Catholic Bishops’ Selective Moral Outrage
So let me get this straight. When the Catholic bishops met this summer in Baltimore for a national meeting economic justice issues failed to even make it on the agenda. Despite rising poverty, scandalous levels of income inequality and political attacks on worker’s rights that all offend the Catholic justice tradition, a Catholic News Service headline before the bishops’ meeting said it all: “Bishops’ agenda more devoted to internal matters than societal ills.”
Fast forward a few months. CNS now reports:
The U.S. bishops have urged Catholics and “all people of faith” across the nation to observe March 30 as a day of prayer and fasting for religious freedom and conscience protection.
The bishops said that among current threats to religious liberty is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate that forces employers, including religious ones, to provide coverage of contraception/sterilization in their health plans. Prayer resources have been posted on the USCCB website
Here’s a headline in the Des Moines Register this week: “Iowa bishops call for spiritual battle against HHS mandate.”
And the Philadelphia Inquirer reports: “Catholics and pro-life supporters plan to rally at Independence Hall at noon in opposition to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate.” The director of the Respect Life office in the Philadelphia archdiocese acknowledged that the use of traditional Lenten practices (prayer and fasting) was “unusual” but told the newspaper that “extreme situations call for extreme responses.”
Interesting. I don’t remember U.S. Catholic bishops mobilizing a similar national response when the U.S. began dropping bombs on Baghdad with a “shock and awe” campaign. Surely this qualified as an “extreme situation” given the threat to human life and dignity. Despite the late Pope John Paul II’s opposition to the war, the bishops preferred written statements to civil disobedience or national calls for protest and fasting.
Just imagine if the Catholic cardinals of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago had joined the massive protests that attracted millions of Americans during those days when the dark clouds of war were gathering. This may not have stopped an immoral war, but given the political clout of Catholics in the U.S it would have had a major impact on the tenor of political debates and media coverage. Instead, Catholic neo-cons like George Weigel and the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus beat the drums of war in Catholic journals and in prominent media outlets.
The bishops had reasonable concerns with the initial Obama administration ruling on contraception coverage. It was roundly criticized not only by conservative Catholics, but also by Catholic justice leaders and liberal Catholic pundits like E.J. Dionne who broadly support the administration’s policy agenda. In the face of these objections, the Obama administration has worked hard to find stronger accommodations for religious institutions while also protecting women’s health. The Catholic Health Association and other Catholic institutions that provide direct service have expressed confidence that the White House is making a good faith effort to respect religious conscience.
The bishops seem to prefer a more pugnacious posture. Lathered up with prophetic zeal, Bishop William Lori – the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious liberty – even lashed out at a prominent Catholic publication that raised relevant questions about the bishops’ tactics.
The moral outrage and institutional muscle that have been missing from Catholic bishops on matters of war and economic justice are now on full display.