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EXCLUSIVE: Lay Catholics Buck Bishops’ Overreach on Religious Liberty Campaign

June 8, 2012, 2:00 pm | Posted by Nick Sementelli

Shrine of the Blessed SacramentA group of Catholics in the nation’s capital has released a letter speaking out against the Bishops’ recent escalation of their fight against the HHS contraception ruling.

The authors, a longstanding community of parishioners at The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, an influential Washington church, specifically identify the lawsuits by 13 Catholic dioceses (including their own Archdiocese) and the extreme rhetoric that has been used to describe genuine policy disagreements on this issue.

In the letter, the parishioners express concern that they are “in danger of becoming pawns” in a political feud and lament the enormous church resources being dedicated to this issue “in this time of worldwide economic distress and suffering”:

We are deeply concerned that, under cover of a campaign for religious liberty, the provision of universal health care–a priority of Catholic social teaching from the early years of the last century–is being turned into a wedge issue in a highly-charged political environment and that our parish, and indeed the wider church, is in danger of being rent asunder by partisan politics. We, as a group, may have differing views as to the wisdom of the details of the Health and Human Services mandate, against which our archdiocese has now announced a lawsuit in federal court, but we are united in our concern that the bishops’ alarmist call to defend religious freedom has had the effect of shutting down discussion.

It is a step too far. We, the faithful, are in danger of becoming pawns and collateral damage in a standoff between our church and our government.

While HHS may have been tone-deaf and stubborn in its handling of the mandate, we believe that the points of disagreement have been grossly overstated by the bishops.  In no way do we feel that our religious freedom is at risk. We find it grotesque to have the call for this “Fortnight” evoke the names of holy martyrs who died resisting tyranny. And we are concerned that the extremist rhetoric used to describe the “threat to our freedoms” both undermines the credibility of our church and insults those in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who are truly suffering for their faith.

Furthermore, we find it incomprehensible that, in this time of worldwide economic distress and suffering, and with the church still reeling from the child abuse scandal, our bishops have chosen to focus the spiritual and material resources of our church on this issue, at the expense of the gospel injunction that we serve the poor and attend to the needs of the “least of these”.

The letter echoes the critique made by Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California who recently publicly challenged the tactical wisdom of the lawsuits and warned of right-wing groups trying to co-opt the bishops’ efforts for partisan ends.

It also reflects the feelings of Catholics across the country, 57% of whom do not believe religious liberty is threatened in America today and about 60% of whom believe religiously affiliated social-service agencies, colleges, hospitals, and privately owned small businesses should be required to provide health care plans that cover contraception.

Add in the Vatican’s controversial campaign to reform American women religious and renewed attention to top bishops’ handling of the sexual abuse crisis, and it’s clear that Catholic leaders who ignore the concerns raised in this letter risk creating serious division among faithful Catholics in the pews.

UPDATE: The group now has a website: http://www.familiesunitedinfaith.blogspot.com/

Read the full letter below:

Religious Liberty, Health Care, and the Catholic Faithful

We are a group of thirty parishioners at The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, DC. Our group, formed into a small faith community in the 1960s, has been active in and deeply committed to our parish for all the intervening years. Blessed Sacrament is our parish community, and we have loved and served it to the best of our abilities. We have helped to build and strengthen its institutions, participated in every aspect of its spiritual and social life, seen our children educated in our parish school, and received the sacraments in our church. Our views and actions on issues of social and economic justice, war and peace, and the dignity of all peoples have been in great measure determined by our life in this faith community.

Situated in Washington, our parish community is a complex one, reflecting and bringing together the political diversity of the nation’s capital, with leaders in government and media joining each Sunday in prayer. We have been through trying times together–war, civil strife, scandals in the church, terrorist attacks on our nation, contested elections, and controversial legislation–but we have remained a community, with our parish serving as our refuge. For all of us, whatever our political philosophy, our church has been a welcoming home.

This, we fear, may be changing.

On two recent consecutive Sundays, our parish bulletin has included rather alarming inserts from the Archdiocese speaking of a grave threat to religious freedom in America. The first of these was entitled “Our First, Most Cherished Freedom,” while the second closed with the dire warning that Catholics must “Act on Your Beliefs While You Still Can.” All of this, we understand, is part of a buildup to mobilize Catholics to participate in the “Fortnight for Freedom”–a two-week long demonstration planned by the bishops chiefly as a protest against the Affordable Care Act.

We are deeply concerned that, under cover of a campaign for religious liberty, the provision of universal health care–a priority of Catholic social teaching from the early years of the last century–is being turned into a wedge issue in a highly-charged political environment and that our parish, and indeed the wider church, is in danger of being rent asunder by partisan politics. We, as a group, may have differing views as to the wisdom of the details of the Health and Human Services mandate, against which our archdiocese has now announced a lawsuit in federal court, but we are united in our concern that the bishops’ alarmist call to defend religious freedom has had the effect of shutting down discussion.

It is a step too far. We, the faithful, are in danger of becoming pawns and collateral damage in a standoff between our church and our government.

While HHS may have been tone-deaf and stubborn in its handling of the mandate, we believe that the points of disagreement have been grossly overstated by the bishops.  In no way do we feel that our religious freedom is at risk. We find it grotesque to have the call for this “Fortnight” evoke the names of holy martyrs who died resisting tyranny. And we are concerned that the extremist rhetoric used to describe the “threat to our freedoms” both undermines the credibility of our church and insults those in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who are truly suffering for their faith.

Furthermore, we find it incomprehensible that, in this time of worldwide economic distress and suffering, and with the church still reeling from the child abuse scandal, our bishops have chosen to focus the spiritual and material resources of our church on this issue, at the expense of the gospel injunction that we serve the poor and attend to the needs of the “least of these”.

And finally, to return to the subject of our own parish, we are anguished by the threat of its being drawn into the vortex of partisanship. This destructive process has already begun.

One of our group recounts being disturbed and deeply hurt by an incident that occurred recently at a parish-sponsored lecture featuring a diocesan official speaking about the health care controversy.  The lecture itself contained references to what was repeatedly referred to as “Obamacare”–a term that elicited more heat than light. During the question-and-answer period the atmosphere became even more charged, until finally one person arose and spat out: “I have seen cars in our parish parking lot with Obama stickers on them. They are complicitous in all this.”  Since the member of our group had such a sticker on her car, she felt unwelcome and left the event before it ended.

This is what we fear: that our church becomes tragically reduced to a partisan player in an election-year campaign and that our parish community becomes a battleground and no longer a source of spiritual strength.

Given our opposition to the misguided and costly “Fortnight for Freedom we are heartened by recent reports that the bishops are not in full unity on the question of how to respond to the Affordable Care Act and that at least some of them may be disposed to reconsider the overwrought statements that have been made concerning threats to our religious liberties.

And so we pray that our bishops, the clergy, and Catholic laypeople in our parish and across the land will join hands to pull us all back from the brink before it is too late. We pray also that we can come together as a community of faithful, and as a country, with renewed resolve to address the broad range of critical social, political, and economic issues affecting our nation and the world.

Our Group:

Marie and Paul Barry; Tony and Judy Carroll; Joy and Jerry Choppin; James and Jean Connell; Christa and Richard Cross; Larry Carter and Odelia Funke; Kathleen and Richard  Hage; Timothy and Marilyn Hanlon; Ann and Ray Hannapel; James and Elizabeth Kane; Anne Kilcullen; Marion and John McCartney; John and Betty O’Connor; Ivo and Patricia Spalatin; Eileen and James Zogby

13 Responses to “EXCLUSIVE: Lay Catholics Buck Bishops’ Overreach on Religious Liberty Campaign”

  1. Harry Sonderman says:

    Thirty parishoners does not a parish make. Biden, Pelosi, Sibelius,and a host of other cafeteria catholics may well be members of this influential Catholic parish for that matter but the letter was from a subset within the parish and every parish has such a subset. It hardly qualifies as news nor is it apparently the Parish viewpoint..

  2. Louise says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    I have never been so upset by my parish (St. Bartholomew’s in Bethesda) as
    with these recent attacks on the Administration and the Affordable Care Act. I cannot bring myself to go to church.
    Thank you for this letter. It is eloquent and pierces right to the heart of what is wrong with the Bishops campaign.

  3. Jacqueline J Smith says:

    We all know what these coded messages coming from our “leadership” mean. How far can this political involvement go without some legal action re tax free status being threatened? If something impressive isn’t done, it will appear that the hierarchy speak for all. They are are a definite minority but so many don’t know this.

  4. Chris Nunez says:

    Fine article, grateful for the effort to express the displeasure of many of us. However, I’m still greatly bothered by the statement “and about 60% of whom believe religiously affiliated social-service agencies, colleges, hospitals, and privately owned small businesses should be required to provide health care plans that cover contraception.”

    That any employer is in the position to choose the health care insurance plan that their employee will purchase seems to be at the heart of this issue. It’s an example of the “road to ‘heck’ being paved with good intentions.”

    Until employers are removed from being the ‘middleman’ in this consumer transaction, the worker will remain a serf-subject of the employer. This is the issue that the public and our bishops, and the administration in Washington is sidestepping.

  5. Chris says:

    @Chris Nunez,

    Please read the mandate about contraception. The employer has been removed. It is the insurance company that is being required to provide contraception at no cost not the employer.

  6. Chris says:

    I meant at no cost to the employee. However. I think that single payer health care is the way to end this whole issue.

  7. Mike Boyle says:

    Best to look up “intrinsic evil” and then come back to the table. It doesn’t matter what 57% or 60% of Catholics believe. The Church is not a democracy. Intrinsic evil is evil – and the Church will not be forced to enable it.

    By the same token, affordable health care (as nice as that sounds) has not been addressed by the Affordable Healthcare Act. Rearranging how healthcare is paid for doesn’t magically make it “more affordable.” The issues that dramatically increased the costs of healthcare remain – and not a word is mentioned regarding those issues in Affordable Healthcare.

    Christians are to be charitable. That said, it does not meet the definition of “charity” for me to take money from the man on his way to work to “give” to the man without a job. Charity is a condition of the heart, not a piece of legislation. As such, the Affordable Healthcare Act does not suffice as Catholic social teaching.

  8. David Philippart says:

    Best to look up Catholic social teaching on health care and then come back to the table: Cardinal DiNardo on behalf of the USCCB in 2010: “The bishops were clear in calling for health care reform as a moral imperative and urgent national priority. We called for reform that would make health coverage affordable for the poor and needy, moving our society substantially toward the goal of universal coverage. We were equally clear in stating that this must be done in accord with the dignity of each and every human person, showing full respect for the life, health and conscience of all. http://www.usccb.org/news/archived.cfm?releaseNumber=10-104 And just because something is intrinsically evil does not mean that Catholics must oppose it by outlawing it. There are other ways to oppose intrinsic evil. See Cathleen Kaveny’s article:
    http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=11166

  9. Trina Marie says:

    Great letter…I totally support this stand.

  10. joeM says:

    “Thirty parishoners does not a parish make.”

    No, they don’t–they actualy make a Church. Mathew 18:20

  11. Joe Bruns says:

    Thank you for crafting this letter. You speak for many of us.

  12. Beverly says:

    Mike Boyle: “Best to look up “intrinsic evil” and then come back to the table. It doesn’t matter what 57% or 60% of Catholics believe. The Church is not a democracy. Intrinsic evil is evil – and the Church will not be forced to enable it.”

    The Church isn’t being forced to enable anything. All churches and diosceses are EXEMPT from the mandate, always have been. The original fight was over whether or not groups such as Catholic Charities are religious employers or secular employers. The bishops said they’re part of the Church; the government said they’re not. (Things got really blurry when the Church itself claimed such groups are not, in fact, Church institutions during the sex abuse scandal.) The bishops have become prisoners of their own rhetoric.

  13. DR says:

    It is important to keep in mind the backgrounds of these activists. Personally, I know six of the signees to this letter, and while likable, they are all very well off financially, and very active in the Democratic Party. For example, Ivo Spalatin is a member of an organization that actively supports this list of candidates: http://livableworld.org/support/meet_candidates/ .

    Of course, as citizens, they all have the right to express their opinions, but no one should assume that they represent a high percentage of Catholics; instead, they are part of a group of wealthy liberals in DC who put political affiliation ahead of faith and charity.