John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Catholic Program Director, joined FPL after three years at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He blogs about Catholics in public life.
Catholic progressives are used to feeling the heat from some bishops who give the impression that abortion is the only life issue. It’s not every day that you hear a Catholic bishop directly challenge self-identified “pro-life” groups for their selective moralizing and crass tactics. Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg – a moderate who has also questioned religious leaders’ apocalyptic denunciations of the Obama administration’s contraception coverage requirements as part of the Affordable Care Act – jumps into the fray on his blog:
I am convinced that many so called pro-life groups are not really pro-life but merely anti-abortion…We heard nothing from the heavy hitters in the prolife movement in the last week when Florida last night executed a man on death row for 34 years having been diagnosed as a severe schizophrenic
Many priests grow weary of continual calls to action for legislative support for abortion and contraception related issues but nothing for immigration reform, food aid, and capital punishment. And, this is a big one, priests don’t like unfair attacks on things they highly value and esteem, like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services.
Bishop Lynch is responding to trends I wrote about recently in a new report that uncovers how pro-life groups like the American Life League are waging a relentless campaign to undermine the church’s most respected social justice ministries. He doesn’t beat around the bush:
From time to time, I suspect when these organizations need money, they try to stir up a hornet’s nest or storm by attacking a Catholic organization, usually falsely accusing them of being anti-life, pro-contraception, either pro or soft on abortion, etc. The storms start small enough and then occasionally grow in size. It’s simply a money raising scheme with little regard for the human lives which they allege they seek to protect – well maybe it is only pre-born human life in which they are interested.
It’s refreshing to hear a bishop stand up for the church’s consistent ethic of life tradition in a way that puts public pressure on conservatives who usually receive a free pass from the hierarchy.
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Prominent Catholic university presidents urged Catholics in the House of Representatives today to stop delaying and pass comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. The high-profile push from the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown, The Catholic University of America and more than 90 other university leaders signals a major ratcheting up of Catholic pressure on Congress at a time when the number of Catholics on Capitol Hill has reached a historic high. The leaders of more than a third of the nation’s 244 Catholic colleges and universities were represented on the letter, which also ran as a full-page ad in Politico newspaper.
Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, would be wise to tune out those Tea Party ideologues now backing him into a corner and meet with these university leaders who speak so persuasively about the moral and practical case for reform. While we’re at it, Rep. Paul Ryan could also benefit from some pressure given reports today that he is getting weak knees on a path to citizenship. In contrast, these university leaders are resolute:
Together we represent universities that educate more than 290,000 students. Leaders on Catholic campuses advocated for the DREAM Act, and we stand with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in urging Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a road to earned citizenship.
Our broken immigration system, which tears parents from children, traps aspiring Americans in the shadows, and undermines the best values of this nation, is morally indefensible…As Catholics engaged in public service, you have a serious responsibility to consider the moral dimensions of policy decisions. Our immigration system is so deeply flawed, and in such urgent need of repair, that inaction is unacceptable.
Along with Catholic college presidents, the letter also includes signatories from 60 Catholic theologians and academics, as well as a retired U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican who worked in the first Bush administration and endorsed Mitt Romney for president.
The effort, spearheaded by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and Faith in Public Life, is part of a broader advocacy push by Catholics on immigration reform. Faith in Public Life will be working to bring Catholic university presidents to Capitol Hill in the fall to urge members to pass a path to citizenship. The U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops will circulate the presidents’ letter as part of its robust advocacy efforts.
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, touted the Catholic presidents’ push in a statement today:
I welcome the support of the Catholic presidents for immigration reform. They are a welcome voice in this debate, as they see the potential and talent in newly arriving immigrants. Immigrants, especially youth, are important for our nation’s future and competitiveness. Educators understand the importance of investing in immigrant youth so they can become tomorrow’s leaders.
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A Faith in Public Life report released today documents how a network of conservative Catholic organizations is targeting effective social justice initiatives funded by the U.S. bishops’ national anti-poverty campaign and creating a toxic climate of fear around community organizing.
Be Not Afraid? – Guilt by Association, Catholic McCarthyism and Growing Threats to the U.S. Bishops’ Anti-Poverty Mission includes interviews with retired bishops, community development experts and non-profit directors whose organizations have lost church funding because of associations with groups that support same-sex marriage. These issues are in the news this week as Catholic leaders in Chicago consider defunding local groups that work with the poor because of their membership in an immigrant rights coalition that supports allowing same-sex couples to marry.
The American Life League, a Catholic pro-life organization with a $6 million budget, has led the charge. Their witch-hunt approach is having an impact and pushing some bishops to back away from effective organizations that put Catholic social teaching into practice:
- The Land Stewardship Project, a Minnesota non-profit that for five consecutive years received church funds, abruptly lost a $48,000 CCHD grant to help immigrant farmers in 2012 because of an association with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and TakeAction Minnesota. Those two groups work on diverse social justice issues supported by Catholic teaching, but did not endorse the Minnesota bishops’ efforts to fight same-sex marriage. The stewardship project does not work on marriage issues and never took a position on the state’s 2012 marriage ballot initiative.
- Companeros, a small non-profit in rural southwestern Colorado that helps immigrants with basic social services and legal aid, lost church funds that amounted to half of its budget because of its association with a statewide immigrant rights coalition that included a single gay and lesbian advocacy group. Companeros did not and does not work on gay rights issues.
- In 2012-13 alone, five affiliates of the Gamaliel Foundation – one of the nation’s largest networks of faith-based community organizers – lost CCHD funds.
Conservative Catholic activists who try to dismiss the report can’t simply ignore retired bishops, former top officials at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other prominent church leaders who endorsed it. As Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Fiorenza, a former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told me:
At a time when poverty is growing and people are hurting we should not withdraw from our commitment to helping the poor. Catholic identity is far broader than opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Catholic identity is a commitment to living the Gospel as Jesus proclaimed it, and this must include a commitment to those in poverty.
The most zealous, self-appointed guardians of Catholic identity today can be so busy playing purity police that they miss the essence of the Gospels. Jesus warned against moral arrogance and scandalized the religious establishment by eating with prostitutes. He reminded the high priests of his time that their vigilance toward the letter of law meant little if the spirit of the law was ignored. When 1 in 5 children live in poverty, pulling the plug on effective social justice organizations simply because of a group’s associations or legitimate need to work in coalition for the common good is unimaginable. It throws prudence and proportionality out the window.
Catholic bishops put plenty of institutional muscle and significant funding behind campaigns to fight same-sex marriage. I hope they can show the same energy to make sure their own anti-poverty efforts are not strangled by culture war fights.
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Catholic Democrats will be decisive in determining the fate of gun violence prevention measures now before Congress. Sens. Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Mary Landrieu and Mark Begich are reportedly still undecided on the bipartisan compromise deal put together by Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Representing “red” states where gun ownership is a proud cultural maker, these on-the-fence Dems could use a moral wake up call as they navigate the shoals of gun policy and politics in the coming days. Their own faith tradition provides clarifying vision. Just last week, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development urged Senators to support a “culture of life by promoting policies that reduce gun violence and save people’s lives…” Catholic bishops have specifically endorsed “effective and enforceable background checks,” the central issue before Senators this week. (Bishops also supported an assault weapons ban and limits on access to high-capacity ammunition magazines. The gun lobby made sure these provisions were scuttled.)
Back in January, prominent Catholic leaders — including former U.S. Ambassadors to the Holy See from the first Bush administration and the Obama administration — challenged Catholic members of Congress with favorable NRA ratings to show “greater moral leadership and political courage.”
Politicians have a tendency to worry about things like elections. In the case of Sens. Landrieu and Begich, midterms loom on the near horizon. The Hill reports that “Landrieu remains one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents heading into reelection next year.” But public service and real leadership is about putting aside political expedience and standing strong in the face of powerful special interests that hurt the common good. Let’s hope these wavering Catholic Democrats find inspiration from their own faith tradition, stand up to the NRA and do what’s right.
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The announcement today from the Obama administration that it is granting a more robust accommodation for religious institutions who object to providing contraception coverage is a sensible move. The values of protecting women’s health and the conscience rights of religious employers should not be in conflict.
The provision that nearly all employers must provide contraceptive services under the federal health care reform law has sparked a long, messy fight between the Obama administration, Catholic bishops and some conservative evangelicals. This fight is far from over. A dozen separate legal challenges to the administration’s mandate are now winding through the courts. Because judges have reached different conclusions, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely make the final call.
The most significant news from today’s announcement is that the administration’s “four-part test” of what constitutes a “religious employer” — a major sticking point for Catholic universities, charities and hospitals — has been scrapped for a simpler IRS definition. Under the original proposal, employers could be exempt from the contraception mandate only if their purpose was to inculcate religious values, they primarily employed those who shared their religious tenets, primarily served those who shared their religious beliefs and were a nonprofit under federal tax law. The first three parts of that definition were a big problem for religiously affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals, universities and charities. For Catholics, medical institutions and charities are not tangential to a religious commitment, but central to putting faith into practice. Respected Catholic organizations like the Catholic Health Association, which supported the health care reform law and has distanced itself from the strident rhetoric of some bishops had been urging the administration to make this fix. At the same time, the administration’s proposals announced today, which are open to a 60-day public comment period, will still ensure women have access to contraception coverage without a co-pay. This is a victory for women’s health and the conscience rights of religious employers.
It will take time for various religious organizations to digest the details of today’s announcement, and tensions won’t disappear overnight. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, put out a brief initial statement saying bishops “welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely.”
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