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Conscience Magazine

Freedom is Enslavement

By Ruth Riddick December 20, 2016

Does anyone doubt that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is in the propaganda business? The latest evidence in support of this proposition comes in the form of a multimedia project, “Made for Freedom.” (It’s always worth paying attention when authoritarians invoke “freedom.”) This project features short videos on marriage and religious liberty posted to the bishops’ website. Key messages from USCCB include the fol­lowing: “The Catholic Church promotes and defends the institution of marriage as the union of one man and one woman;” “Sexual difference is essen­tial to marriage;” and “Mar­riage and religious liberty stand—or fall—together.”

The simple messaging recalls propaganda czar Joseph Goebbels, and his maxim that “it is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths.” Rather, propaganda “must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” A lesson embraced by USCCB.

The stakes are very high indeed. “The thread that connects us all as human beings is the fact that every­body comes from a mother and a father,” says one of the talking heads in “Marriage: Unique for a Reason.” “If you tweak that, you’re rob­bing us of our humanity,” she says. Excuse me? She con­tinues, “When you redefine marriage, you redefine par­enthood.” What? A perfect non sequitur.

Next, a hesitant youngish male voice disingenuously expresses confusion about how free-floating assertions such as these could be received as “hate speech.” In a visual sleight of hand, people of color are recruited to deliver antidiversity messages cloaked in anti-discrimation language. At a time when the country is being forced to recognize the bru­tality of its original sin, this co-option is particularly creepy. Logical argu­ment may be the province of Augus­tine and Aquinas, but it has no place in propaganda, as that medium’s masters (repeatedly) tell us. It is futile to engage.

“Just because our faith is personal doesn’t mean it’s private,” intones a male voice of authority, before sug­gesting, over a visual of a young white woman in distress, that government policy hurts mothers seeking to place their babies for adoption. (Yes, crisis pregnancy centers—we’re looking at you!) Florists and bakers (private indi­vidual shown being put out of business) and judges and clerks (public employees) are being “coerced” by a dangerous government on behalf of people seeking to avail lawful civil marriage.

In the dense website accompanying these videos, USCCB looks askance at the usual suspects: contraception, sterilization, and “abortion-inducing” drugs. Of course.

Lest viewers need more elucidation, USCCB has created an accompanying study guide “meant to help viewers explore the themes of the short film in more depth. It is an ideal tool for clergy or pastoral leaders who want to lead a discussion on marriage … at their par­ishes.” The website offers additional “educational” resources, such as DVDs (one in Spanish with English subtitles), FAQs, a bibliography and a blog.

So much material.  Such a limiting philosophy.

Efforts to restrict marriage to a one-time heterosexuals-only deal is a project largely lost on the continent that gave us the Enlightenment (and, thereby, the United States Constitu­tion), as Ireland unexpectedly demon­strated in a landslide referendum approving universal marriage last year. Nonetheless, when the bishops start talking about “freedom,” our inner

Orwell awakens. In the topsy-turvy world of the USCCB propagandists, “freedom” means everyone else is bound by the church’s rules, and it’s just too bad if that doesn’t work for you. Thus, freedom means enslave­ment. Perfectly 1984.

To those of us familiar with the social good done by religion in the public sphere—yes, the nuns did give us an education, etc.—the USCCB web­site discussing “freedom” carries a warning that this beneficence will be circumscribed: “If religious liberty is not respected, all people suffer and are deprived of the essential contribution to the common good, be it in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights, and social services that the Church and other people of faith make every day, both here at home and overseas.

Such a loaded word, “respect.” We are on notice to get with the church’s program, or else.

Here we find the church comfort­ably, if not explicitly, identifying as “totalitarian,” even as the bishops notionally argue for “freedom” and “liberty.” Historian Robert Conquest wrote, “Totalitarianism is a political system in which the [protagonist] rec­ognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever fea­sible.”

What is it that the bishops’ curious little propaganda films have to say about “religious freedom”?

Opening very grandly with an aerial shot of the US Capitol and a por­tentous soundtrack, another male voice intones, “Religious freedom is the first freedom.” This is a bit Jesuit­ical. True, freedom of religion is a core

American value, as may be its arguable analogue, freedom from religion. This latter view is not what’s being promul­gated here.

“Without religious freedom, all other freedoms are without founda­tion,” we are told. Really? Predictably, government is again a villain, and we are warned that this villain is “prob­ably” going to come after our other (cherished) institutions as well. No apology is offered to anti-Nazi theo­logian Martin Niemöller for use of this (deliberately provocative) lan­guage, nor to us for the strategic appeal to paranoia. And so on and so forth.

Is our most cherished freedom under threat? The bishops are being rhetorical. It is, they say. In the dense website accompanying these videos,

USCCB looks askance at the usual sus­pects: contraception, sterilization, and “abortion-inducing” drugs. Of course.

The “Made for Freedom” Study Guide was developed and approved by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, chair of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cordileone is a firm supporter of far right Republican Ted Cruz, a politician not generally known for his defense of human rights. (“Lucifer in the flesh,” according to his party colleague and former House Speaker John Boehner.)

“Love ye one another,” we are com­manded, “And the greatest of these [virtues] is love.” Your correspondent could not find this simple message amid the bishops’ multimedia exegesis on “freedom.” Now we know.

Ruth Riddick
Ruth Riddick

led a successful appeal at the European Court of Human Rights against Ireland's restriction on information about extra-territorial legal abortion (Open Door Counselling, 1992), resulting in Irish constitutional and legal reform. Her polemic on "women's right to choose" is featured in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. She is a regular contributor to Conscience, usually writing on film and the arts.