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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.

Catholic Diocese Gets it Wrong on Taxes

March 2, 2012, 3:08 pm | By John Gehring

Catholic bishops and several popes have long advocated for a just tax system that serves the common good. So it’s disappointing to see an editorial in the Diocese of Brooklyn’s official newspaper parroting Republican boilerplate on this issue.

“Personal income is eroded through taxation, therefore freedom to practice one’s religion is also limited,” the editorial states, arguing that high taxes prevent people from giving to religious charities including the bishop’s annual fundraising appeal. Is Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, the newspaper’s publisher, drinking the Tea Party strong stuff?

Paul Moses at Commonweal has the story:

I am aghast at this reasoning, especially since I am aware that the publisher of  The Tablet, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, appointed a panel from outside the paper’s regular staff to weigh these editorial stances carefully. According to the editorial board:

When over 50% of federal spending goes to entitlements or social services and the total tax burden is rising to the highest level in history, we are confronted with a situation in which the role of the state reaches so deeply into the everyday lives of citizens that it is affecting our ability even to support our religious institutions.

As Moses points out, the newspaper is factually wrong that taxes are at “the highest level in history” and the editorial contradicts a budget analysis issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that urges Congress to protect vital social safety nets. “The nation needs to substantially reduce future deficits, but not at the expense of hungry and poor people,” the bishops write.

This isn’t a new position Catholic leaders. In fact, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter Economic Justice for All called for a more progressive tax system “so that those with relatively greater financial resources pay a higher rate of taxation.”

The Brooklyn diocese somehow missed the memo. If Catholic bishops hope to rise above narrow ideologies and the political season’s partisan fray it would help if they drop GOP talking points.

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Communion Denial and Culture Wars

March 2, 2012, 8:00 am | By John Gehring

Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post reports this week that a woman attending her mother’s funeral was denied Communion by a priest because she is a lesbian. It’s a truly outrageous incident that should offend any person of faith who recognizes that a holy sacrament should never be used to denigrate a human being made in God’s image.

It’s also a cautionary tale now that we’re knee deep in the fever swamps of an election year where culture-war politics is back with a vengeance, and the Catholic Church is flexing its institutional muscles against contraception coverage, same-sex marriage and a host of other divisive social issues. Regardless of the view one takes on same-sex marriage, can’t we all agree that our houses of worship should be welcoming places for all people? Official Catholic teaching, in fact, is clear that gays and lesbians should always be treated with dignity. According to the Catholic Catechism “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”  Sadly, the church is often its own worst enemy in this regard.

Remember that this shameful story of Communion denial in the Archdiocese of Washington comes just two months after Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the past president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, compared the gay rights movement to the KKK. Last summer in Boston, the Rainbow Ministry of St. Cecilia’s Parish posted a notice in the church bulletin about a Mass that would “honor Christ’s message of hope and salvation to all people” during Boston’s Pride Month. This was not controversial news for most Catholic clergy and laity until the city’s vociferous Catholic right hit squads, specifically the blog “Bryan Hehir Exposed,” (Fr. Hehir is a former president of Catholic Charities USA and a professor at Harvard University) urged Catholics to flood Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s office with protest calls. The blog described plans for the Mass as an “atrocious scandal” and demanded that the pastor be put on leave. The Mass was canceled by the archdiocese a few days later.

Let’s not miss the big picture. A well-organized Catholic right – including bloggers and Catholic watchdog organizations that monitor supposed breaches of orthodoxy on Catholic campuses – has played a significant role in shaping the political posture of many Catholic leaders today. A generation of young priests and bishops, far quieter on issues of economic justice and peace than contraception and abortion, are also the legacy of the late Pope John Paul II – whose 27-year pontificate included a strong critique of unfettered capitalism but was largely defined by his distinctive “theology of the body” and appointment of theologically conservative bishops.  A widely respected, now retired, church official who served his diocese’s social justice office for several decades told me:

I am concerned about the tone of the bishops. What is missing today is the conciliatory, collaborative, politically astute leadership of the Bishops of the 80′s and 90′s. To compromise is considered weak by this crowd.  The Bishops, to a great extent, have become captives of corporate elites, the National Right to Life, and conservative lay organizations. They have access and influence that eclipse that of progressive Catholics.

The retired official also lamented that the church’s revered social justice work is increasingly being drowned out by abortion politics, the fight against same-sex marriage and deep animus against the Democratic Party.  Archbishop Dolan of New York,  president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, unwittingly proved the point that right-wing Catholic activists and conservative intellectuals have the ears of bishops these days when he told reporter John Allen that he gets “far more criticism from people who feel we bishops are much too soft on the Democrats, who feel that we are actually in the pocket of the Democrats.”  A truly stunning and revealing statement about the conservative bubble many Catholic priests and bishops live in.

To his credit, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington (like the majority of bishops) disagrees with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and other bishops who politicize Communion, especially during election years. In this particular case, the Washington Archdiocese has written a letter of apology to the woman caught up this shameful incident, a gesture she acknowledges as sincere while still rightly calling for the priest’s removal from parish life. It’s still uncertain what will happen to this priest since archdiocesan officials have been quiet and a reporter’s attempts to reach the priest have been rebuffed. We know little about the priest other than he is fairly young, active in local anti-abortion protests and has referred to a Maryland doctor who performs abortions as the “Butcher of Germantown.”  Predictably, some Catholic conservative bloggers in the archdiocese are defending the indefensible.

Many faithful Catholics who respect our church have reason to be concerned that today’s priests and some bishops often seem more eager to fight culture wars than be pastoral leaders. Let’s hope as election-year punches are thrown and divisive social issues are debated, our churches can be sanctuaries from the kind of scorched-earth tactics that have no place in God’s house.

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Catholic Bishops Losing Credibility on Religious Liberty Campaign

February 28, 2012, 9:47 am | By John Gehring

Now that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is digging in for a high-profile religious liberty campaign, every bishop in the country should read the lead editorial up at America magazine, an influential Catholic weekly edited by Jesuit priests. It’s a theologically smart, pastorally sensitive look at how Catholic bishops are overplaying their hand in a fight over contraception coverage and potentially damaging the Church’s credibility in public life. Noting that the American public is “uncomfortable with an overt exercise of political muscle by the hierarchy,” the editors write:

The religious liberty campaign seems to have abandoned a moral distinction that undergirded the conference’s public advocacy in past decades: the contrast between authoritative teaching on matters of principle and debatable applications of principle to public policy…The campaign fails to acknowledge that in the present instance, claims of religious liberty may collide with the right to health care, or that the religious rights of other denominations are in tension with those of Catholics. But as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in “Deus Caritas Est,” the church does not seek to “impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to the faith.”


The editorial concludes:

By stretching the religious liberty strategy to cover the fine points of health care coverage, the campaign devalues the coinage of religious liberty. The fight the bishop’s conference won against the initial mandate was indeed a fight for religious liberty and for that reason won widespread support. The latest phase of the campaign, however, seems intended to bar health care funding for contraception. Catholics legitimately oppose such a policy on moral grounds. But that opposition entails a difference over policy, not an infringement of religious liberty. It does a disservice to the victims of religious persecution everywhere to inflate policy differences into a struggle over religious freedom.

While the Catholic right routinely maligns Catholic progressives as “dissidents” or “fake Catholics,” the editor-in-chief of America is hardly someone who can be easily marginalized. Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., spent six years as the director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ office of International Justice and Peace. He was the lead staffer on some of the most important statements on social justice released by the U.S. bishops.

Also required reading for bishops is this powerful op-ed from a former director of Catholic Charities in San Francisco.

I am a Catholic. I go to Mass. I love my Church. I love its rich history of serving the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized. I am not leaving. But it seems to me that the Catholic bishops who have led the charge on this issue have succeeded only in showing how wide the gap is between the Catholic faithful and some of its bishops, have left the impression that the issue of conscience only seems to arise over matters of sexuality, have ended up intentionally or otherwise in bed with the likes of Newt Gingrich, have inadvertently become a potential obstacle to affordable health care for those most in need, and have further diminished the moral influence and teaching authority that many Catholics used to respect and desire from their bishops.

Simply put, these are pleas from Catholics who love their faith, have served Catholic institutions with pride and genuinely worry that bishops are in danger of abandoning the Church’s best traditions. Consider that in the last few months a former top official at the U.S bishops’ conference warned that the Church’s “social justice witness is being crowded out by divisive culture-war battles,” the Jesuit editors at America magazine have sounded the alarm and a former Catholic Charities director is now on the record with a timely critique. If Catholic bishops hope to remain relevant and persuasive moral agents in the public square, they would do well to take these frank assessments to heart.


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Who Speaks for the Catholic Church?

February 14, 2012, 6:20 pm | By John Gehring

Sr. Carol Keehan, Catholic Health AssociationThe National Catholic Register has an ugly piece of journalism up online that takes cheap shots at one of the most respected Catholic leaders in the nation. Under the conspiratorial headline, “What Did CHA’s Sister Carol Keehan Know and When Did She Know It?,” the article implies that Sister Keehan does not speak for the Church and received special treatment from the White House during negotiations over a revised ruling on contraception coverage that has become a surprising election-year controversy.

From the Register:

The confusion and possible institutional damage generated by Sister Carol’s public endorsement have led some Catholic experts in the health-care field to demand an accounting. On the basis of what information and what authority did she issue this endorsement? It’s embarrassing from a policy standpoint,” noted Paul Danello, an expert on civil and canon law issues in Catholic health care, who has received calls from Catholic hospitals worried about the implications of the HHS final rule. If the CHA board hasn’t authorized this, if she has no mandate from the USCCB, and if there are no legally binding documents, she is operating without any legal, governance or regulatory basis. That is a hell of a situation for a Roman Catholic nun that heads the Catholic Health Association to be in.

Here we go again. Two years ago, the Catholic Health Association and many Catholic sisters endorsed health care reform legislation even in the face of vocal opposition from bishops. The slings and arrows were aimed at Keehan, a woman who remained dignified and graceful in the face of personal attacks.

Let’s be clear. Sr. Keehan knows more about the real-world dimensions of health care than nearly anyone in the country and has spent more time in hospitals than any bishop. She has earned respect because of her knowledge, commitment and unfailing decency. Keehan has stacked up more awards from Catholic institutions than you can count, including the prestigious Cardinal Bernardin award presented by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. So Mr. Danello’s hyperventilating about this “hell of a situation for a Roman Catholic nun” is laughable.

And of course the White House would see Sr. Keehan as a valuable person to have at the table. As I noted earlier today, the Catholic Health Association is the Church’s premier health care ministry and the largest group of nonprofit health providers in the nation, representing more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in all 50 states.

The fundamental question here about who “speaks for the Church” is too frequently framed as a simplistic struggle: Bishops v. Catholic Sisters. Bishops v. Theologians. Bishops v. Laity. The reality is many people speak for the church in different capacities and at different times. But that’s a heretical proposition for some Catholic conservatives and not a few bishops who fume over the fact that on this issue of balancing religious liberty and women’s health the Catholic community is once again far from monolithic.

Catholic Charities USA, theologians, the Catholic Health Association, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious have all expressed initial support for the Obama administrations’ sensible revision. These leaders have “authority” and can speak for the Church because they are the Church!

The Catholic right would prefer to purge the Church of Catholic justice leaders and experts like Sister Keehan who don’t fall in line with ideological interpretations of Catholicism that often sound like GOP talking points. It’s far easier to demonize and distort than work through differences in search of common ground. That makes for boring blogging and harder to send urgent fundraising e-mails that fire up the base. But it’s critical for the health of our Church and democracy.

Here’s a news flash. Sister Keehan and others who are on the front lines of fighting for the human dignity and the common good won’t be intimidated into silence.

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Catholic Bishops’ Lonely Contraception Fight

February 14, 2012, 10:50 am | By John Gehring

USCCB Building - CNSThe Obama administration’s ability to find a productive way forward on an unexpected election-year showdown over contraception coverage has been celebrated by a diverse range of organizations as a solution that protects religious liberty and advances women’s health. When the Catholic Health Association and Planned Parenthood Federation of America both hailed the decision, it showed just how precisely the White House threaded a difficult political and policy needle. While conservative Catholics are already lining up to pounce on this important achievement, let’s be clear that those supporting this deal represent some of the most important Catholic institutions in the country.

The Catholic Health Association is not some nice little trade group with a colorful newsletter. It’s the Church’s premier health care ministry and the largest group of nonprofit health providers in the nation, representing more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in all 50 states.  Sister Carol Keehan, CHA’s president, is a nationally renowned health care expert and a major political force in the passage of health care reform.

Other Catholic institutions and leaders, including Catholic Charities USA, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, NETWORK, and prominent theologians have all expressed relief that the White House has addressed legitimate concerns raised over a religious exemption that covered churches and other houses of worship but not religiously-affiliated organizations such as Catholic hospitals, universities or charities. Under a revision announced last Friday, these institutions will not have to pay for services that violate their moral beliefs or even refer employees for this coverage.

Instead, if your employer is an objecting university, hospital or other religious institution, the insurer (not the employer) will be required to offer coverage at no cost.  As prominent Catholic theologians and other Christian leaders noted in a statement:

This is a sensible, common-ground solution. In recent days, sound bites and divisive rhetoric have too often pitted the faith community against sound science and public health. The previous regulations caused an unnecessary conflict between the administration, the Catholic Church and other religious institutions. We are encouraged that the Obama administration has developed a substantive solution that addresses the concerns of the many constituencies involved. We look forward to bringing the same level of passion displayed in this debate to other pressing moral issues that face our nation.

Problem solved, right? Not so fast.  After initially calling the change a “ first step in the right direction,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops posted a follow-up reaction Friday night expressing concern that the proposal “continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions…The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.”

The bishops are moving the goal posts.  Even many moderate and liberal Catholics expressed sympathy with the bishops’ argument that Catholic universities, hospitals and social service providers should not be forced to pay for something that Catholic teaching calls immoral. Now that this specific objection has been addressed in a way that works for (or at least begins the process of satisfying) most Catholic institutions that actually provide direct services, the bishops will not be content it seems until all employees in the country are denied coverage for contraception.

Even before USCCB’s objections were posted, Anthony Picarello, the bishops’ associate general counsel, shifted from the bishops’ core argument that religiously affiliated institutions should not be forced to provide birth control coverage to make this stunning leap in an interview with USA Today:

We’re not going to do anything until this is fixed. That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for “good Catholic business people who can’t in good conscience cooperate with this.” “If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate,” Picarello said.

So a high-ranking USSCB official is seriously making the case that a business with no religious context at all should be exempt from providing birth control coverage to its employees? A curious argument especially given that in those 28 states where employers are already required to provide coverage for contraception many Catholic hospitals and universities have for years offered employees this coverage without provoking a massive political outcry.

This hasn’t stopped some bishops from rhetorical flights of grandeur –  comparing this disagreement between the bishops and President Obama to what happens under North Korea’s dictatorial regime.  One Catholic pastor has reportedly called this “our Rosa Parks moment.”

It’s not surprising bishops can’t take yes for an answer from this administration. Since Obama was elected the bishops have relished a confrontational posture. At some point they have to ask themselves whether they want to fight these lonely battles from the sidelines or be engaged in a more prudent way.

I’m afraid Catholic bishops run the risk of alienating even moderate Catholics who respect our church leaders when they appear to relish a fight instead of finding common ground. A few examples:

  • Just days after the 2008 election, bishops gathered for a national meeting and spoke in apocalyptic terms about the supposed threat posed by Freedom of Choice Act. Remember that bishops sponsored a national postcard campaign to lobby Congress and the White House against this bill that was never even introduced. After weeks of frenzied lobbying and action alerts, even Catholic News Service felt the need to debunk unsubstantiated rumors of Catholic hospitals being forced to perform abortions as unsubstantiated rumors.
  • Catholic bishops blasted the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to give the 2009 commencement address, a speech that even drew praise from a Vatican newspaper for its thoughtful tenor on difficult issues such as abortion.
  • The bishops’ long advocacy for universal health care stalled when they opposed the Obama administration’s historic health care reform legislation over a misguided belief that it would provide taxpayer funding of abortion, a flawed policy analysis according to the Catholic Health Association, independent experts and the courts.

In the coming weeks it will be critical for those Catholic institutions that have supported this sensible solution to defend it with as much energy as bishops and Republican leaders will oppose it.

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