John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Senior Writer and Catholic Outreach Coordinator, joined FPL after three years at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He blogs about Catholics in public life.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has ominously warned about “an unprecedented attack on religious liberty” and challenged the Obama administration to broaden the religious exemption for draft regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services that require insurance plans to cover contraception free of charge. Catholic bishops sent an “urgent memorandum” to every Catholic diocese in the country back in September that described a “nationwide government coercion of religious people and groups to sell, broker or purchase ‘services’ to which they have a moral or religious objection.” But this National Public Radio story should encourage Catholic leaders to tone down the overheated rhetoric and avoid sweeping generalizations. NPR reports:
The Catholic Church says new federal regulations requiring employers to provide no-cost prescription birth control as part of their health insurance plans infringe on their religious liberty. “If we comply, as the law requires, we will be helping our students do things that we teach them, in our classes and in our sacraments, are sinful — sometimes gravely so,” Catholic University President John Garvey wrote in The Washington Post. “It seems to us that a proper respect for religious liberty would warrant an exemption for our university and other institutions like it.” But while some insist that the rules, which spring from last year’s health law, break new ground, many states as well as federal civil rights law already require most religious employers to cover prescription contraceptives if they provide coverage of other prescription drugs.
While some religious employers take advantage of loopholes or religious exemptions, the fact remains that dozens of Catholic hospitals and universities currently offer contraceptive coverage as part of their health insurance packages. “We’ve always had contraceptive birth control included in our health care benefits,” said Michelle Michaud, a labor and delivery nurse at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, Calif. “It’s something that we’ve come to expect for ourselves and our family.” Dominican is part of the Catholic Healthcare West System. A spokeswoman for the 40-hospital chain confirmed that it has offered the benefits since 1997.
Let’s have a respectful debate over this complicated issue. As the NPR story shows, hyperbolic claims of a “nationwide government coercion” against religious people and groups – as the U.S. Catholic bishops’ general counsel has described it – doesn’t fairly describe what is a more nuanced reality. Catholic hospitals and Catholic universities that already provide insurance coverage for contraception don’t seem fixated on this issue and are comfortable with their Catholic identity.
Even if there are genuine policy disagreements here, accusing the Obama administration of a specific “anti-Catholic” bias or a more general hostility to religion — as some Catholic bishops and conservative pundits seem to relish — is wrong.
Photo: Fordham University, Credit: mgrenner57, Flickr
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A few months ago I challenged Catholic bishops to correct Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who badly mangled Catholic teaching on the death penalty in a speech at Duquesne University and insisted that he would resign if he thought the church held capital punishment to be immoral. Today at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI again called for an end to the death penalty. The AP reports:
Pope Benedict XVI says he supports political actions around the world aimed at eliminating the death penalty, reflecting his stance as an opponent of capital punishment. He made the comments Wednesday to participants at a meeting being promoted by the Catholic Sant’Egidio Community on the theme “No Justice without Life.” He said he hoped “your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty.” Benedict, like his predecessor Pope John Paul II, has appealed for commutation in a number of death penalty cases.
The United States is one of the few developed countries that still tinkers with the “machinery of death,” as the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun once described state-sanctioned killing. Even as elected leaders in a growing number of states reconsider the death penalty (like Gov. John Kitzhaber in Oregon), the New York Times notes in an editorial today that officials in Georgia seem to be doing their best to undermine the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling that it’s unconstitutional to execute mentally retarded criminals.
At the same time Justice Scalia was dabbling in theology, over 150 actual Catholic theologians released A Catholic Call to Abolish the Death Penalty. This group of scholars at prominent universities around the country considered requesting a meeting with Scalia to educate the high-profile Catholic about his faith’s teaching on this profound life issue. In the wake of Pope Benedict’s unambiguous comments today, it might be a good time to reconsider that idea.
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Boston Globe columnist, religious historian and Catholic progressive James Carroll offers some important context to a story we’ve tracked closely – Catholic bishops’ increasingly tense relationship with the Obama administration over what the Catholic hierarchy has broadly defined as an assault on “religious liberty.”
Carroll isn’t buying it and steps back to offer some perspective about the shifting institutional priorities now driving the Church:
With the bishops’ new “liberty” initiative, the political partnership between the Catholic hierarchy and the largely Protestant religious right is more solid than ever. Such salvos echo those of far-right Christian groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council – self-appointed advocates of public prayer, Christian supremacy, family autonomy, and “a culture of life.” Traditional values are, in a favorite phrase, “increasingly belittled” by secular society. Religion is striking back.
But Catholic participation in this extremist counter-culture is uniquely risky. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental organization in the world, carrying out tremendous works of charity and justice across the globe. In the United States, church agencies like Catholic Charities, and institutions like hospitals and schools, are essential to the common good. A narrowly politicized American episcopate can gravely weaken the integrity of such outreach.
Catholic and Protestant evangelical leaders didn’t always sing from the same hymn book. When the religious right was first empowered during the Reagan era, Catholic bishops hummed a very different tune. In numerous declarations, they blasted the economic injustice of the unfettered market, defended the social safety net, criticized prevailing assumptions about the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and mustered decisive opposition to the wars in Central America. They did all this without launching partisan electoral campaigns. Those were different days, and different bishops.
As I’ve noted before, Catholic leaders are asking legitimate questions when it comes to a grant denied to the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services. And many Catholics who have supported a range of Obama administration policies are urging the Department of Health and Human Services to broaden a proposed religious exemption to include Catholic hospitals and charities that are morally opposed to covering contraception in employee insurance plans.
But Carroll is widening the lens on this “religious liberty” story in a fashion that most reporters can’t because of daily deadline pressure or their own lack of knowledge regarding the tectonic changes that the Church has experienced since Vatican II. As an acclaimed writer and former Catholic priest who has explored both the power of the Catholic Church and the military in a way that blends deep reporting with an intriguing personal narrative, Carroll is well positioned to not miss the forest through the trees.
Catholic bishops’ current fights with the Obama administration can’t be fully understood in isolation from the broader institutional dynamics shaping the U.S Church. This includes the growing influence wielded by a well-oiled Catholic Right lobbying machine – led by groups like the American Life League, CatholicVote.org and the Cardinal Newman Society – that challenge the bishops to toe a harder line in their political engagement.
The American Life League blasted Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston for participating in the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s funeral, attack the bishops’ national anti-poverty initiative and even sought to blacklist a longtime social justice staffer at the bishops’ conference. Catholic conservatives also helped derail the candidacy of Bishop Gerald Kicanas, a moderate bishop from Tucson, who was widely expected to be elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last year.
Archbishop Dolan of New York, the USCCB president, unwittingly proved the point that largely conservative thinkers and right-wing grassroots activists 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.” This is a stunning and revealing statement about the conservative bubble many Catholic bishops live in.
Stepping back for an even wider view of what’s driving the U.S. Church today, one can’t discount the significant impact of the late Pope John Paul II and his appointment of bishops. His nearly 27 year pontificate included a strong critique of unfettered capitalism. But the gravitational center of his papacy was often defined by staunch opposition to abortion, contraception, women’s leadership and a “theology of the body” widely embraced by a new generation of priests and bishops.
Many conservatives, including Protestants aligned with the Republican Party, were quick to cheer this worldview. Conservative Catholics like Deal Hudson, former outreach coordinator for George W. Bush, sought to make political hay by aligning Catholics and evangelicals to vote for Republicans.
While in past decades leaders like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago sought to find some common ground amid the conservative-liberal tensions roiling the American Catholic community, these days Catholic progressives, religious sisters and Catholic social justice leaders who supported the health care reform law are demonized as dissidents. George Weigel cheers the End of the Bernardin Era and today’s Church leaders are getting an earful from Catholic Right bloggers, conservative intellectuals like Robert George of Princeton University and culture warriors like Bill Donohue.
Most bishops are unlikely to heed Carroll’s warnings, but that’s a missed opportunity for some needed self-reflection.
Photo: James Carroll
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Archbishop Timothy Dolan sees a brewing battle between secular forces and institutional religion, New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein notes in her coverage of the bishops’ national meeting.
“We see in our culture a drive to neuter religion,” Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the bishops conference, said in a news conference Monday at the bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore. He added that “well-financed, well-oiled sectors” were trying “to push religion back into the sacristy.”
This strikes me as a bit of hyperventilating. The United States is the most religious country in the industrialized world. Catholics, as National Catholic Reporter editor Tom Roberts points out, make up a majority on the Supreme Court, represent the largest single denomination in Congress and hold powerful positions at the highest levels of business. Americans, compared to those relatively godless Europeans Pope Benedict XVI is concerned about, take religion seriously and say their faith plays an important role come election time.
Surely, the bishops see competing interpretations of proper policy on abortion and marriage as threats. And Bill Donohue of the Catholic League keeps them in a perpetual state of alarm with his humming fax machine and ominous book titles (“Secular Sabatoge: How Liberals Are Destroying Religion and Culture in America”). But the Catholic intellectual tradition that so many Americans admire should not be reduced to scary sound bites from the latest front in the culture wars.
It seems what Catholic bishops face now is less a drive to “push religion back into the sacristy” than a waning of influence. This owes in part to disillusionment after the clergy sexual abuse crisis and profound cultural shifts on issues like same-sex marriage, which a growing number of Americans (including Catholics) support. The days of “pray, pay and obey” Catholicism that defined an earlier generation of Church leadership are long past.
Recent news that most Catholics in the pews have not read the bishops’ balanced and thoughtful call for political responsibility is a sign that Church leaders need to rethink their strategy for engaging their flock and influencing the wider culture. Bishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe and other bishops recognize these challenges in a clear-eyed way, but the media microphone is too often commanded by Church leaders who seem to relish a fight.
Archbishop Dolan is regarded by many in the Church as a moderate, engaging leader. After a recent White House meeting with President Obama, he came away praising the president’s sensitivities to concerns about the conscience rights of Catholics when it comes to issues like contraception and abortion. His stewardship of the bishops’ conference has potential to defuse some growing tensions between the White House and bishops.
But he also recently warned that the Obama administration’s decision not to continue supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in court could “precipitate a national conflict between church and state of enormous proportions.” Those are not words used lightly. The Church is certainly on a collision course with the culture’s growing acceptance of civil unions and gay marriage, but the question is how the Church can maintain its legitimate right to articulate its position on this and other divisive issues without polarizing the debate in a way that obscures their important witness on a host of other issues.
I’m not saying the Church should shift its positions because of the latest poll. But if the bishops want to remain relevant in the long term (and for a Church that is often said to “think in centuries” that should make sense), they should dial down the heated rhetoric and assess more prudent ways to engage the culture.
One way to do this on the issue of “family values,” for example, would be to talk more often about the threats to heterosexual marriage posed by economic stress – unemployment, the lack of affordable child care, the housing crisis. The perception that the Catholic Church is fixated mostly on fighting same-sex marriage doesn’t help the bishops win hearts and minds on other issues they deserve a fair hearing on in the public square.
Gaudium et Spes, one of the Catholic Church’s foundational documents that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, urged the Church to address “the signs of the times.” Those signs are not hard to read: growing poverty, income inequality and millions of Americans deprived of knowing the “dignity of work” – as the Catholic social tradition describes it. And yet in the face of these moral challenges, Catholic bishops gathered for their national meeting this week and failed to address these issues. Catholics who respect the Church and want to see bishops reclaim their moral voice are justified in asking why.
Photo: Archbishop Dolan and Rep. Charlie Rangel, Credit: RepRangel, Flickr
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After a steady exodus of Catholics from the church and a clergy-sex abuse scandal that seriously damaged the bishops’ moral credibility, one would think that church leaders might avoid striking a confrontational posture in public life. As media coverage in the run up to the U.S. bishops’ national meeting today in Baltimore shows, the opposite is true. They are hunkered down for a long, hard fight against shifting cultural norms and an Obama administration they have portrayed as hostile to religious liberty. Rachel Zoll of the AP provides a good curtain raiser to the bishops’ annual gathering:
The mood among many U.S. Roman Catholic bishops was captured in a recent speech by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. His talk, called “Catholics in the Next America,” painted a bleak picture of a nation increasingly intolerant of Christianity. “The America emerging in the next several decades is likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country’s past,” Chaput told students last week at Assumption College, an Augustinian school in Worcester, Mass. “It’s not a question of when or if it might happen. It’s happening today.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets Monday in Baltimore for its national meeting feeling under siege: from a broader culture moving toward accepting gay marriage; a White House they often condemn as hostile to Catholic teaching; and state legislatures that church leaders say are chipping away at religious liberty.
While bishops have a right and an obligation to sound the alarm when they perceive Catholic institutions being unfairly targeted, it’s hard not to read Archbishop Chaput’s ominous, man-the-barricades warning as the anxious voice of a church fearful of being left behind in an era when institutional religious authority is waning.
As Scott Appleby, a prominent religious historian at the University of Notre Dame, notes in the AP story, many church leaders have recently adopted “a more pugnacious style” at the same time “the church no longer receives deference or the hands-off attitude that it once had for many years.” Are Catholics really a threatened class of citizens today as Archbishop Chaput and other leading bishops insist? This is a tough case to make to the broader public when Catholics hold power at the highest levels of law, government and business.
Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean emeritus of Duquesne Law School and a church canon lawyer who served as an original member of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, sees the hierarchy’s battle with the wider culture as a telling sign that church leaders are grasping to maintain power.
“Another way to look at these issues, the prohibition of same-sex marriage, the criminalization of abortions, is not as issues of the exercise of religious liberty, but as issues regarding the exercise of religious authority,” Cafardi told me. “The bishops might win the first argument. They do not win the second.”
A sizable percentage of Catholics are befuddled by the bishops’ recent high-profile political fights against same-sex marriage and disproportionate emphasis on contraception and other sexuality issues when poverty is on the rise, income inequality is growing to historic levels and millions of Americans are unemployed. I’m afraid bishops are losing touch with the real-life challenges of Catholics in the pews. This is especially sad given the bishops’ proud history of laying the moral groundwork for landmark social reforms like the minimum wage and insurance for the elderly, disabled and unemployed.
It’s not just liberal activists scratching their heads. A former top official at the U.S. bishops’ conference has a hard-hitting op-ed in the Baltimore Sun today asking tough questions for Catholic leaders.
At a time of staggering poverty, rampant unemployment and growing income inequality, Catholic bishops will gather for a national meeting in Baltimore today and remain largely silent about these profound moral issues. A recent Catholic News Service headline about the meeting — “Bishops’ agenda more devoted to internal matters than societal ills” — is a disappointing snapshot for a church that has long been a powerful voice for economic justice.
The U.S. bishops’ relative silence contrasts with a recent Vatican document that urges stronger regulation of the financial sector and a more just distribution of wealth…
I fear the church’s revered social justice witness is being crowded out by divisive culture-war battles at a time when Americans need a stronger moral message about the dignity of work and economic justice for all.
Catholic bishops find themselves at a defining crossroads. The path they choose will have major consequences not only for our national values debate heading into the 2012 presidential election, but also for a generation of Catholics who still believe their Church should be a powerful voice for economic fairness and the common good.
Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales), Flickr
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