Deacons sing at a Fortnight for Freedom event in Baltimore, MD.

(Patrick Semansky/AP Photo)

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops kicked off their “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign almost two weeks ago, they chose an auspicious feast day to start. On the Church’s liturgical calendar, June 21 commemorates two martyrs who suffered political persecution: St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, who were killed under Henry VIII for refusing to recognize him as the head of the Church of England. The American bishops have indicated they feel similarly besieged by political forces. To promote “our Christian and American heritage of liberty,” they’ve organized two weeks of activism and prayer, culminating in a nationally televised liturgy on July 4, Independence Day—another date with clear significance for this U.S.-focused event.

At the forefront of the bishops’ crusade is, of course, their opposition to the Obama administration’s health insurance mandate requiring institutions—including many Catholic ones—to provide contraception coverage. Though the administration has tried to widen the mandate’s exemptions, the USCCB argues that because Catholic doctrine does not condone contraception, the mandate constitutes a violation of religious liberty. The USCCB and its rallying cry have called the largest U.S. religious body, totaling more than 65 million members, into action. From Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Youngstown, Ohio, parishes and dioceses are hosting Fortnight for Freedom events, tolling church bells to “mark our gratitude for our First Freedom,” praying the “Patriotic Rosary,” and contacting Congress to voice their opposition to the mandate. The bishops are urging church members to text “FREEDOM” to join the campaign, and using church bulletin inserts to tell parishioners, “We cannot remain silent.”

Likewise, critics of the campaign refuse to remain silent. In the reaction against Fortnight for Freedom, some are responding to the bishops on their own terms. If the campaign is about religious liberty, they ask, then whose liberty is at stake? The bishops present the Catholic exercise of religious liberty as the ability to reject the use of contraception, or at least the financing of insurance plans that cover contraceptive services. The irony, to those on the other side, is that a campaign meant to promote religious liberty actually denies the religious freedom of many Catholic women, who rely on their personal religious convictions to determine their stance on contraception and the mandate. Studies show that as many as 98 percent of sexually experienced American Catholic women over the age of 18 have used contraception. A recent PRRI/RNS poll reports that a majority of American Catholics do not see the contraception mandate as a threat to religious freedom, indicating that many hold a broader understanding of religious liberty than the bishops maintain. The debate surrounding the mandate, then, is not only about contraception and religious liberty. It is also about who gets to define religious liberty’s very meaning.

Catholics for Choice (CFC), a reproductive rights group, has orchestrated the most expansive effort to actively engage the USCCB argument about religious liberty. In a statement, CFC asks the question, “Whose religious freedom are we talking about?” They argue, “No-cost contraception for the average woman, including many Catholic women, can mean following her religious beliefs, following her conscience.” Likewise, parishioners at The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament parish in Washington D.C. released a public statement criticizing the campaign’s narrow depiction of religious liberty. “We, the faithful, are in danger of becoming pawns,” they stated. “In no way do we feel that our religious freedom is at risk. We find it grotesque to have the call for this ‘Fortnight’ evoke the names of holy martyrs who died resisting tyranny.” Other Catholics, from the editors of Commonweal Magazine to Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, have criticized the shortsighted, partisan nature of the USCCB’s charge that the mandate poses a threat to religious freedom.

Religious liberty has long been an important yet contentious issue for Catholics. The faith’s status as a minority sect throughout much of American history set its members apart from other religious adherents and afforded a unique role in legal debates about religious freedom. Early court cases regarding Catholic parochial schools, for instance, were influential milestones in the development of church and state relations. But even as Catholics have long sought protection under religious liberty, they have not always been in agreement about it. Disagreement has often stemmed from the fact that American Catholicism has a history of extoling the virtues of individual religious freedom—even when it contradicts official Church teachings.

In 1960, Jesuit John Courtney Murray—one of American Catholicism’s most influential theologians on religious freedom—published his most famous book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, where he articulated the compatibility of Catholicism and American thought, particularly the First Amendment. Murray then went on to serve as a theological advisor during Vatican II, where he greatly influenced the Council’s 1965 statement on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae (DH), which said an individual’s conscience mediates “the imperatives of divine law.” Consequently, one “is not to be forced to act in manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.” (The statement’s use of male pronouns is not meant to exclude women, but its usage points to the fact that men create Church doctrine.) The document assigned the responsibility of protecting religious liberty both to the state and to religious groups. Marking a turning point in Catholic teaching, it declared support for the constitutional protection of religious liberty—a stark contrast from the days of Christendom. The complementary limitations of church and state protected an individual’s ability to act according to his or her conscience, especially concerning religious matters.

With the appearance of oral contraceptives in the early 1960s, little time passed before Catholics brought Vatican II’s declarations on religious liberty to bear on contraception. In a memo to Boston’s Richard Cardinal Cushing after Massachusetts decriminalized artificial contraception, John Courtney Murray argued that contraception is a matter of private morality and thus one that ought to be protected by Catholics under religious liberty. When Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s doctrinal stance against contraception in the 1968 papal letter Humanae Vitae, there was a public outcry from North American Catholics who opposed the letter on the grounds of religious liberty. In the United States, Catholic University’s Charles Curran mobilized 600 theologians for a press conference where they announced their opposition to Humanae Vitae, arguing that dissent from the Vatican’s position on contraception was permissible when discerned responsibly and for the sake of one’s marriage. The Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops issued the Winnipeg Statement that year, asserting that any Catholic who “honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience,” echoing the language of Dignitatis Humanae. Citing the “accepted principles of moral theology,” the bishops argued that an act in good conscience is moral even if one acts against the Vatican’s doctrinal teaching on contraception.

Critics of the bishops’ current battle can call on this Catholic history of religious liberty and individual freedom. In their view, women’s choices are an issue of religious liberty—not merely a threat to it. Still, who defines religious liberty remains a matter of authority—and a highly gendered one at that. When the USCCB conveys that the rejection of contraception is the only religiously-motivated choice that warrants the protection of religious liberty among Catholics, they assert the message that only church leaders have the authority to determine what counts as religious behavior. This strips other Catholics of the legitimate authority to negotiate their tradition when determining their own religiously-motivated actions. What is more, so long as the all-male Catholic clergy solely possess the authority to identify what does and does not constitute a free, religiously-motivated choice worthy of legal protection, women have no official authority in Catholic religious liberty conversations whatsoever. As it stands, the religious decisions and actions of all Catholics other than clergy—be they for or against contraception and contraceptive coverage—are seemingly insignificant in “Catholic” concerns about religious liberty.

The public rhetoric surrounding the HHS mandate has only reified the debates’ gender lines. As Michael Sean Winters observed earlier this year, the bishops are framing the mandate debate in terms of religious liberty in opposition to those who frame the discussion in terms of women’s rights. A series of events in February bolstered the position of those advocating for a women’s rights perspective—namely the absence of women at the official congressional hearing concerning the mandate and Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” fiasco that arose in response to Sandra Fluke’s testimony during an unofficial Democrat-sponsored hearing. The Fortnight for Freedom campaign can be viewed as an attempt to reemphasize the religious liberty stakes in the debate.

Yet the mandate is not simply a “women’s issue” because it concerns contraception; the mandate is a “women’s issue” because it concerns religious liberty, as the bishops insist, and the Catholic theological tradition insists that religious liberty ought to protect the ability of a woman to obey her conscience. The bishops, or anyone for that matter, need not theologically condone the contraceptive decisions of Catholic women in order to recognize them as exercises of free, religious choice. Yet the current rhetoric of the USCCB’s “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign does not. With last week’s Supreme Court decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act that contains the HHS contraception mandate, the USCCB has vowed to continue its opposition campaign. But if the bishops continue to exclude so many American Catholics from their representation of religious liberty—notably, the majority of Catholic women—the USCCB fails in its own stated aim to protect the religious liberty of all.

Jessica Coblentz is a PhD student in Theology at Boston College.