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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.

A Response to the USCCB

July 3, 2012, 8:31 pm | By John Gehring

It’s a strange experience to watch the Catholic Church I love and have served in different capacities over the years publicly hang me out to dry. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, my employer for a brief period, has essentially done that in a recent advisory that accuses me of “telling Catholic bishops how to guide the church” and maligns Faith in Public Life as a sinister outfit doing the bidding of a “billionaire atheist.” So I must have done something really threatening to provoke such a bristling reaction from the nation’s most powerful church? Not exactly.

To get those of you who have been busy with more important matters up to speed, here’s a summary. As part of my regular interactions with the media on various Catholic issues, I recently sent out a background memo to reporters addressing the U.S. bishops’ high-profile “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign. This national effort, which culminates with a special mass in Washington on the Fourth of July, reaches across many dioceses and aims to mobilize Catholics against what the bishops describe as ominous threats to religious freedom, in particular the Obama administration’s requirement that women have contraception covered by employers without co-pays under the Affordable Care Act. The church’s religious liberty initiative has garnered national headlines and plenty of coverage that lacks nuance or critical analysis that challenges simple storylines.

Among other things, the background memo I sent to the media included important context, examples of some bishops who have used inflammatory rhetoric and a list of commentators — Catholic scholars, theologians and other experts — available for interviews. These commentators were identified because they are well-positioned to offer reporters informed analysis, and are also moderate-to-progressive Catholics who have genuine concerns that the bishops’ religious liberty campaign is in danger of being distorted by a zealous tone and anti-Obama fervor. Did the memo have a point of view? Yes, in the same way prominent Catholic conservatives and bishops quoted in the media have a point of view and frame public debates. Good journalists seek out a diversity of perspectives from the Catholic community and don’t rely on church officials for a one-sided view.

While a few on the right hyperventilate about some perceived conspiracy of deep-pocketed religious liberals, that’s laughable. Faith in Public Life is a small organization with a handful of committed people of faith working to balance out a values debate that in recent decades has long been dominated by the Religious Right. Our budget and ability to mobilize campaigns and command media attention, for example, pales in comparison to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council.

The voices of progressive religious leaders and commentators in the media are not exactly drowning out those poor, under-funded conservatives. In fact, the marriage of convenience between the Religious Right and the GOP has been a powerful alliance that has helped elect presidents, influences media coverage and until relatively recently ran circles around religious progressives. While coverage of liberal faith perspectives has improved, many reporters still caricature Catholics and evangelicals and identify “values voters” as Republicans who view abortion and same-sex marriage as the only moral issues.

This tempest in a teapot over a simple backgrounder for reporters started after Bill Donohue of the Catholic League – a frequent TV commentator known for a bullying style and sweeping condemnation of all things progressive – quickly pounced with his usual manufactured outrage. He depicted me and Faith and Public Life as trying to “subvert the bishops’ message.”  Mr. Donohue, who sees anti-Catholic bigotry lurking around every corner, was incensed that I offered a point of view to reporters. An interesting bone to pick considering this is a man who blasts out press releases on the hour and is no stranger to sharp-edged punditry on cable news. My inbox has been flooded with hate mail from the Donohue fan club assuring me I’m going to hell, kindly offering to meet me “on the battlefield” and attacking me as an “enemy” of the church.

I ignored these ugly attacks and the gotcha tone of right-wing bloggers who requested comment because to even dignify this supposed “expose” from the Catholic League seemed ridiculous. It’s not exactly breaking news that advocacy organizations (liberal, moderate and conservative) provide a perspective and resources to journalists.

So I was surprised when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ media relations director, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, picked up where Mr. Donohue left off. (Full disclosure: Sr. Walsh was my colleague when I worked in the USCCB media office). As she is employed to do, Sr. Walsh counters my analysis with the bishops’ positions. She offers some relevant counterpoints that should be part of a reasonable, civil debate between people of goodwill. But her critique also makes some strange points and has a snarky tone unbecoming of an institution that represents pastors. She oddly takes pains to explain why one bishop I cited, Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois  – roundly criticized for suggesting that the Obama administration shares some ideological similarities with Hitler and Stalin – has just been misunderstood. A free media tip for bishops: keep murderous dictators out of your analogies if you want to avoid being confused with extremists. And if bishops can’t resist the temptation, it’s probably best for the church’s communications officials not to try and justify those outlandish statements.

The USCCB release also describes the bishops’ religious liberty campaign as a simple “educational” effort. But is that the impression sent when the Catholic bishops of Kansas held a religious liberty rally at the state capitol that featured Republican Governor Sam Brownback? I’m guessing the Romney campaign was pretty happy with this type of education. Bishops have every right and indeed an obligation to make their case, but when the nation’s most powerful religious institution revs up its well-oiled lobbying and PR machine over contested issues with President Obama a few months before an election, it’s moved well beyond simple education. Even some moderate bishops have raised warnings about the religious liberty campaign getting dragged through the political mud. America magazine, a respected publication edited by Catholic priests, did the same in an eloquent editorial.

If bishops don’t want to be viewed as cheerleaders for a conservative political agenda – and most church leaders don’t – it would help if they toned down the alarmist rhetoric and turned up their moral megaphones on a broader range of justice issues at the heart of our Catholic social tradition. This includes defending workers’ rights now under assault in many states and challenging tax policies that coddle the wealthiest few. In 1986, Catholic bishops released Economic Justice for All, a powerful pastoral letter that in many ways challenged the “trickle down” economic theories that perpetuated income inequality during the Reagan era. But when Catholic bishops met for a national meeting last fall economic issues and poverty were not on the agenda. Bishops failed to even acknowledge the 25th anniversary of that document. Meeting last month in Atlanta, bishops finally got around to agreeing to draft a message tentatively titled “Work, Poverty, and a Broken Economy.” Bishop Stephen Blaire said that such a statement was “not only timely, but perhaps overdue.” It won’t be released until after a presidential election that will hinge on economic issues.

The Catholic justice tradition challenges the anti-government zeal and free market fundamentalism that guides the Republican party these days, but you don’t hear much about that from bishops. Letters to Congress are helpful – bishops have sent a flurry criticizing the House GOP budget – but most Catholics in the pews are only hearing about the church’s tussle with the Obama administration. This sends a distorted message to voters. When you have high-profile Catholic leaders like House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan touting an economic vision that is plainly contrary to Catholic teaching, you would think that might inspire Catholic bishops to respond in a more full-throated way.

The USCCB response also attempts to demonize Faith in Public Life by calling into question our funding. Sr. Walsh describes FPL as being “founded with help from a pro-abortion group.” The Center for American Progress helped incubate FPL in our nascent days. It happens to be one of the nation’s most respected policy organizations providing advocacy and analysis on issues such as economics, national security, immigration reform, energy independence and health care. Describing CAP as a “pro-abortion” group” is reductio ad absurdum, an obvious smear. It also ignores our work with a range of pro-life and pro-choice leaders in calling for policies that support pregnant women and reduce abortions. Sr. Walsh also mirrors the breathless outrage of Bill Donohue and others on the far-right when she describes FPL as receiving funding from “billionaire atheist” George Soros. FPL receives funding from a diverse range of foundations and philanthropies, including the Open Society Institute. Mr. Soros does not show up at our staff meetings or dictate what we work on. As far as Sr. Walsh’s description of him as an “atheist,” I didn’t realize that only people of faith are viewed as legitimate actors in the public square. I expect that kind of demagoguery from Glenn Beck, not my church.

Beyond the particular details of the USCCB response, I’m most struck that a simple background memo from a small organization of progressive people of faith has provoked such a defensive and disproportionate reaction. It speaks volumes about the anxious, embattled posture of some Catholic leaders these days when faithful Catholics who are progressive because of the inspiration we draw from the Catholic social tradition are portrayed as threats to our church.

I believe in a “big tent” Catholicism where liberals, moderates and conservatives can disagree over politics but still share a common faith and break bread together. I believe in an intellectually vibrant, culturally relevant Catholicism that engages with a pluralistic society. In recent months, Catholic leaders have made news for cracking down on Catholic nuns, eminent theologians and that nefarious anti-Catholic organization known as the Girl Scouts. In this tireless effort to sniff out supposed subversives in their midst, I worry that some religious leaders are unwittingly dragging a church I love deeper into the fog of culture wars and farther away from the spirit of the Gospel.

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Catholic Bishops, Religious Liberty and Politics

June 12, 2012, 10:50 am | By John Gehring

Catholic bishops gather this week for a national meeting in Atlanta facing questions about the political nature of a high-profile religious liberty campaign targeted at the Obama administration.  “We’re not trying to throw an election,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said in an interview last week.

It’s a bad sign for bishops when they are essentially forced to explain that they are not a faith-based Super Pac for the Romney campaign. Most bishops don’t want to be the Republican party at prayer, but their alarmist rhetoric and consistent  antagonism toward the Obama administration often covey that impression. The amount of institutional energy spent on the bishops’ upcoming “Fortnight for Freedom” events is staggering and disproportionate.  Americans are out of work. The gap between rich and poor is reminiscent of the Gilded Era. Corporate money is distorting our democratic process. Facing these urgent challenges, bishops are launching a well-oiled national campaign reaching across every diocese that just might solidify for Americans how out of touch some bishops are with the real threats faced by working families.

Thorny policy disputes between Catholic bishops and the Obama administration are described by some church leaders in near apocalyptic terms. An Illinois bishop compared Obama administration policies to those of Hitler and Stalin. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, claims the administration is “strangling”  the Catholic Church. Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland has expressed fear of “despotism.” All of this ignores the substantial progress the administration has made in responding to Catholic concerns and conveniently papers over the bishops’ role in moving the goal posts.

The real question is do moderate bishops still hold enough influence in the U.S. church to successfully make the case that there are enormous risks involved with allowing this campaign to get dragged through the political mud. This will be a challenge at a time when conservative intellectuals like Robert George, the Cardinal Newman Society and Catholic activists increasingly push the hierarchy to reduce the Catholic witness in politics to a few hot-button issues. Fighting that tide becomes even harder now that John Carr, the bishops’ prominent social justice point man over the last 25 years, has announced his retirement.

There are encouraging signs that the moderates recognize what’s at stake. Bishop Stephan Blaire, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, lamented in a recent interview that groups “very far to the right” are seeking to draw the bishops into “an anti-Obama campaign.” An unnamed bishop was quoted in the Washington Post last weekend admitting that how the bishops keep this religious liberty initiative from becoming over politicized is “a huge dilemma.”

In past years, there have been temperate appeals to prudence from some bishops and that’s needed more than ever today. In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter in 2009, Archbishop Michael Sheehan warned that bishops marginalize themselves when they embrace “combative tactics” in the realm of politics. He was speaking in response to the torrent of criticism the University of Notre Dame faced from bishops for inviting President Obama to give the commencement. And while many Catholic bishops lined up at a national meeting just after the 2008 election to describe the incoming administration in ominous tones, Bishop Blaise Cupich warned his brother bishops against “a prophecy of denunciation” and urged for a more conciliatory approach.

Catholic bishops play a vital role in pushing for public policies that serve the common good. Sweeping generalizations that depict the bishops (there are 260 of them) as only anti-Obama agitators is as simplistic as the conservative meme that there is a “war on religion.” Bishops have fought for humane immigration reform as the Republican Party happily embraces xenophobia and ugly nativism. They have described Rep. Paul Ryan’s GOP budget proposal as failing to meet a basic moral test. Catholic leaders have defended social safety nets that help the most vulnerable at a time when conservatives are working overtime to undermine them. And bishops know that the blind faith in radical individualism and anti-government zeal that now animates the GOP is anathema to the communitarian sensibilities of Catholicism.

All of this important public witness, however, is compromised if bishops even give the impression that their real goal is to boot Obama from office. This would be another crippling blow to their moral credibility in public life, and do a profound disservice to voters heading to the polls in November.

Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales), Flickr

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Catholic Sisters’ Bold Response to Vatican Crackdown

June 1, 2012, 11:44 am | By John Gehring

LCWRThe Leadership Conference of Women Religious issued a strong response today to the Vatican’s doctrinal crackdown saying in a statement that the assessment was “based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency.”

The organization, which represents the majority of Catholic sisters in the United States, warned that Vatican sanctions handed down last month were “disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission.”

The national board of LCWR acknowledged the groundswell of support Catholic sisters have received across the country and expressed concern that the sanctions “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.”

This is a bold response that shows Catholic sisters are not backing down from their social justice mission and remain courageous leaders even in the face of Vatican pressure. It’s inspiring to see  heroes of the Catholic Church who live out Gospel values by caring for the sick and feeding the hungry affirm their vital mission.

Catholic sisters have no reason to apologize, cower in fear or backpedal. At a time when some Catholic bishops are busy fighting the Girl Scouts and comparing the Obama administration to the days of Hitler and Stalin, Catholic sisters embody what’s best about a global church where power politics are always in tension with example of Christ.

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A Brave Catholic Pastor Defends Nuns, Blasts Vatican Crackdown

May 30, 2012, 3:23 pm | By John Gehring

It’s not every day (or decade for that matter) the pastor of a Catholic church is willing to stick his neck out and take on the powers that be in his own Church. But the recent Vatican crackdown on Catholic nuns has landed with a thud on the conscience of many faithful Catholics and inspired righteous indignation in unlikely spots.

Writing in the parish bulletin of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Cleveland under the simple headline “From the Desk of Fr. Doug,” the pastor unleashes a thunderous defense of Catholic sisters and a withering critique of Vatican power.  A parish bulletin has rarely crackled with such scorching prose. Read the whole thing here. I’ve pulled some paragraphs that jump off the page and grab you by the hair.

The Vatican sounded like the Pharisees of the New Testament;—legalistic, paternalistic and orthodox— while “the good sisters” were the ones who were feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, educating the immigrant, and so on. Nuns also learned that Catholics are intuitively smart about their faith. They prefer dialogue over diatribe, freedom of thought over mind control, biblical study over fundamentalism, development of doctrine over isolated mandates.

Far from being radical feminists or supporters of far-out ideas, religious women realized that the philosophical underpinnings of Catholic teaching are no longer valid. Women are not subservient to men, the natural law is much broader than once thought, the OT is not as important as the NT, love is more powerful than fear. They realized that you can have a conversation with someone on your campus who thinks differently than the church without compromising what the church teaches.

The Vatican is hypocritical and duplicitous. Their belief is always that someone else needs to clean up their act; the divorced, the gays, the media, the US nuns, the Americans who were using the wrong words to pray, the seminaries, etc. It never occurs to the powers that be that the source of the problem is the structure itself.

US nuns work side by side with the person on the street. They are involved in their everyday lives. Most cardinals spent less than five years in a parish, were never pastors, are frequently career diplomats. Religious women in the US refuse to be controlled by abusive authority that seeks to control out of fear. They realize that Jesus taught no doctrines, but that the church, over time, developed what Jesus taught in a systematic way.

This investigation is not about wayward US nuns. It is the last gasp for control by a dying breed, wrapped in its own self-importance. It is a struggle for the very nature of the church; who we are, how we pray, where we live, who belongs, why we believe. The early church endured a similar struggle. The old order died. The Holy Spirit won.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is meeting this week to discuss how they will respond to the Vatican’s move. Catholic sisters are true heroes of our church and need little inspiration to firm up their already steely convictions, but they clearly don’t stand alone.


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Secretary Sebelius at Georgetown

May 16, 2012, 12:00 pm | By John Gehring

Secretary Kathleen SebeliusA few weeks ago conservative wunderkind Rep. Paul Ryan faced scrutiny from nearly 90 Georgetown professors for distorting Catholic teaching to justify his draconian budget proposal. Now, Catholic conservatives are outraged that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius will be speaking at the university on Friday as part of several weekend graduation ceremonies.

Sebelius is at the center of a controversy over an Obama administration policy that requires birth control to be covered at no cost under preventative care provisions of the health care reform law.

The Cardinal Newman Society, which acts as a self-appointed watchdog for Catholic orthodoxy on college campuses, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty are all circulating petitions urging Georgetown President John DeGioia to withdraw the invitation to Secretary Sebelius.

Since these groups seem more intent on building walls around Catholic campuses and insulating students from the supposed dangers of diverse perspectives, it’s clearly too much to expect them to applaud a Catholic university for inviting two high-profile Catholics from different political parties and ideological perspectives within a few weeks.

Instead of a “scandal,” I think many Catholics who take their faith seriously and believe strongly in the importance of Catholic identity view it as a healthy sign that Georgetown recognizes the real world is about engaging with people who hold different perspectives – not creating a fortress where we hide from them.

A few important facts to help temper the Catholic right tempest. Sec. Sebelius is not the commencement speaker. She will not receive an honorary degree. As Georgetown President John J. DeGoia explained, she was chosen by students and will offer some reflections and encouraging remarks during an awards ceremony. She has not been invited to pontificate about Catholic teaching, abortion or contraception.

Unlike Rep. Paul Ryan, Sec. Sebelius has not been making the rounds defending her policy positions in specifically Catholic terms. Nor does she claim that her views on contraception and abortion are shared by Catholic bishops. In contrast, Ryan argues that cutting food stamps, health care for the poor and an array of safety net programs that Catholic bishops are warning him to protect are policy positions explicitly inspired by his Catholic faith.

Despite this, the Georgetown professors who chided Ryan over his Catholic defense of Darwinian economic policies did not call on the university president to pull the invitation. In fact, unlike the Newman Society and Catholic right activists they welcomed him to campus and used a civil tone that should be a model for how to disagree without descending to personal attacks.

Criticism of Sec. Sebelius’s pro-choice views is certainly legitimate from a Catholic perspective. I understand why some Catholics might disagree with Georgetown’s decision. But elevating the worst of McCarthy-era witch hunts and censorship into a virtue is a poor lesson for students about to enter a world where every bit of their faith and reason will be needed. Defending Catholic identity should not have to mean that intellectual engagement and civil discourse are viewed as signs of weakness that erode our faith.

Photo credit: Eric Bridiers, Fotopedia

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