Two weeks ago, the Ethics and Public Policy Center held a conference on religious freedom here in Washington. Though billed as a non-partisan event, the conference featured a who’s who of right-wing political groups and GOP politicians, as well as a Catholic bishop whose remarks undermined the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) claim that their ongoing confrontation with the Obama administration is a nonpartisan dispute about religious liberty rather than a politicized fight about birth control coverage.
Speaking on a panel titled Uniting to Preserve Robust Freedoms, Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland referenced an 1886 speech by Cardinal James Gibbons describing the U.S. as having “liberty without license, authority without despotism.” Reflecting specifically on debates about discrimination against LGBT people for religious reasons, Bishop Cordileone worried aloud that America is moving away from these qualities.
BP. CORDILEONE: My own experience, I sort of backed into this religious liberty debate by my involvement with her Siamese twin–the definition of marriage in the law. And I got swept up in that, not exclusively, but in large degree because I was enlightened by Dr. [Robert] George and other people of his kind as to the erosion of the rights of religious institutions to serve the broader community in accord with their moral principles precisely because of this issue. As well, the rights of individuals to have their freedom of conscience respected.
When I saw what was happening my eyes were opened, it made me fear that we could be starting to move in the direction of license and despotism.”
Bishop Cordileone’s melodramatic comments come on the heels of similar rhetoric by his fellow Bishop Daniel Jenky, who earlier this year said President Obama “seems intent on following the same path” as Hitler and Stalin. Jenky’s comments elicited widespread outrage, but he refused to apologize.
Later in the question-and-answer session, Bishop Cordileone further explained the frame through which he approaches the religious liberty debate:
BP. CORDILEONE: I want to refer to what one of the questioners this morning pointed out…when he mentioned the two commonalities in all of this legislation, the first one that he mentioned was that they all have to do with sexual ethics, basically, advocating sexual license. And that I think is a common thread in all of these three foundational issues of life, marriage and religious liberty. So really the division, I think, gets down to what is the purpose of our sexual difference and the purpose of sex which gets into what is the purpose of marriage.
GEORGE: So the fat was in the fire with the sexual revolution, to divide the culture…
Bishop Cordileone’s admission that he sees religious liberty as the third spoke of the culture war fight against the sexual revolution of the 1960s puts him far off message from the USCCB’s insistence that their campaign against the HHS contraception coverage mandate has nothing to do with sex, women or contraception.
Not to mention, he glaringly excludes two major non-sex-related religious liberty issues: anti-immigrant laws in places like Alabama (which the USCCB deliberately highlighted in a recent statement) and the growing opposition to Muslim communities’ right to build houses of worship — arguably the most flagrant religious liberty violation in America today.
Both of these quotes sound more like right-wing talking points than the measured, pastoral guidance one would expect of a Catholic bishop. This kind of toxic rhetoric that gives the appearance of partisanship in the middle of an election year is exactly what many in the Catholic church, including a prominent bishop, are concerned about. The Bishops would do well to distance themselves from it.
The organization, which represents the majority of Catholic sisters in the United States, warned that Vatican sanctions handed down last month were “disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission.”
The national board of LCWR acknowledged the groundswell of support Catholic sisters have received across the country and expressed concern that the sanctions “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization.”
This is a bold response that shows Catholic sisters are not backing down from their social justice mission and remain courageous leaders even in the face of Vatican pressure. It’s inspiring to see heroes of the Catholic Church who live out Gospel values by caring for the sick and feeding the hungry affirm their vital mission.
Catholic sisters have no reason to apologize, cower in fear or backpedal. At a time when some Catholic bishops are busy fighting the Girl Scouts and comparing the Obama administration to the days of Hitler and Stalin, Catholic sisters embody what’s best about a global church where power politics are always in tension with example of Christ.
It’s not every day (or decade for that matter) the pastor of a Catholic church is willing to stick his neck out and take on the powers that be in his own Church. But the recent Vatican crackdownon Catholic nuns has landed with a thud on the conscience of many faithful Catholics and inspired righteous indignation in unlikely spots.
Writing in the parish bulletin of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Cleveland under the simple headline “From the Desk of Fr. Doug,” the pastor unleashes a thunderous defense of Catholic sisters and a withering critique of Vatican power. A parish bulletin has rarely crackled with such scorching prose. Read the whole thing here. I’ve pulled some paragraphs that jump off the page and grab you by the hair.
The Vatican sounded like the Pharisees of the New Testament;—legalistic, paternalistic and orthodox— while “the good sisters” were the ones who were feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, educating the immigrant, and so on. Nuns also learned that Catholics are intuitively smart about their faith. They prefer dialogue over diatribe, freedom of thought over mind control, biblical study over fundamentalism, development of doctrine over isolated mandates.
Far from being radical feminists or supporters of far-out ideas, religious women realized that the philosophical underpinnings of Catholic teaching are no longer valid. Women are not subservient to men, the natural law is much broader than once thought, the OT is not as important as the NT, love is more powerful than fear. They realized that you can have a conversation with someone on your campus who thinks differently than the church without compromising what the church teaches.
The Vatican is hypocritical and duplicitous. Their belief is always that someone else needs to clean up their act; the divorced, the gays, the media, the US nuns, the Americans who were using the wrong words to pray, the seminaries, etc. It never occurs to the powers that be that the source of the problem is the structure itself.
US nuns work side by side with the person on the street. They are involved in their everyday lives. Most cardinals spent less than five years in a parish, were never pastors, are frequently career diplomats. Religious women in the US refuse to be controlled by abusive authority that seeks to control out of fear. They realize that Jesus taught no doctrines, but that the church, over time, developed what Jesus taught in a systematic way.
This investigation is not about wayward US nuns. It is the last gasp for control by a dying breed, wrapped in its own self-importance. It is a struggle for the very nature of the church; who we are, how we pray, where we live, who belongs, why we believe. The early church endured a similar struggle. The old order died. The Holy Spirit won.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is meeting this week to discuss how they will respond to the Vatican’s move. Catholic sisters are true heroes of our church and need little inspiration to firm up their already steely convictions, but they clearly don’t stand alone.
In a move that escalated the political controversy about contraception and religious liberty, 44 Catholic bishops and colleges filed lawsuits last week challenging the requirement that health insurance plans cover birth control without a copayment.
But it’s also notable that relatively few leaders participated – only 13 of America’s 195 Catholic dioceses joined the suits. And in a move that was little noticed outside religious media, a prominent bishop expressed concern that the entire debate is being co-opted by right-wing groups bent on attacking President Obama.
That might sound like inside baseball, but it’s a clear sign of significant internal fissures over the Catholic bishops’ increasingly politicized confrontation against the Obama administration. As Republican politicians accuse the president of waging war on religious freedom and extremist religious leaders compare the administration to totalitarian dictatorships, a warning against partisanship is welcome news.
Amid all the hyperbolic claims about supposedly grave threats to religious liberty, it’s worth taking another look at the facts of the contraception coverage debate.
Last year the independent Institute of Medicine reviewed medical research and public comments about which health care services should be classified as essential preventive services to be covered without a copayment in health insurance plans. Contraception was identified as one of these services. This was an evidence-based health policy decision, not an ideological attack on religious liberty.
Recognizing that some religions consider contraception wrong, the Department of Health and Human Services carved out an exemption to this requirement for religious institutions. After many moderate faith leaders criticized the exemption as too narrow, the Obama administration offered a further accommodation ensuring that institutions such as religious schools, charities, social service providers and hospitals won’t be required to pay for contraception coverage for their employees. Final versions of these regulations are being formulated right now. Unfortunately, many of the loudest voices in this debate either pretend this accommodation was never offered or inaccurately dismiss it as an “accounting gimmick.”
This controversy isn’t going away, and it’s not just a Catholic issue. Some evangelical leaders have suggested that they will join the Catholic bishops’ upcoming “fortnight for freedom” campaign to mobilize Christians nationwide to stand against alleged threats to religious liberty. I hope moderate voices who prefer dialogue and good-faith negotiation over litigation and inflammatory rhetoric become more influential. The debate we’re having now is rooted more in politics than it is in reality.
In a statement objecting to a perceived lack of coverage of the recent Catholic lawsuits against the Department of Health and Human Service’s contraception regulations, Catholic priest Jonathan Morris characterized the HHS policy requiring employers to include contraception services in their health care plans as a “rape” of the First Amendment:
Any national media outlet that fails to report the obvious raping of our First Amendment rights by this Health and Human Service mandate, is trumpeting either woeful incompetence or shameless bias. The Catholic Church didn’t pick this fight, but it knew that if it didn’t fight back now, every religion would eventually lose, and America would be fundamentally redefined.
Morris is the Program Director of The Catholic Channel on Sirius XM radio and a Fox News analyst who regularly appears on programs like Fox & Friends and The O’Reilly Factor. The statement was included in a list of comments by conservative figures in a press release from the right-wing Media Research Center.
Not only is Morris’s rape analogy a grossly misleading characterization of a complicated policy debate, it’s a shockingly insensitive insult to the millions of people who have been victims of horrific sexual violence.
As the response to Rep. Clyburn’s use of this same language to describe Bain capital earlier this week has reinforced, this kind of extremism has no place in our political dialogue. That’s especially true when it comes from a member of the clergy, and Fr. Morris should immediately issue a retraction and an apology.
Catholic bishops are already concerned about their efforts on this issue being associated with extreme rhetoric. USCCB President and supervising bishop of Fr. Morris, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, would do well to weigh in here to make clear that this language has no place in the Church’s campaign.