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A Response to the USCCB

July 3, 2012, 8:31 pm | Posted by John Gehring

It’s a strange experience to watch the Catholic Church I love and have served in different capacities over the years publicly hang me out to dry. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, my employer for a brief period, has essentially done that in a recent advisory that accuses me of “telling Catholic bishops how to guide the church” and maligns Faith in Public Life as a sinister outfit doing the bidding of a “billionaire atheist.” So I must have done something really threatening to provoke such a bristling reaction from the nation’s most powerful church? Not exactly.

To get those of you who have been busy with more important matters up to speed, here’s a summary. As part of my regular interactions with the media on various Catholic issues, I recently sent out a background memo to reporters addressing the U.S. bishops’ high-profile “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign. This national effort, which culminates with a special mass in Washington on the Fourth of July, reaches across many dioceses and aims to mobilize Catholics against what the bishops describe as ominous threats to religious freedom, in particular the Obama administration’s requirement that women have contraception covered by employers without co-pays under the Affordable Care Act. The church’s religious liberty initiative has garnered national headlines and plenty of coverage that lacks nuance or critical analysis that challenges simple storylines.

Among other things, the background memo I sent to the media included important context, examples of some bishops who have used inflammatory rhetoric and a list of commentators — Catholic scholars, theologians and other experts — available for interviews. These commentators were identified because they are well-positioned to offer reporters informed analysis, and are also moderate-to-progressive Catholics who have genuine concerns that the bishops’ religious liberty campaign is in danger of being distorted by a zealous tone and anti-Obama fervor. Did the memo have a point of view? Yes, in the same way prominent Catholic conservatives and bishops quoted in the media have a point of view and frame public debates. Good journalists seek out a diversity of perspectives from the Catholic community and don’t rely on church officials for a one-sided view.

While a few on the right hyperventilate about some perceived conspiracy of deep-pocketed religious liberals, that’s laughable. Faith in Public Life is a small organization with a handful of committed people of faith working to balance out a values debate that in recent decades has long been dominated by the Religious Right. Our budget and ability to mobilize campaigns and command media attention, for example, pales in comparison to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council.

The voices of progressive religious leaders and commentators in the media are not exactly drowning out those poor, under-funded conservatives. In fact, the marriage of convenience between the Religious Right and the GOP has been a powerful alliance that has helped elect presidents, influences media coverage and until relatively recently ran circles around religious progressives. While coverage of liberal faith perspectives has improved, many reporters still caricature Catholics and evangelicals and identify “values voters” as Republicans who view abortion and same-sex marriage as the only moral issues.

This tempest in a teapot over a simple backgrounder for reporters started after Bill Donohue of the Catholic League – a frequent TV commentator known for a bullying style and sweeping condemnation of all things progressive – quickly pounced with his usual manufactured outrage. He depicted me and Faith and Public Life as trying to “subvert the bishops’ message.”  Mr. Donohue, who sees anti-Catholic bigotry lurking around every corner, was incensed that I offered a point of view to reporters. An interesting bone to pick considering this is a man who blasts out press releases on the hour and is no stranger to sharp-edged punditry on cable news. My inbox has been flooded with hate mail from the Donohue fan club assuring me I’m going to hell, kindly offering to meet me “on the battlefield” and attacking me as an “enemy” of the church.

I ignored these ugly attacks and the gotcha tone of right-wing bloggers who requested comment because to even dignify this supposed “expose” from the Catholic League seemed ridiculous. It’s not exactly breaking news that advocacy organizations (liberal, moderate and conservative) provide a perspective and resources to journalists.

So I was surprised when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ media relations director, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, picked up where Mr. Donohue left off. (Full disclosure: Sr. Walsh was my colleague when I worked in the USCCB media office). As she is employed to do, Sr. Walsh counters my analysis with the bishops’ positions. She offers some relevant counterpoints that should be part of a reasonable, civil debate between people of goodwill. But her critique also makes some strange points and has a snarky tone unbecoming of an institution that represents pastors. She oddly takes pains to explain why one bishop I cited, Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois  – roundly criticized for suggesting that the Obama administration shares some ideological similarities with Hitler and Stalin – has just been misunderstood. A free media tip for bishops: keep murderous dictators out of your analogies if you want to avoid being confused with extremists. And if bishops can’t resist the temptation, it’s probably best for the church’s communications officials not to try and justify those outlandish statements.

The USCCB release also describes the bishops’ religious liberty campaign as a simple “educational” effort. But is that the impression sent when the Catholic bishops of Kansas held a religious liberty rally at the state capitol that featured Republican Governor Sam Brownback? I’m guessing the Romney campaign was pretty happy with this type of education. Bishops have every right and indeed an obligation to make their case, but when the nation’s most powerful religious institution revs up its well-oiled lobbying and PR machine over contested issues with President Obama a few months before an election, it’s moved well beyond simple education. Even some moderate bishops have raised warnings about the religious liberty campaign getting dragged through the political mud. America magazine, a respected publication edited by Catholic priests, did the same in an eloquent editorial.

If bishops don’t want to be viewed as cheerleaders for a conservative political agenda – and most church leaders don’t – it would help if they toned down the alarmist rhetoric and turned up their moral megaphones on a broader range of justice issues at the heart of our Catholic social tradition. This includes defending workers’ rights now under assault in many states and challenging tax policies that coddle the wealthiest few. In 1986, Catholic bishops released Economic Justice for All, a powerful pastoral letter that in many ways challenged the “trickle down” economic theories that perpetuated income inequality during the Reagan era. But when Catholic bishops met for a national meeting last fall economic issues and poverty were not on the agenda. Bishops failed to even acknowledge the 25th anniversary of that document. Meeting last month in Atlanta, bishops finally got around to agreeing to draft a message tentatively titled “Work, Poverty, and a Broken Economy.” Bishop Stephen Blaire said that such a statement was “not only timely, but perhaps overdue.” It won’t be released until after a presidential election that will hinge on economic issues.

The Catholic justice tradition challenges the anti-government zeal and free market fundamentalism that guides the Republican party these days, but you don’t hear much about that from bishops. Letters to Congress are helpful – bishops have sent a flurry criticizing the House GOP budget – but most Catholics in the pews are only hearing about the church’s tussle with the Obama administration. This sends a distorted message to voters. When you have high-profile Catholic leaders like House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan touting an economic vision that is plainly contrary to Catholic teaching, you would think that might inspire Catholic bishops to respond in a more full-throated way.

The USCCB response also attempts to demonize Faith in Public Life by calling into question our funding. Sr. Walsh describes FPL as being “founded with help from a pro-abortion group.” The Center for American Progress helped incubate FPL in our nascent days. It happens to be one of the nation’s most respected policy organizations providing advocacy and analysis on issues such as economics, national security, immigration reform, energy independence and health care. Describing CAP as a “pro-abortion” group” is reductio ad absurdum, an obvious smear. It also ignores our work with a range of pro-life and pro-choice leaders in calling for policies that support pregnant women and reduce abortions. Sr. Walsh also mirrors the breathless outrage of Bill Donohue and others on the far-right when she describes FPL as receiving funding from “billionaire atheist” George Soros. FPL receives funding from a diverse range of foundations and philanthropies, including the Open Society Institute. Mr. Soros does not show up at our staff meetings or dictate what we work on. As far as Sr. Walsh’s description of him as an “atheist,” I didn’t realize that only people of faith are viewed as legitimate actors in the public square. I expect that kind of demagoguery from Glenn Beck, not my church.

Beyond the particular details of the USCCB response, I’m most struck that a simple background memo from a small organization of progressive people of faith has provoked such a defensive and disproportionate reaction. It speaks volumes about the anxious, embattled posture of some Catholic leaders these days when faithful Catholics who are progressive because of the inspiration we draw from the Catholic social tradition are portrayed as threats to our church.

I believe in a “big tent” Catholicism where liberals, moderates and conservatives can disagree over politics but still share a common faith and break bread together. I believe in an intellectually vibrant, culturally relevant Catholicism that engages with a pluralistic society. In recent months, Catholic leaders have made news for cracking down on Catholic nuns, eminent theologians and that nefarious anti-Catholic organization known as the Girl Scouts. In this tireless effort to sniff out supposed subversives in their midst, I worry that some religious leaders are unwittingly dragging a church I love deeper into the fog of culture wars and farther away from the spirit of the Gospel.

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7 Responses to “A Response to the USCCB”

  1. Dan says:

    Well said, John. If church leaders don’t want to be perceived as appendages of the GOP, they should worry about their own actions instead of lashing out at those who dare to criticize them.

  2. Dave says:

    One of the sad sidebars in this is that Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, who has had an outstanding career as a distinguished and respected Catholic journalist, is now reduced to producing or repeating half-truths which amount to propaganda on behalf of the bishops. I assume she truly believes in what she is doing, but it is still sad.

  3. Paul says:

    John, Thanks for standing up!
    While I usually avoid conspiracy theories, I have to admit that for years I have wondered just how much time, effort, and money the right has spend to intimidate and house-train our bishops. I started to notice the change shortly after the peace and the poverty statements. Sone on the right publicly braging that they had Ratzinger’s fax number, and that they used it. I honestly doubt that Cardinal Ratzinger at the CDF or as Pope is even close to being “on their side,” but unfortunately the bishops don’t seem to have the spine to find out! Please keep up your good work.

  4. John S. says:

    Great response, John. Hang in there. You are right on this. –John

  5. Tom Allio says:

    John: It is indeed remarkable and regretable that Sr. Walsh spoke in such harsh tones…without any degree of civility. Unfortunately, Sr. Walsh (in behalf of the bishops) used the same “guilt by association” smear tactic that is advanced by Bill Donohue and his followers. I always thought that our model for confronting those we oppose was Jesus.

  6. Rosemary Denshaw says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and well written piece. Keep going with it. There are many of us in the People of God that support what you have the courage to say.

  7. Shelly says:

    A Good journalist would not distort a the true Catholic faith. A true journalist would not call them self a Catholic when they are not in communion the Church!