So much for Dignitatis Humanae.

Last week, William Donahue, president of the Catholic League, decried the appointment of Harry Knox to the Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships by President Obama. Donahue reportedly told “People are right to criticize the Catholic Church for anything. But Harry Knox is not just a critic. He’s insulting. He used disdainful, disparaging terms to talk about the pope and the Catholic hierarchy.” Knox, a prominent Christian gay activist, frequently has criticized Catholic opposition to gay marriage, and most recently was harshly critical of Pope Benedict’s statement during a papal visit to Africa that the distribution of condoms makes the HIV/AIDS crisis on that continent worse.

Last month, Donohue joined the chorus of Catholics denouncing the invitation extended to President Obama to give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, where he will receive an honorary doctorate. Donohue, in reference to the President, explained to IrishCentral: “There’s never been an abortion that he didn’t like.”

Donahue’s hyperbolic insult of the President was similar in tone to statements made by Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton. During the course of condemning the invitation extended to President Obama, Martino labeled the President “an unequalled, prominent proponent of the culture of death in our nation.”

Donahue apparently sees no contradiction between the criticism that he heaps on Harry Knox and his own willingness to describe the President as having a fondness for abortions. In the pre-Vatican II mindset of Catholics like Donahue and Bishop Martino, attacks on the moral and religious beliefs of the most prominent Protestant in the country are fair game, while “disparaging” remarks about the Pope are off limits.

By all accounts, President Obama is a devout Christian who believes that, regardless of his own moral and religious views on abortion, women have the right in this country to make certain choices based on their own moral and religious views. As a former constitutional law professor, President Obama has a well-developed appreciation of the Bill of Rights, including the separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment. As the head of a government that has, as a core principle, tolerance for differences on matters of religion, President Obama must reconcile his personal religious views with what he perceives to be his constitutional duties. Donahue and Bishop Martino reject the legitimacy of such a reconciliation, and choose instead to impugn the President’s motives.

Before the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church did not formally approve of the concept of the separation of church and state. Moreover, complete religious freedom belonged only to the Catholic Church as an institution, because it alone contained the fullness of divine truth. The Declaration on Religious Freedom (“Dignitatis Humanae”), one of the final documents of the Second Vatican Council, rejected coercion of religious belief in any form, asserting: “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” The Declaration on Religious Freedom was controversial within the Catholic Church, and Donahue and Bishop Martino obviously remain unconvinced of its merits.

Rejection of the Declaration on Religious Freedom leads to a double standard in Catholic rhetoric. While a great many Catholics and the large majority of everyone else disagree with the Pope’s position on condoms and HIV/AIDS, few doubt the sincerity of his beliefs. Imagine the uproar from the Catholic League if a bishop from a mainline Protestant denomination said that the Pope never met an HIV/AIDS epidemic that he didn’t like, or called the Pope a prominent proponent of the culture of death in Africa? Yet the president of the Catholic League and certain bishops of the Catholic Church feel no need to restrain themselves when talking about the Protestant President of the United States. The Pope may be wrong about condoms, and the President may be wrong about abortion, but neither deserves to have his piety assailed.

The harsh language aimed at President Obama by Catholic officials in the aftermath of his invitation to Notre Dame and his appointment of Harry Knox will find sympathetic ears among many Evangelical Protestants who share disdain for the President’s “liberal” brand of Christianity. However, the reaction will be different for more moderate members of mainline Protestant denominations and for the members of other faiths who understand that the Declaration on Religious Freedom was a watershed in the relationship between Catholicism and other religions. Casting aside the tenets of the Declaration on Religious Freedom will return us to a far less tolerant era when suspicions between Catholics and members of other faiths ran deep.

April 14, 2009

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