As I expected, the leaders of the Catholic Church have done everything they can to avoid saying anything in response to the furor over the Indiana RFRA. Their counsel is “dialogue,” an unfortunate weasel word long used by administrators who don't want to take a stand.
On its face, the wording of this bland statement suggests the bishops believe the Indiana law could permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. (They're calling for “dialogue” to make sure that doesn't happen.) But this is an over-reading of the statement. It's really just a political evasion of responsibility searching for words.
Some months ago, I predicted that Catholicism in America would basically accommodate itself to whatever sexual regime dominates our society. The accommodation won't be explicit. The Church won't endorse homosexuality or gay marriage. Instead, the bishops will step aside, avoid controversy, and just stop talking about things that carry a high price for dissent. This duck-and-cover non-statement fits perfectly into this trajectory.
My first impulse is to laugh. The statement tries to signal support for religious freedom, but qualifies. “The rights of a person should never be used inappropriately in order to deny the rights of another.” And so maybe Tim Cook is right to denounce the Indiana law. Time for dialogue. Oh, “justice and mercy” too. But wait, religious liberty is important. Except when it's not. But sometimes it really is . . .
But I can't laugh, because the tragedy is too poignant. Doubtless there are faithful Catholics in Indiana who think marriage is only possible between a man and a woman. Doubtless they resist the pro-gay propaganda their children are subjected to by the media and often in school. Doubtless they try to support the Church's teaching on sex, family, and marriage. In the midst of a propaganda blitz denouncing all dissent from the coming regime of gay rights, this anodyne non-statement says to them, “You're on your own.”
I'm sure that's not the intent of the Indiana bishops. They're undoubtedly faithful men trying to be good pastors. But they're also disoriented by the rapid pace of cultural and political change in America (aren't we all). And, to be frank, they're also disoriented by mixed messages from Rome. (Who are they to judge?) They're as frightened as the rest of us of being denounced as “homophobic bigots.” Furthermore, it's surely true that many Catholics under their care believe the hyper-denunciatory propaganda campaign against the Indiana law and would respond with anger and outrage to any clear statement supporting it.
Every option has a price. So they find a way to do nothing. Duck-and-cover.
I'm all for sober, dispassionate, and non-partisan church leadership that stays focused on core moral and religious principles rather than allowing itself to be drawn into the partisan fray. But connection to reality is important too. Right now the propaganda against the Indiana RFRA has made it clear that any resistance to the magisterium of the gay rights movement will be denounced as anti-American bigotry. Can the Church survive as a public institution in such a context without capitulating?
What they should have done is patently obvious. We need religious leaders to denounce the hyperbolic propaganda for what it is and express unequivocal support for the Indiana RFRA. Such a statement would reflect a sober assessment of what best serves the common good and promises to protect, however imperfectly, the freedom of Christians (and Jews and Muslims and others) to teach, educate, and serve in accord with traditional moral teaching about sex, family, and marriage.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.