In recent years, we have seen a growing trend among conservative Roman Catholics and evangelicals who adopt a liberal “freedom of conscience” meme to justify sidestepping the customer-service policies and civil-conduct codes of their employers.
In upstate New York, for example, town clerk Barbara MacEwen refused to perform her duties last year, forcing other employees to change their schedules to serve the taxpayers that MacEwen opted not to serve. In that case, religious conservatives contended that one employee’s conscience trumps everyone else’s conscience. Conversely, last month bishops in 140 Roman Catholic dioceses declared that “freedom of conscience” is under attack by a hostile government that is acting on behalf of individual employees. Father Geoff Farrow astutely observed, in response, that in this case: “The bishops are taking a cherished inalienable right endowed to every person and co-opting it to a corporation. They are saying that an institution’s conscience trumps the conscience of employees of that institution.”
So which is it? Whose conscience overrides whom?
Until now, religious conservatives generally applied their tangled rationale to progressive private employers and government agencies. One consistent thread in their incursions: The intended victims of these “conscience” actions tend to be religious and sexual minorities.
Now, though, a conservative ideologue has donned the freedom-of-conscience mantle to disregard the policies of his own conservative church, which his allies contend are not conservative enough.
In an insightful article, religion blogger John Shore explores the context of the Rev. Marcel Guarnizo’s dereliction of duty at a funeral in Gaithersburg, Maryland, last Saturday. After duly noting three other instances in which other Roman Catholics (including a retired priest) stepped forward to substitute for Guarnizo, Shore observes:
When the head of Saint John Neumann’s, Fr. LaHood, was made aware of what had happened at the Johnson funeral, he phoned Barbara to apologize. Barbara played for me Fr. LaHood’s message. It left nothing on the table: his apology was sincere, obviously heartfelt, and accompanied by every last means to reach him, including his personal cell and home phone number.
After Barbara later met with Fr. LaHood, she reported that, “He was very kind, compassionate, and apologetic.”
In other words, Guarnizo’s impromptu “freedom of conscience” move forced many others, including conservative superiors and the Archdiocesan headquarters, to divert from their own responsibilities to fulfill the duties that Guarnizo abdicated.
Religious conservatives may face more such disruptions within their own churches, so long as they affirm the disruption of employers’ operations through denial of equal service to religious- and sexual-minority customers and taxpayers. If religious conservatives wish for government to stay out of matters of church and marriage — and if for clergy to fulfill their duties without interruption — then perhaps it’s time for a less arbitrary and more consistent approach to religious freedom.