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John Gehring
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.

Obama Administration Offers Religious Employers Broader Exemption on Contraception Coverage

February 1, 2013, 2:09 pm | By John Gehring

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.”

Stay tuned.

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Pope Benedict XVI, Scourge of “Unregulated Capitalism”

January 4, 2013, 9:47 am | By John Gehring

If many progressives are disappointed that President Obama and most political leaders have not done more to reign in the corruption and greed of Wall Street titans who sparked a global financial crisis, they have an unlikely ally in a theologian who leads a global church of more than a billion souls.

While Pope Benedict XVI is viewed as a staunch conservative for his opposition to same-sex marriage and frequent pronouncements on sexual ethics, his powerful voice on economic justice issues too often gets short shrift. But it’s hard to ignore the pope’s recent blistering critique of what he describes as “unregulated financial capitalism.”  Pope Benedict, who has urged world leaders to pay more attention to the “scandal of glaring inequalities” between rich and poor nations, used his recent World Day of Peace message to challenge “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset” that gives rise to economic models based on “maximum profit and consumption.”

It’s unlikely that Catholic Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan or House Speaker John Boehner, free-market fundamentalists with a soft spot for Ayn Rand-libertarianism, will be passing out copies of the pope’s address in the halls of Congress. You can also bet many lawmakers from both parties, dependent on corporate campaign contributions from the financial services industry, paid scant attention to the Vatican’s call in 2011 for more robust financial regulation and a financial transaction tax.

But as we navigate the shoals of post-fiscal cliff Washington, with Republicans hankering for a fight on the debt ceiling and insisting on deeper spending cuts, political leaders could do worse than reflect on the Catholic justice tradition’s prudent balance between acknowledging a vital role for government while advocating for a market system that is tempered ­­ – and made more humane – by reasonable safeguards that serve the common good. In fact, Catholic social teaching on taxes, the role of government, the importance of unions, strong social safety nets and the need for robust regulation of global financial markets offers a progressive blueprint for building a moral economy.

The next time you hear a Catholic politician or a “pro-life” leader who argues for gutting financial regulations and slashing vital programs that protect children and the elderly so the wealthiest few can get more tax breaks, tell them to take it up with the pope.

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Gun Violence: A Moral Challenge for “Pro-Life” Christians

December 18, 2012, 5:23 pm | By John Gehring

In the wake of the horrific violence unleashed last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School, religious leaders across the country have tried to provide spiritual healing and grappled with profound theological questions about the nature of evil. As the dead are buried and we mourn the loss of heroic teachers and innocent children, the work of faith communities is just beginning. Now is the time for pastors, rabbis and imams in every community to speak up boldly for saner gun control laws.

Pro-life Christians who are a major political force in this country should be leading this movement. If the sanctity of human life in the womb galvanizes evangelical Christians and Catholics to march on Washington, create sophisticated lobbying campaigns and hold members of Congress accountable, there is no excuse for pro-life timidity on this issue.

Sadly, if not unexpectedly, the loudest Christian voices have been from the usual chorus of culture warriors who are again blaming Democrats, President Obama and “godless” public schools for the tragedy. Mike Huckabee, pastor-in-chief at Fox News, thinks if we had a more God-fearing nation this tragedy could have been avoided. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, best known for his homophobic screeds, roared that “we’ve kicked God out of our public school system.” Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, an evangelical who apparently believes the Prince of Peace would want us all packin’ heat, recently called for arming teachings and school administrators at a Tea Party event.

The National Association of Evangelicals, a pro-life lobbying force, has sent out press releases this  week about how evangelicals are portrayed in the media and the attitudes of younger evangelicals toward abortion reduction, but nothing about the moral scandal of gun violence that kills more than 30,000 people a year. The Southern Baptist Convention has been mum. Back in 2002, Richard Land, the chief public policy spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, decried what he called a “long-term assault on your Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms.”

This moral cowardice and Christian capitulation to NRA propaganda should turn our stomach.

Catholic bishops, who will help mobilize many thousands of pro-life activists next month for the annual March for Life in Washington, could also put more lobbying muscle behind gun control efforts considering the church’s past statements. As Carol Glatz reports for Catholic News Service:

The Catholic Church’s position on gun control is not easy to find; there are dozens of speeches and talks and a few documents that call for much tighter regulation of the global arms trade, but what about private gun ownership? The answer is resoundingly clear: Firearms in the hands of civilians should be strictly limited and eventually completely eliminated. But you won’t find that statement in a headline or a document subheading. It’s almost hidden in a footnote in a document on crime by the U.S. bishops’ conference and it’s mentioned in passing in dozens of official Vatican texts on the global arms trade. The most direct statement comes in the bishops’ “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice” from November 2000.

“As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer — especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner — and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.” That’s followed by a footnote that states: “However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions — i.e. police officers, military use — handguns should be eliminated from our society.” That in turn reiterates a line in the bishops’ 1990 pastoral statement on substance abuse, which called “for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society.”

Catholics in the pews are ripe for mobilization. Among U.S. religious groups, Catholics are the most likely to support gun control. More than 6 in 10 of Catholics — 62 percent — favor stricter firearms laws, compared to fewer than half of white evangelicals (35 percent) and white mainline Protestants (42 percent), according to a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll.

There is no easy fix for the epidemic of gun violence. Inadequate mental health services, rampant materialism, the glorification of violence and the spiritual alienation of young men and women who are disconnected from community all play a role. We live in a toxic culture. Laws can’t be the only answer for a crisis that is more deeply rooted. But the complexity of this urgent challenge can’t be an excuse for inaction or deferring to an unacceptable status quo.

The religious right will continue to blame the gays, contraception and abortion for the collapse of civilization. But there are far more empty churches in Europe and Canada than in our highly religious society, and mass shootings like the ones in Littleton, Aurora and Newton are a rarity because of reasonable gun laws and a culture that does not mythologize guns. If pro-life Christian leaders need some inspiration they should look to Rev. Gary Hall, the dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, who on the first Sunday after the school shooting in Connecticut said the best way to mourn the Sandy Hook tragedy is “to mobilize the faith community for gun control.”

“The gun lobby,” said Hall, “is no match for the cross lobby.”



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Michigan’s War on Workers: Catholic Bishops Asleep at the Wheel

December 12, 2012, 4:24 pm | By John Gehring

Ever since Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, put the dignity of work and the importance of unions at the center of Catholic social teaching, the Catholic tradition has provided a moral bulwark against efforts to defang labor rights. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, goes so far as to describe unions as “an indispensable element of social life.” Pope Benedict XVI has pointed to economic globalization and the “downsizing of social security systems” as reasons why unions and worker solidarity are needed “even more than in the past.”

So when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a flurry of anti-union legislation yesterday Catholic bishops in the state surely protested?

Not so much.

The Michigan Catholic Conference did not send out even a cursory press release. In Detroit, where there are plenty of Catholic union families, the archdiocese has no statement up on its web site. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? Snooze.  This is a stunning level of silence from a church that for centuries has been at the forefront of worker and economic justice. It’s also emblematic of an increasingly conservative church leadership that has radically narrowed Catholic identity to fights against contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage. The old giants of social justice like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Msgr. John Ryan or Bishop Walter Sullivan, who passed away just yesterday, have been replaced by a new generation of episcopal leaders like Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, WI., who gave religious cover to Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-government ideology during the campaign and is now cracking down on Catholic nuns at an interfaith retreat center. It was left to one of the great legends of the Catholic social justice movement, retired Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, to say what needed to be said at Sojourners blog today:

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet proclaims, “Woe to those who make unjust laws.” Indeed, woe to those in the Michigan state legislature who voted in favor of these laws. Woe to Governor Snyder whose pen is at the ready to sign these bills.

Sadly, we’ve seen this movie before. As I blogged about last fall, the Catholic Conference of Ohio also failed to stand up to a wave of anti-union legislation in that state despite a diverse coalition of religious opposition. The Catholic bishops in Ohio remained “neutral” on Issue 2, one of the most important fights over worker justice in the state’s history.

Catholic bishops have clearly demonstrated capacity to mobilize parishioners, pour millions into political lobbying and speak boldly in the media. They flexed their muscles during last summer’s Fortnight for Freedom campaign, largely aimed at the Obama administration’s efforts to ensure women have greater access to contraception, and doubled down on fights against civil same sex marriage during the election.  As Michael Sean Winters, far from a lefty commentator, notes in the National Catholic Reporter today.

Lord knows, if Michigan had passed anything to do with contraception we would have heard about it quickly enough. If the bishops of Michigan are not going to stand up and defend 120 years of explicit papal social teaching on the importance of unions, shame on them. If they are not going to defend their own people in the pews from this corporate effort to drive down wages, shame on them. If the bishops of Michigan cannot see that one of the greatest achievements of the Catholic Church in the United States was that we did not lose the working classes in the late 19th and early 20th century as the Church in Europe did, and defend that achievement, shame on them.

It’s nice to see Catholic bishops pushing the sainthood cause of Dorothy Day, but in failing to speak out for those workers and families she championed in her remarkable ministry, the church fails the test of its own proud tradition.


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Catholic Bishops Rev Up Political Machine to Fight the Gays

September 26, 2012, 11:59 am | By John Gehring

Archbishop John Myers of Newark just told Catholics in his diocese who support same-sex marriage that they should “refrain from receiving Holy Communion” and calls “a proper backing of marriage” a fundamental issue for Catholic voters heading into the election. Catholics in Minnesota will receive a letter this week from the state’s bishops encouraging them to donate money for television ads asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The new archbishop of San Francisco has said gays and lesbians who are in a sexual relationship of any kind should not receive Communion. In Omaha, the archbishop is encouraging priests to preach against the city’s recently passed sexual orientation anti-discrimination ordinance. Meanwhile, the Seattle archbishop, who is overseeing the Vatican crackdown on Catholic nuns while he lobbies for an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative, cheerily warns that “human society would be harmed beyond repair” by same-sex marriage. Well, at least he is keeping things in perspective. Apocalyptic musings would be so unhelpful.

At a time when one in five children live in poverty and Catholic Republicans like Paul Ryan want to eviscerate effective government programs that help the most vulnerable this is the hill Catholic bishops want to die on? The Newark case, where the archbishop is telling Catholics who even support LGBT equality not to receive Communion, is particularly scary. I missed that section of Catholic social teaching where bishops are deputized as “thought police” free to patrol our conscience and public squares for what Catholics might believe about and do for our sons, friends and neighbors who are gay. A minority of zealous bishops, encouraged by Catholic right activists who deem themselves holier than the pope, are in danger of dragging a religious tradition known for its proud social justice witness and intellectual rigor into the reactionary arms of the Religious Right. Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which encouraged the church to engage the modern world with dialogue and a hopeful posture, the flame of pastoral Catholicism is in danger of being snuffed out by a grim fundamentalism that is characterized by fear of what Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington recently described as “the new and virulent secularism.”

Catholic bishops have been unpersuasive in convincing even most Catholics that church teaching on homosexuality makes sense. Nearly three-quarters of Catholics support same-sex marriage or civil unions, and enough Catholics have gay friends and family members to roll their eyes at the church’s insistence that any homosexual relations are “intrinsically disordered,” as the Catholic Catechism teaches. A research study released in March that asked lapsed Catholics in the diocese of Trenton, NJ why they left found that the church’s unwelcoming attitude toward gays and lesbians played a role. Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell found compelling evidence in their meticulously researched book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, that a growing percentage of Americans – particularly twentysomethings – now identify their religious affiliation as “none” in part because of Christian leaders’ aggressive political lobbying against same-sex marriage. Here’s Putnam and Campbell writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2010.

Very few of these new “nones” actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics…Just as this generation moved to the left on most social issues — above all, homosexuality — many prominent religious leaders moved to the right, using the issue of same-sex marriage to mobilize electoral support for conservative Republicans. In the short run, this tactic worked to increase GOP turnout, but the subsequent backlash undermined sympathy for religion among many young moderates and progressives.

The church’s preoccupation with homosexuality and gay marriage also seems to be misplaced energy given that Catholic marriages are plummeting. Mark Gray, a prominent researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, presented the facts in an article for Our Sunday Visitor last summer. Gray writes: “The number of marriages celebrated in the Church has fallen from 415,487 in 1972 to 168,400 in 2010 — a decrease of nearly 60 percent — while the U.S. Catholic population has increased by almost 17 million.”

Bishops have enough housecleaning of their own to do when it comes to strengthening Catholic marriages and rebuilding trust in the face of clergy abuse scandals. They should drop the culture war politics.

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