vs. Wade would threaten religious liberty. If such a ruling remains in effect for any length of time, it will prevent hundreds of thousands, eventually millions, of women from acting upon their conscience. This will result in serious harm for women and their families — and one of the bulwarks of democratic society will be weakened.

The greatest benefit of religious liberty has been that we have learned to live with people we really don’t like whose views we do not share. This has provided the bedrock for other civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association. If religious liberty is diminished, then we face a world in which competing private spheres compete for dominance over the public realm.

Conservative Christians may feel confident that they can win culture wars against all who do not share their vision of society, but no group stays on top forever. Eventually they will lose sway, and they would then miss the protections for religious liberty once enshrined in American culture and law.

Roe vs. Wade is part of a patchwork of laws that have protected the privacy of individuals against the religiously motivated incursions of others. Ultimately, there cannot be religious liberty for some but not for others. Either all of us enjoy it, or none of us will.

Sheila Briggs is an associate professor of religion and gender and sexuality studies at USC. She is also on the board of Catholics for Choice, a nonprofit supporting reproductive rights.


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