Last week we highlighted a question from Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz at the Catholic Bishops’ General Assembly in Atlanta repeating a right-wing smear that the Affordable Care Act contains a broad exemption for Muslims.
But just as shocking as the question itself was the response — or rather, non-response — he got from the session speakers, Baltimore Bishop William Lori and Catholic University of America President John Garvey. Lori joked that Bruskewitz “must have got a lot further in that act than I did” and Garvey said they should consult the lawyers.
Here are the two men at the forefront of the bishops’ efforts to convey competence and compassion to the Catholic community and the broader public. They regularly trumpet the notion that the bishops’ efforts are for the common good of all Americans. And yet in the face of a question advancing the supposition that an entire religious group is receiving the exemptions the Catholic community is supposedly being denied, they have nothing more to say than “we don’t know”? This is beyond absurd, it is scandalous. Bishop Lori–you really don’t know if the document you have spent the better part of the last 18 months criticizing does or does not allow for an entire religious group to exempt itself from its reach? Then why should we trust your judgments about the President’s actions on religious freedom? Why should we trust your stated commitment to represent religious freedom for all, when you are ignorant of even the most basic facts related to a major religious group and its standing before the very law that you have made your reputation upon criticizing?
Thankfully, as Mollie Wilson O’Reilly notes at dotCommonweal, Bishop Pates set the record straight with the answer to the question before his remarks in the next session.
As O’Reilly also notes, however, there’s a further question that needs to be asked. Given that the Bishops’ professed standard is that any entity that objects to federal mandates on moral grounds should be exempt, why would a Muslim exemption be objectionable?:
A straightforward answer to Bruskewitz’s question might force the bishops into an uncomfortable position. After all, based on their reasoning about the HHS contraception mandate, if Muslims did object on moral and religious grounds to buying health insurance, shouldn’t they be allowed to refuse? Wouldn’t that make this an unjust law, and therefore no law at all, where they are concerned?
This Wednesday, as the U.S. Catholic Bishops met in Atlanta for their General Assembly, representatives from the Nuns Justice project delivered a petition in support of the American women religious who are facing a crackdown from the Vatican.
Yesterday, the U.S. Catholic Bishops began their summer general assembly which prominently featured a long afternoon session on religious liberty. Following presentations from Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty Chair Bishop William Lori and Catholic University of America President John Garvey, the floor was opened for questions and comments from fellow bishops.
One of the bishops who took the mic was Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska. Prefacing his question with the caveat that he hasn’t actually read the Affordable Care Act, he asked about a rumor he had heard:
I haven’t had a chance to read the Obamacare Protection Act, but somebody told me that there’s a total exemption for Muslims in the back of that act, that all Muslims are exempt because insurance for Muslims is a type of gambling which is contrary to the Koran and therefore Muslims are not obliged in any way to observe the insurance mandate which derives from the act. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, I just want to know if any of you know anything about it.
The allegation that the Obama administration is giving broad exemptions to Muslim Americans is a self-evidently ridiculous right-wing myth meant to further shameful smears of the President as un-Christian and un-American.
It’s shocking to think that Bishop Bruskewitz not only believed there was a chance this smear was true, but also that he was willing to repeat it in a publicly-broadcast forum. When concerned Catholics warn of the dangerous influence of Republican politics among Church leadership lately, this kind of revelation only bolsters their point.
U.S. Catholic has an interview with Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America about Catholicism in politics, economic justice, and helping the poor:
Why is poverty an issue Catholics should be concerned about?
I’ve been blessed with a real perspective on the level of need in America, with the poverty that’s out there. I actually know people who are poor. I know how they’re struggling and how they’re looking for work. I know how they’re embarrassed to go on public assistance or embarrassed to be at a grocery store paying for their kids’ Rice Krispies with food stamps.
I challenge people to think about their neighbors, their friends, and the people down the block who are truly down and out, who require some help to put food on the table for their kids. I challenge any Catholic to honestly be able to say we should cut food stamps and use that money to reduce taxation when looking for a solution to a real person’s problems.
When you see people who are struggling in the context of their daily lives, trying to make ends meet, trying to find a way to get out of that situation, then I think you realize that these safety nets are fundamentally important.
Someone recently described Catholic sisters as having “a spine of steel and a compassionate heart.” I can think of no better description for women who selflessly dedicate their lives to the most vulnerable while confronting injustice.
Embroiled in a tense dispute with the Vatican and U.S. bishops over promoting “radical feminist themes,” the sisters are not backing down. On the contrary, they are launching a nationwide bus tour to assert their Gospel-driven mission by standing up for the poor and speaking out against Rep. Paul Ryan’s reckless budget proposal. Traveling to social service agencies, soup kitchens, and health clinics run by Catholic sisters, the bus tour will highlight nuns’ contributions to the common good and call for a more faithful budget proposal.
The Bishops Agree
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agrees with the sisters’ message of economic justice. They have repeatedly warned Congress not to slash food stamps, social services block grants, the child tax credit and other vital programs targeted in the House Republican budget. In their guidance to lawmakers, bishops have stated: “The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.” Rep. Ryan has dismissed these concerns and continues to insist that a disproportionate share of cuts must come from programs that serve lower-income Americans even as the wealthy are coddled with more tax breaks.
Will the Bishops Get on Board?
Part of the Catholic sisters’ strategy, then, is to encourage the bishops to use their megaphone and the bus tour opportunity to speak out more boldly against the Ryan budget. They plan to invite bishops whose dioceses they pass through to join them at events. But given that the bishops are dedicating enormous resources during that same time towards their “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign to protest the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, that plea may fall on deaf ears. In fact, the bishops’ overheated rhetoric has caused many to ask whether that campaign is just a thinly veiled partisan effort in an election year. It’s even causing some backlash among Catholics in the pews.
As the political courtship of Catholic voters heats up in this contentious election year, Catholic sisters are remaining true to their mission and elevating our values debate. I’m grateful for their courage and persistence.