Next Pope has Opportunity to Make Dialogue Sign of “Healthy, Flourishing Faith”

February 19, 2013, 5:54 pm | Posted by

John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, argued in yesterday’s USA Todaycatholic church that while the next pope may not radically change the Catholic Church, he will have an opportunity to actively encourage healthy dialogue in the pews:

Gehring writes:

The next pope, whether cheered by conservative Catholics or eyed warily by liberals in the flock, will not abruptly end the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage, the all-male priesthood and contraception even as many practicing Catholics and some clergy find these teachings flawed.

But a new pope — and no church rule requires the Vicar of Christ to be a cardinal or bishop — could send a powerful message by claiming less infallibility and listening more to ordinary Catholics, overburdened pastors and tireless nuns who live out the Gospel from blighted neighborhoods in Cincinnati to remote villages in Kenya. Instead of silencing theologians and stifling debate, a new pope could let it be known that discernment and discussion are signs of a healthy, flourishing faith.

Read the whole op-ed here.

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Obama Administration Offers Religious Employers Broader Exemption on Contraception Coverage

February 1, 2013, 2:09 pm | Posted by

The announcement today from the Obama administration that it is granting a more robust accommodation for religious institutions who object to providing contraception coverage is a sensible move. The values of protecting women’s health and the conscience rights of religious employers should not be in conflict.

The provision that nearly all employers must provide contraceptive services under the federal health care reform law has sparked a long, messy fight between the Obama administration, Catholic bishops and some conservative evangelicals. This fight is far from over. A dozen separate legal challenges to the administration’s mandate are now winding through the courts. Because judges have reached different conclusions, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely make the final call.

The most significant news from today’s announcement is that the administration’s “four-part test” of what constitutes a “religious employer” — a major sticking point for Catholic universities, charities and hospitals — has been scrapped for a simpler IRS definition. Under the original proposal, employers could be exempt from the contraception mandate only if their purpose was to inculcate religious values, they primarily employed those who shared their religious tenets, primarily served those who shared their religious beliefs and were a nonprofit under federal tax law. The first three parts of that definition were a big problem for religiously affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals, universities and charities. For Catholics, medical institutions and charities are not tangential to a religious commitment, but central to putting faith into practice. Respected Catholic organizations like the Catholic Health Association, which supported the health care reform law and has distanced itself from the strident rhetoric of some bishops had been urging the administration to make this fix. At the same time, the administration’s proposals announced today, which are open to a 60-day public comment period, will still ensure women have access to contraception coverage without a co-pay. This is a victory for women’s health and the conscience rights of religious employers.

It will take time for various religious organizations to digest the details of today’s announcement, and tensions won’t disappear overnight. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, put out a brief initial statement saying bishops “welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely.”

Stay tuned.

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Pope Benedict XVI, Scourge of “Unregulated Capitalism”

January 4, 2013, 9:47 am | Posted by

If many progressives are disappointed that President Obama and most political leaders have not done more to reign in the corruption and greed of Wall Street titans who sparked a global financial crisis, they have an unlikely ally in a theologian who leads a global church of more than a billion souls.

While Pope Benedict XVI is viewed as a staunch conservative for his opposition to same-sex marriage and frequent pronouncements on sexual ethics, his powerful voice on economic justice issues too often gets short shrift. But it’s hard to ignore the pope’s recent blistering critique of what he describes as “unregulated financial capitalism.”  Pope Benedict, who has urged world leaders to pay more attention to the “scandal of glaring inequalities” between rich and poor nations, used his recent World Day of Peace message to challenge “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset” that gives rise to economic models based on “maximum profit and consumption.”

It’s unlikely that Catholic Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan or House Speaker John Boehner, free-market fundamentalists with a soft spot for Ayn Rand-libertarianism, will be passing out copies of the pope’s address in the halls of Congress. You can also bet many lawmakers from both parties, dependent on corporate campaign contributions from the financial services industry, paid scant attention to the Vatican’s call in 2011 for more robust financial regulation and a financial transaction tax.

But as we navigate the shoals of post-fiscal cliff Washington, with Republicans hankering for a fight on the debt ceiling and insisting on deeper spending cuts, political leaders could do worse than reflect on the Catholic justice tradition’s prudent balance between acknowledging a vital role for government while advocating for a market system that is tempered ­­ – and made more humane – by reasonable safeguards that serve the common good. In fact, Catholic social teaching on taxes, the role of government, the importance of unions, strong social safety nets and the need for robust regulation of global financial markets offers a progressive blueprint for building a moral economy.

The next time you hear a Catholic politician or a “pro-life” leader who argues for gutting financial regulations and slashing vital programs that protect children and the elderly so the wealthiest few can get more tax breaks, tell them to take it up with the pope.

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Common ground for bishops, Obama: Catholic leaders who opposed his election need to find ways to work with the president

November 12, 2012, 6:00 am | Posted by

More than a few Catholic bishops spent this election feverishly warning their flock that voting for Barack Obama put their souls at risk and posed a grave threat to religious liberty. Now that the president has been re-elected with a majority of Catholic voters, leaders of our nation’s most influential church have some self-reflection to do at their national meeting in Baltimore this week…

Catholic bishops have every right to oppose birth control and same-sex civil marriage, even as research shows a majority of Catholics support both, and a recent study in St. Louis found greater access to contraception significantly lowered abortion rates. The real challenge for bishops today is a growing perception that they are simply cheerleaders for the Republican Party. In fact, Catholic social teaching has long put economic justice, respect for immigrants, universal health care, environmental stewardship and labor rights at the center of its tradition. The Vatican’s call for sensible regulations of global financial markets and stark warnings about climate change are to the left of many Democratic leaders. Catholicism is not a single-issue religion, and the church’s “consistent ethic of life” framework has long recognized that being “pro-life” must include defending the sanctity of life outside the womb.

In recent years, a vocal minority of conservative bishops have drifted from this proud tradition. Bishops launched a “religious freedom” campaign this summer, led by Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, largely aimed at the Obama administration’s requirement that most employers must offer contraception coverage to women at no cost under the health care reform law. Catholic churches are exempt. Catholic hospitals and universities, which in some states already provided birth control coverage to their employees with little controversy, do not have to pay for coverage under an accommodation that requires the insurance company to pick up with tab. While reasonable people disagree over this policy, and details must still be worked out for some Catholic institutions that self-insure, the apocalyptic rhetoric of some church leaders suggests that President Obama is waging a war on the Catholic Church — a theme adopted in Mitt Romney’s campaign ads.

 

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2012 Election Analysis

November 7, 2012, 12:04 pm | Posted by

Analysis of religious voters in last night’s elections presents a complex picture of the role of faith in politics in 2012. Below are key findings from national exit polls and exit polls in key states, followed by religious context affecting the election.

Catholic voters

President Obama won the Catholic vote by a 2-point margin,  50%-48%. This victory lags behind his 54%-45% advantage among Catholics in 2008 but precisely mirrors the president’s overall 2012 margin of victory. Mitt Romney won white Catholics by a 19-point margin, 59%-40%, an improvement on John McCain’s 52%-47% advantage in 2008. Those who attend religious services weekly or more often favored Romney by a 15-point margin, 57%-42%. Those who attend less often favored President Obama 56%-42%, nearly identical to his 57%-42% advantage among these voters in 2008. Twenty-five percent of 2012 voters were Catholics, and 27% of voters in 2008 were Catholics. Catholics have sided with the winner of the popular vote in every presidential election since 1972.

White evangelicals

Nationwide, white evangelical voters favored Romney by a 57-point margin, 78%-21%, a 4-point improvement upon John McCain’s 74%-24% advantage in 2008. However, this change mirrors President Obama’s decreased support among white voters overall.

White evangelical voters comprised 26% of the electorate this year, an identical share to 2008 despite a massive, well-publicized effort by Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition to turn out conservative evangelicals in record numbers.

Swing states

OHIO — In the most heavily contested state, President Obama improved upon his 2008 performance among white evangelicals. In 2008, white evangelicals favored John McCain by a 71%-27% margin. Last night they favored Romney by a smaller margin, 70%-29%. These results are particularly noteworthy because Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition focused heavily on Ohio. Reed did not deliver the results he predicted in the most crucial state for Republicans. Thirty-one percent of Ohio voters this year were white evangelicals, as compared with 30% in 2008. In 2008, the President lost Ohio Catholics, 52%-47%. This year, he lost them by a 54%-44% margin.

COLORADO — Colorado white evangelicals’ candidate preferences (77% for Romney, 22% for President Obama) aligned closely with white evangelicals nationwide, a small change from McCain’s 76%-23% advantage and less of a swing than the white vote overall. White evangelicals made up 25 percent of the state’s electorate in 2012, compared to 21 percent in 2008.

VIRGINIA — White evangelicals favored Mitt Romney over President Obama by a margin of 82% to 18%, compared to John McCain’ 79%-20% advantage in 2008. White evangelicals comprised a declining share of the state’s electorate, decreasing from 28% in 2008 to 23% in 2012.

Social issues

Last night three states passed ballot initiatives in favor of same-sex marriage, and a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage was defeated in Minnesota. Religious crosstabs are not yet available. Support for same-sex marriage has increased among every religious demographic in recent years, but before last night opponents had won all 32 state-level ballot question on the issue. Supporters of marriage for same-sex couples conducted extensive outreach and messaging to the faith community, and religious opponents also invested heavily into these campaigns.

Ballot initiatives

In Florida and California, faith-based community organizing groups mounted victorious campaigns against anti-tax ballot initiatives. PICO National network affiliates helped advance sound fiscal policies that reject austerity and ask the wealthy to pay their fair share. In Florida, voters resoundingly rejected by a 58% to 42% margin Question 3, a constitutional amendment that would have decimated public education and social services in the state. And in California by a 54% to 46% margin, voters approved Prop 30, which will raise an estimated $6 billion in revenue for schools and social services in the state through a tax increase on people earning over $250,000 and a small temporary increase in the sales tax. The clergy and congregations of PICO organizations played key roles in these fights, contacting over 1.6 million voters.

Context

With unemployment hovering near 8%, the political environment was much more challenging for President Obama than in 2008. While his share of key religious demographics declined, his overall margin of victory was also smaller. He also faced highly organized conservative religious opposition.

The battle for the Catholic vote was particularly fierce, and the slim margin of victory Obama achieved with Catholics reflect that sharp division. “A diverse coalition of social justice Catholics, especially Latinos, helped tip the scales this year,” said John Gehring, Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life. “While bishops doubled down against same sex marriage and demonized President Obama as an enemy of religious liberty, they were clearly out of touch with many Catholics. If the GOP has some reflecting to do about its inability to reach an increasingly multicultural country, Catholic leaders could benefit from similar soul searching when it comes to their own diverse flock.”

U.S. Catholic bishops mounted a highly politicized confrontation with the Obama administration over contraception coverage and religious liberty. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched a nationwide, two-week “religious freedom” campaign over the summer that made national headlines as part of their fight against the Obama administration’s contraception coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act. In Kansas, the state’s Catholic bishops sponsored a rally at the state capitol that featured Republican Governor Sam Brownback. Shortly before the election, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, IL, and Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, IL, issued statements implying that voting for Democrats put Catholics’ salvation at risk.

However, other Catholic leaders declined to take part in the bishops’ offensive and mobilized around economic issues. Catholic nuns responded strongly to Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s erroneous claim that his federal budget plan — which includes steep cuts to programs for the poor such as Medicaid and food stamps, as well as tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans — was consistent with Catholic social teaching.

NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice group led by Sister Simone Campbell, organized “Nuns on the Bus”, a nine-state tour through Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states highlighting the work of Catholic-sponsored social service agencies that serve those on the economic margins and stand to be harmed by Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal.

With tremendous grassroots support and media attention across America (and additional tours in the following months through Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, Virginia, New York and Michigan), “Nuns on the Bus” successfully reaffirmed the unique contribution of women religious to America’s social fabric and refocused the public debate on the critical moral choices facing voters in November’s presidential election and beyond. These efforts highlighted the religious aspect of the economic and fiscal debates that dominated the Presidential campaigns.

On the Religious Right, Ralph Reed boasted that his Faith and Freedom Coalition would register and turn out record numbers of socially conservative Christians on election, turning the tide for Mitt Romney. While his efforts received copious media attention, evidence of results are lacking. White evangelicals’ share of the electorate was identical to 2008, and their movement toward Romney mirrored that of white voters as a whole.

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