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Catholic Bishops Losing Credibility on Religious Liberty Campaign

February 28, 2012, 9:47 am | Posted 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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