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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.

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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Pro-Life Hypocrisy from Rep. Bill Johnson

January 25, 2012, 1:35 pm | By John Gehring

Earlier this week, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) spoke at the March for Life rally on the National Mall saying among other things “as a father of four and a grandfather of 5, I know how precious life is.”  Then later that day, he blasted new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that for the first time require coal-fired plants to limit toxic mercury pollutants directly linked to fetal disease, death and serious illness in children.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops touted the new mercury and air toxic standards as “an important step forward to protect the health of all people, especially unborn babies and young children.” Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice and human development committee, noted that it’s just “good sense to want to have clean air for our children and families to breath and for future generations.”

Along with Catholic bishops, a diverse range of faith leaders – including more than 100 evangelical pastors and the president of the National Association of Evangelicals – pushed for reasonable controls on these deadly toxins.

But Rep. Johnson’s pro-life commitment apparently stops at the coal lobbyists’door. Here’s what he said on the floor of Congress:

Mr. Speaker, here’s the simple truth. The Obama administration is driven by a far-left liberal ideology rather than the facts. This administration says it wants to put America back to work, but through its policies is doing right the opposite.

For example, because of the EPA’s new train wreck of regulation, up to 160 direct jobs will be lost with the accelerated closure of Beverly, Ohio’s Muskingham coal-fired power plant. This train wreck of regulation is the most expensive regulation that the EPA has ever mandated. These costs will ultimately be passed on to hard-working families in the form of higher utility rates. This new disastrous regulation will also cost southern Ohio many indirect jobs related to the coal industry. No matter how you look at it, the president has declared war on the coal industry and the jobs that go with it.

The truth, of course, is that the new toxics rules save lives without threatening job growth and that making our air and water cleaner and safer has been a bipartisan priority of numerous administrations before this one. Mandated 21 years ago by Congress, the Congressional Research Service reminds that “most of the major rules” the Obama administration is working on “began development under the Bush administration.”

It’s cynical politics and a false choice to ask Americans to choose between jobs and public health. Is our nation really incapable of growing our economy without harming pregnant women, infants and children? Rep. Johnson (who counts the mining and electric utilities industries as two of his top five campaign contributors) and other self-identified pro-life members of Congress should get off the soap box and ask what they are really doing to protect children and families. Soaring rhetoric at a rally isn’t enough.

H/T Political Correction

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Chicago Cardinal Compares Gay Rights Movement to KKK

December 22, 2011, 4:57 pm | By John Gehring

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, owes an apology to the gay and lesbian community of his city. During an interview with Fox News in Chicago, the cardinal compares gay rights activists to the KKK. Even the Fox News reporters seem stunned.

From the transcript:

Mike Flannery, Fox Chicago News Political Editor: The Gay Pride Parade is going to go right by there, at least it is scheduled to. What’s your view? The pastor there is upset by that.

Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago: Well, I go with the pastor. I mean, he’s telling us that they won’t be able to have Church services on Sunday, if that’s the case. You know, you don’t want the Gay Liberation Movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism. So, I think if that’s what’s happening, and I don’t know that it is, but I would respect the local pastor’s, you know, position on that. Then I think that’s a matter of concern for all of us.

Dane S. Placko, Fox Chicago News: That’s a little strong analogy, isn’t it? Ku Klux Klan?

Cardinal George: It is. But you take a look at the rhetoric.

Placko: What rhetoric?

Cardinal George: The rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan, the rhetoric of some in the Gay Liberation. Who is the enemy? Who is the enemy? The Catholic Church.

Comparing gays, lesbians and their straight allies marching in a parade to a racist extremist group with a bloody history of terrorism and murder is as outrageously offensive as it is historically ignorant. It reveals a mindset that is too often on display among some Christian leaders who profess respect for the dignity of all people, but who casually toss around explosive language that dehumanizes and demeans. The cardinal’s persistent question – who is the enemy? – speaks volumes about a disturbing strain of Catholicism in public life these days. It’s the quivering voice of a fearful Church that sees itself as a victim, not a reconciler, the voice of institutional callousness drowning out compassionate humanity, a Church eyeing enemies around every corner. I hope the Church I worship in and love is still too full of grace, justice and mercy to embrace that shrunken, embittered posture.

If they choose, Catholic leaders have every right to fight the winds of history now blowing toward greater equality for gays and lesbians. But regardless of your position on same-sex marriage, most people would agree that those who aspire to be moral shepherds should at the very least mirror the virtues of compassion, civility and prudence. Let’s not forget that despite great strides in becoming part of the American mainstream, gays and lesbians are still defamed, beaten and sometimes killed for being who they are in this country and around the world. LGBT-rights activists might inconvenience a church service with a parade route and on occasion say intemperate things about religious leaders. But Cardinal George and other Catholic bishops are not besieged members of a minority group. Perhaps some Christmas reflection is in order for those who preach the Gospel from powerful pulpits but seem indifferent to the ways that words can wound.

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Catholic Institutions and Contraception Coverage

December 6, 2011, 10:13 am | By John Gehring

fordham.jpgThe 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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