While the long-term consequences of yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby are unclear, it was no victory for religious liberty as the concept has been understood for hundreds of years. Rather, the decision was another radical expansion of corporate power by the Roberts court, and a permission slip for CEOs to use religion as a pretext to refuse coverage of birth control.
The implications are vast. Even though the ruling applies specifically to “closely held” corporations rather than publicly traded ones, 90 percent of American businesses are classified as closely held.
These corporations don’t have souls. They are legal entities created by humankind, not living beings created in the image of God. Endowing these artificial institutions with the same religious freedom that you and I have is both theologically troubling and legally dangerous. While the ruling itself addressed only contraception coverage and explicitly was not applied to related issues such as vaccination coverage and LGBT discrimination, it could set a legal and cultural precedent for assertion of a corporation’s “religious” right to discriminate or to deny coverage of crucial healthcare services.
The Hobby Lobby decision is also a threat to the health of women workers, and a blow to pro-life and pro-choice Americans who share a common-ground commitment to reducing abortion. I’ve read well-reasoned analysis predicting that the ruling will not jeopardize access to contraception, but there is no guarantee of that outcome. In fact, shortly after the ruling was announced, a federal court of appeals granted an injunction against the contraception-coverage mandate for a television network. Keep in mind that the IUD contraception methods Hobby Lobby specifically objected to are the most effective means to prevent unintended pregnancy, have been shown to significantly reduce the abortion rate, and can be prohibitively expensive for working women. As unintended pregnancies increase, so do abortions.
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Ever notice that just before a Catholic bishop dives head first into roiling political waters he insists that he floats above the partisan fray? One of the latest wink-and-nod assurance comes from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who in recent years has made an election-year habit out of denouncing Democrats. In a wide-ranging interview with John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, the former Denver archbishop who essentially told Catholics during the 2004 election that voting for John Kerry was a sin, now has this to say less than two months before the polls open:
We’re speaking on the night Barack Obama is delivering his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Let me ask flat-out: Do you believe a Catholic in good faith can vote for Obama? I can only speak in terms of my own personal views. I certainly can’t vote for somebody who’s either pro-choice or pro-abortion. I’m not a Republican and I’m not a Democrat. I’m registered as an independent, because I don’t think the church should be identified with one party or another. As an individual and voter I have deep personal concerns about any party that supports changing the definition of marriage, supports abortion in all circumstances, wants to restrict the traditional understanding of religious freedom. Those kinds of issues cause me a great deal of uneasiness.
Let’s first acknowledge that when archbishops speak, especially with news outlets, they are never just offering their “personal” views. Archbishop Chaput is not any Joe Voter hit up by a reporter for a man-on-the street interview. His words and identity are inextricably linked to the institutional church he represents. Chaput goes on to give some handy political cover for Paul Ryan, a Catholic vice presidential candidate who is the architect of a GOP budget that draws 62 percent of its savings from slashing food stamps, nutrition programs for women and infants, and safety nets that protect the elderly. Ryan continues to justify his libertarian, trickle-down economic philosophy in specifically Catholic terms. This is a bit like McDonald’s trying to sell Big Macs as a weight loss option. It doesn’t pass the laugh test. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described Ryan’s radical budget proposal (tax breaks for the rich, increases in Pentagon spending and cuts to safety nets ) as failing to pass a “basic moral test.” Theologians and Catholic scholars have challenged Ryan to stop distorting Catholic social teaching. This doesn’t bother Chaput and a few other bishops who insist that the church can only speak with authority when it comes to the “non-negotiable” issues like abortion.
Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period. There’s just no doubt about it. That has to be a foundational concern of Catholics and of all Christians. But Jesus didn’t say the government has to take care of them, or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them. Those are prudential judgments. Anybody who would condemn someone because of their position on taxes is making a leap that I can’t make as a Catholic…You can’t say that somebody’s not Christian because they want to limit taxation. Again, I’m speaking only for myself, but I think that’s a legitimate position. It may not be the correct one, but it’s certainly a legitimate Catholic position; and to say that it’s somehow intrinsically evil like abortion doesn’t make any sense at all.
Mitt Romney’s campaign must love to see this convenient argument. If Republicans say the right things about opposing abortion church leaders will give you a free pass. Never mind the pesky details of economic policies that undermine human dignity and the sanctity of life by making it harder for struggling families to access health care and food. We’re a long way from the days when Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin championed a “consistent ethic of life” that framed respect for life not as a single-issue, but as a “seamless garment” that recognized myriad threats to human dignity. George Weigel and other prominent conservative Catholics are cheerleading the death of that era.
A new generation of Catholic bishops like Chaput have all kinds of detailed things to say about sexuality, marriage and abortion. When it comes to the real life implications of budgets and other economic policies not a few church leaders bow out with references to “prudential judgement.” Catholic bishops who were deep in the legislative weeds when it came to opposing the final health care reform law because of their technical legislative interpretations suddenly withdraw from economic debates with profound moral consequences or at trumpet Republican talking points about that evil Leviathan of government.
Chaput’s breezy reference to Jesus not telling us “government” has to take care of the poor or “that we have to pay taxes to take care of them” ignores several facts. Jesus didn’t tell us specifically how to handle many policy challenges a modern society faces. As Daniel Finn, a professor of theology and economics pointed out in his 2008 Commonweal essay, “Libertarian Heresy: The Fundamentalism of Free Market Theology,” Jesus didn’t talk about a lot of things – including free markets or democracy. “Catholic biblical scholarship and magisterial teaching have rejected the fundamentalism of “If the Bible doesn’t say it, it shouldn’t be done,” Finn wrote. Even more relevant to the particulars of Chaput’s “let them have charity” approach is the fact that churches, faith-based agencies and other charities are already strained to the breaking point. When the free market has little interest in anything but being profitable and social service agencies are barely able to meet existing demand, I’m curious to know who Archbishop Chaput thinks is going to pick up the slack? David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, said it well a few months ago:
Some representatives even argued that feeding hungry people is really the work of churches, not government. But churches can’t be solely responsible for feeding poor women, children, seniors and disabled people. We also need strong government programs. In fact, all of the food churches and charities provide to hungry and poor people in the United States amounts to only about 6 percent of what the federal government spends on programs such as SNAP and school meals for students. The Hartford Institute for Religion and Research estimates there are 335,000 religious congregations in the United States. If the House’s proposals to cut SNAP by $133.5 billion and $36 billion are enacted, each congregation will have to spend about $50,000 more annually to feed those who would see a reduction or loss of benefits. Some congressional leaders are essentially saying that every church in America — big or tiny — needs to come up with an extra $50,000 to feed people every year for the next 10 years to make up for these cuts.
It’s also worth noting that as much as Chaput and some other bishops have a visceral dislike for government, the Catholic Church’s vital social service infrastructure would be a shadow of itself without government funding. A lengthy analysis of the Catholic Church’s finances in The Economist magazine estimated that 62 percent of Catholic charities’ $4.7 billion annual revenues comes from local, state, or federal government agencies. While Catholic bishops battle with President Obama over contraception funding, his administration has not exactly been miserly when it comes to the church. More than $1.5 billion in government funding went to Catholic organizations over the last few years. This includes an increase in USDA food assistance to Catholic Relief Services from $12.4 million in 2008 to 57.8 million in 2011. Catholic Charities USA saw an increase from just over $440 million in government aid in 2008 to more than $554 million in 2010. Let’s have a robust debate about the proper role of government, not a cartoonish battle that pits “big government” v. “free markets.”
When it comes to Catholic voters and a candidate’s position on abortion things are also more complicated than Chaput’s approach suggests. Read Cathleen Kaveny’s excellent piece, “The Single Issue Trap,” in Commonweal. I agree that the Democratic Party should be more open to “pro-life” voices (as many Catholic Democrats argued persuasively at the Democratic National Convention). Some Democrats like Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Rep. Tim Ryan have shown real leadership in pushing abortion reduction legislation that focuses on preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting pregnant women. More of these efforts are needed. Democrats running for office (or those working to hold on to seats) are frequently fearful of having fundraising spigots turned off by pro-choice lobbying organizations if they stray too far from the party’s ideological orthodoxy.
At the same time, Republican pro-life rhetoric is rarely matched by public policy decisions that help women and families. Many Republicans limit their pro-life advocacy to railing against Roe v. Wade while ignoring the fact that even if it was overturned many states would not criminalize abortion. This means that building a “culture of life,” as Pope John Paul II argued, must go deeper than a legalistic approach and include robust social and economic supports for pregnant women and vulnerable families. When it comes to policies like universal health care that can actually help reduce the abortion rate, most Republicans these days punt and fall back on free-market bromides and a libertarian philosophy of radical individualism. Consider that abortion rates in Massachusetts have gone down since the state implemented health care reform in 2006, an awkward fact for Republicans since Obamacare is based largely on the Massachusetts model that one former governor now vying for president can’t run away from fast enough.
Archbishop Chaput and other bishops have an obligation to raise moral questions in a political context, but they erode the church’s credibility in the public square when they reduce Catholic teaching to a single issue and give political cover to a Republican Party that is out of sync with Catholic teaching on many issues.
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This week, over 18,000 Faithful America members signed a petition asking USCCB President Cardinal Timothy Dolan to turn down an invitation to appear at the Values Voters Summit — the annual gathering of Religious Right figures and right-wing politicians. The signees were particularly concerned that in this election year, Dolan’s appearance would amount to an implicit endorsement of Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan at what essentially will be a Republican campaign event.
Today, the Archdiocese of New York confirmed to Bold Faith Type that Cardinal Dolan will not be attending the Summit. Archdiocese spokesman Joe Zwilling said the Cardinal’s office did not even receive an invitation as far as they could tell, but that His Eminence would not be going either way.
Unfortunately, Dolan appears to be turning down a pseudo-partisan electoral event for the real thing, agreeing to give the closing Benediction just after Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention next week.
Dolan’s office is attempting to qualify his appearance as “not an endorsement” but simply a “priest at prayer.” Unfortunately, at a time when the Cardinal has presided over a highly-politicized national campaign against the current administration, called VP candidate Paul Ryan a “great public servant” who he is “anxious to see…in action,” and walked back his own conference’s criticism of the Catholic congressman’s draconian budget plan, Dolan doesn’t need an official endorsement to send a loud and clear message.
This hyper-partisanship represents a real split from the recent approach of the Catholic Church in America, which has taken pains to stay above party politics. Past leaders have recognized that Catholics fall across the entire political spectrum and direct engagement with electoral efforts of any one party runs the risk of alienating millions of adherents who identify with the other.
Dolan’s decision to do exactly that, at a time when Americans and Catholics are more deeply politically polarized than ever, exemplifies just how far the American bishops have gone in uniting church hierarchy with Republican politics.
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As the US Catholic bishops launch their “Fortnight for Freedom” to protest the HHS contraception regulation, dioceses around the country are holding various events to join the campaign. One of the most enthusiastic dioceses is Oklahoma City, which held a rally at the city’s downtown convention center today organized by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and a group of lay Catholics called St. Peter’s Fellowship.
National Catholic leaders insist the Fortnight is a prayerful, educational event, but St. Peter’s Fellowship didn’t get the memo. Their website advertising the campaign features hyperbolic language about martyrdom and a photograph of a Catholic priest being shot and killed by Mexican soldiers in the 1920s:
This same picture was the center of a similar controversy earlier this month when The Daily Advertiser, a Gannett-owned Lousiana paper, ran it in an advertisement from a far-right group comparing the Obama administration’s activities to the execution.
This kind of imagery echoes other extreme rhetoric being used by some Catholic leaders around this campaign, including the Bishop of Peoria comparing the Obama administration to Hitler and Stalin and the Bishop of Oakland warning of a descent to “despotism.”
St. Peter’s Fellowship says they’re operating with the blessing of Oklahoma City Archbishop Coakley. If the Archbishop doesn’t want to be seen as co-opted by right-wing extremists, he would be wise to exercise some more oversight with whom he partners.
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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.
Greg Metzger draws out the real trouble with these responses:
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?
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