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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.