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 recent front page story in the New York Times calls attention to a troubling trend I’ve frequently noted – how a mobilized Catholic right targets social justice organizations and religious progressives to advance a narrow ideological agenda.
In this latest case, the victim is a small nonprofit organization in rural southwestern Colorado that helps poor Hispanic immigrants with basic needs. The group, Compañeros, was recently told by the Diocese of Pueblo that its financing from the U.S. Catholic bishops’ national anti-poverty campaign was in danger because it’s also a member of an immigration advocacy umbrella group which opposes discrimination against LGBT immigrants and supports same-sex civil unions.
The Times reports:
The Catholic Campaign, which doles out $8 million annually to about 250 groups nationwide, has been under increasing pressure from conservative Catholic groups to ensure that it is not unwittingly aiding organizations that run afoul of church positions on issues like birth control and marriage… Since 2010, nine groups from across the country have lost financing from the campaign because of conflicts with Catholic principles, according to the campaign’s director, Ralph McCloud.
Compañeros was told that unless it withdrew from the coalition, Ms. Mosher said, the group would lose money it got each year. “I was shocked that our money was all of a sudden in jeopardy, and confused about why,” Ms. Mosher said. “We have no reason to believe that we are in any way going against Catholic teachings. If they are willing to defund our program based on an affiliation, it sends a clear message of divisiveness.” Debate over the church’s vaunted antipoverty campaign, which was begun by the bishops’ conference in 1970, has taken a more contentious turn in recent years. Conservative Catholics, with the help of search engines and other Web sites, have become more aggressive in tracking the activities of groups that receive funds from the campaign, while some groups have found themselves forced to defend their work.
The news that Compañeros faces potential defunding comes just a month after the Sacramento Bee reported that the city’s Catholic diocese will no longer fund programs at Francis House, a nonprofit agency that serves the homeless, because its executive director (who is not Catholic) has expressed support for abortion rights and gay marriage. In recent years, conservative Catholic activists who fancy themselves defenders of orthodoxy have even gone after Catholic bishops and prominent staffers at the U.S. bishops’ conference.
Bryan Cones, managing editor of U.S. Catholic magazine, correctly warns that the Catholic Church also risks undercutting vital interfaith efforts to address poverty by putting rigid purity tests before service to the poor.
With so many mainline and even evangelical Christians having discerned different responses to disputed moral questions such as abortion and same-sex marriage, how could any Catholic organization possibly partner in joint projects of Christian service? It is one thing to insist on strict adherence in the public sphere to Catholic teaching for one’s own employees, but to impose it on others as a condition of partnership is a step too far. The Diocese of Sacramento’s decision is a poor one, pure and simple, reflecting the narrowest possible approach to Catholic engagement with the world around us. It is a choice that places ideology over service to those most in need, and it diminishes the church’s moral standing as an advocate for and servant to Jesus’ most vulnerable brothers and sisters.
Catholic progressives are mobilizing in response. Catholics United has launched a new campaign – With Charity for All – that is collecting donations to help offset the potential loss of funding to Compañeros.
We’ve reached a sad place if the Catholic Church’s historic commitment to social justice and the common good is jeopardized by culture war politics and guilt-by-association tactics at a time of growing income inequality and staggering poverty.
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If it’s spring that means another round of commencement culture wars. The latest discouraging news is out of Massachusetts. A small Catholic college has been forced by Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester to withdraw a commencement invitation to Vicki Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Ted Kennedy, because of what the bishop describes as her association with “political and social organizations that promote activities and points of view that are contrary to fundamental church teachings.”
The Boston Globe reports.
Anna Maria College in Paxton, west of Worcester, released a statement…placing the decision at the feet of Bishop Robert J. McManus and saying it still believes Kennedy is an appropriate choice. However, the statement continued, “after hours of discerning and struggling with elements of all sides of this issue, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees decided with deep regret to withdraw its invitation.
By all accounts, Kennedy takes her Catholic faith seriously and has been deeply engaged with social justice work on many issues. She has been honored by two Catholic colleges, spoke at the Catholic Charities USA centennial gathering in Washington two years ago and serves on the board of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, an organization of Catholic leaders devoted to promoting improved management of financial and human resources in the church.
But according to diocesan spokesman Raymond Delisle, Bishop McManus, who refused to meet with Kennedy to discuss the issues, appears to have a narrow focus for his decision.
From the National Catholic Reporter:
Delisle told NCR that McManus acted because of Kennedy’s “positions on pro-choice versus pro-life and the sanctity of marriage, his [the bishop's] defense of marriage between a man and a woman.”
“I don’t know what specific things he looked at,” Delisle added. “He just said to me those were the two areas that he talked to the president of the college about.”
Kennedy did write a 2004 Washington Post op-ed expressing concern about what she described as “the threatened denial of Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians,” a tactic also rejected by the vast majority of bishops. And at a private fundraising event two years ago Kennedy gave an introduction to a gay rights activist. But she has not been a leading public voice for either same-sex marriage or pro-choice organizations. She is also a board member of Catholic Democrats, a national organization representing a Catholic voice within the Democratic Party.
Her graceful reaction to Bishop McManus’ episcopal strong-arming surely resonates with many Catholics deeply troubled by a hierarchy where selective moral outrage over contraception and other divisive social issues threatens to drown out a broader Catholic social justice agenda.
I am a lifelong Catholic and my faith is very important to me. I am not a public official. I hold no public office, nor am I a candidate for public office. I have not met Bishop McManus nor has he been willing to meet with me to discuss his objections. He has not consulted with my pastor to learn more about me or my faith. Yet by objecting to my appearance at Anna Maria College, he has made a judgment about my worthiness as a Catholic. This is a sad day for me and an even sadder one for the church I love.
Sad, indeed. A vocal minority of Catholic bishops who selectively scold Catholic Democrats while giving a free pass to Catholic Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan diminish their credibility as moral leaders and offer a distorted image of the Church’s witness in public life.
When is the last time you heard about a Catholic bishop singling out a conservative Catholic politician who defends the use of torture, the death penalty or pre-emptive war? No bishop raised an eyebrow when Catholics Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were demonizing the poor or when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a prominent Catholic, defended the use of the death penalty on Catholic moral grounds at Duquesne University. The selective outrage is hard to stomach even for many faithful Catholics who have served the Church, let alone a broader public less immersed in the specifics of Catholic theology.
The ugly tactics of censorship and guilt by association that defined the McCarthy era should have no place in a Church whose renowned universities aspire to educate students not only to defend orthodoxy, but to intellectually engage an increasingly diverse world.
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A New York Times story about the advocacy groundswell around the Supreme Court’s review of the Affordable Care Act notes that “Catholic and anti-abortion groups” oppose the health care law because of concerns about federal abortion funding. This is a sweeping generalization that misses the mark.
While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the Affordable Care Act, the Catholic Health Association –representing over 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care facilities– publicly supported the law and was instrumental in securing its passage. So did a national network of Catholic nuns representing thousands of women religious across the country. Over 20 prominent Catholic sisters even filed an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in this case supporting the law.
In fact, many Catholic social justice leaders backed this historic law precisely because they believe access to quality, affordable health care is a pro-life issue bearing on human dignity. The Catholic Health Association and independent analysts came to the conclusion that the Affordable Care Act does not provide federal funding for abortion. President Obama signed an executive order to provide additional assurances that existing limits on abortion funding remained in place under the law. None of this is mentioned in the article.
These omissions do a disservice to readers and perpetuate a false narrative that Christian conservatives who parrot GOP talking points have an exclusive claim on our public debates over values and public policy.
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So let me get this straight. When the Catholic bishops met this summer in Baltimore for a national meeting economic justice issues failed to even make it on the agenda. Despite rising poverty, scandalous levels of income inequality and political attacks on worker’s rights that all offend the Catholic justice tradition, a Catholic News Service headline before the bishops’ meeting said it all: “Bishops’ agenda more devoted to internal matters than societal ills.”
Fast forward a few months. CNS now reports:
The U.S. bishops have urged Catholics and “all people of faith” across the nation to observe March 30 as a day of prayer and fasting for religious freedom and conscience protection.
The bishops said that among current threats to religious liberty is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate that forces employers, including religious ones, to provide coverage of contraception/sterilization in their health plans. Prayer resources have been posted on the USCCB website
Here’s a headline in the Des Moines Register this week: “Iowa bishops call for spiritual battle against HHS mandate.”
And the Philadelphia Inquirer reports: “Catholics and pro-life supporters plan to rally at Independence Hall at noon in opposition to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate.” The director of the Respect Life office in the Philadelphia archdiocese acknowledged that the use of traditional Lenten practices (prayer and fasting) was “unusual” but told the newspaper that “extreme situations call for extreme responses.”
Interesting. I don’t remember U.S. Catholic bishops mobilizing a similar national response when the U.S. began dropping bombs on Baghdad with a “shock and awe” campaign. Surely this qualified as an “extreme situation” given the threat to human life and dignity. Despite the late Pope John Paul II’s opposition to the war, the bishops preferred written statements to civil disobedience or national calls for protest and fasting.
Just imagine if the Catholic cardinals of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago had joined the massive protests that attracted millions of Americans during those days when the dark clouds of war were gathering. This may not have stopped an immoral war, but given the political clout of Catholics in the U.S it would have had a major impact on the tenor of political debates and media coverage. Instead, Catholic neo-cons like George Weigel and the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus beat the drums of war in Catholic journals and in prominent media outlets.
The bishops had reasonable concerns with the initial Obama administration ruling on contraception coverage. It was roundly criticized not only by conservative Catholics, but also by Catholic justice leaders and liberal Catholic pundits like E.J. Dionne who broadly support the administration’s policy agenda. In the face of these objections, the Obama administration has worked hard to find stronger accommodations for religious institutions while also protecting women’s health. The Catholic Health Association and other Catholic institutions that provide direct service have expressed confidence that the White House is making a good faith effort to respect religious conscience.
The bishops seem to prefer a more pugnacious posture. Lathered up with prophetic zeal, Bishop William Lori – the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious liberty – even lashed out at a prominent Catholic publication that raised relevant questions about the bishops’ tactics.
The moral outrage and institutional muscle that have been missing from Catholic bishops on matters of war and economic justice are now on full display.
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A select group of Catholic bishops meeting in Washington this week may be ready to consider a wiser approach to framing religious liberty arguments. Stephanie Simon of Reuters has the story.
Facing small but clear signs of discontent within their own ranks, U.S. Catholic bishops may be poised to rethink their aggressive tactics for fighting a federal mandate that health insurance plans cover contraception, according to sources close to influential bishops. There are no indications that the bishops will drop their fight against the federal mandate. But dozens of bishops, meeting this week in Washington, are likely to discuss concerns that their battle against the Obama administration over birth control risks being viewed by the public as narrow and partisan and thus diminishes the church’s moral authority, the sources said.
One sign of a coming recalibration: A sweeping statement on religious liberty, now circulating in draft form, that aims to broaden the bishops’ focus far beyond the contraception mandate.
The draft statement, slated to be released soon to a burst of publicity, condemns an array of local, state and federal policies as violations of religious freedom, said Martin Nussbaum, a private attorney who has consulted with the bishops. The draft cites, for instance, a Republican-backed law in Alabama that makes it a crime to harbor, transport or rent property to illegal immigrants. The bishops have joined liberals in opposing that law, arguing that would make it a crime to minister to people in need.
This is hopeful news. Catholic bishops find themselves increasingly isolated from leaders of Catholic hospitals and social service agencies that provide direct care. These Catholic institutions – including the influential Catholic Health Association – have signaled the administration’s religious accommodation on the contraception coverage mandate provides a workable solution.
Let’s hope the voices of moderate bishops like Bishop Blase Cupich are not drowned out by a vocal minority who often seem to prefer a fight with this administration. When bishops move the goal posts, find themselves aligned with GOP presidential candidates looking to score political points and fail to distinguish between Catholic moral principles and the prudent application of those principles to policy questions in a diverse society, their cause is deeply weakened.
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