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The Catholic Bishops and Religious Liberty: The Big Picture

November 23, 2011, 10:10 am | Posted by John Gehring

james carroll.pngBoston 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.

Photo: James Carroll

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