EXCLUSIVE: Lay Catholics Buck Bishops’ Overreach on Religious Liberty Campaign

June 8, 2012, 2:00 pm | Posted by

Shrine of the Blessed SacramentA group of Catholics in the nation’s capital has released a letter speaking out against the Bishops’ recent escalation of their fight against the HHS contraception ruling.

The authors, a longstanding community of parishioners at The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, an influential Washington church, specifically identify the lawsuits by 13 Catholic dioceses (including their own Archdiocese) and the extreme rhetoric that has been used to describe genuine policy disagreements on this issue.

In the letter, the parishioners express concern that they are “in danger of becoming pawns” in a political feud and lament the enormous church resources being dedicated to this issue “in this time of worldwide economic distress and suffering”:

We are deeply concerned that, under cover of a campaign for religious liberty, the provision of universal health care–a priority of Catholic social teaching from the early years of the last century–is being turned into a wedge issue in a highly-charged political environment and that our parish, and indeed the wider church, is in danger of being rent asunder by partisan politics. We, as a group, may have differing views as to the wisdom of the details of the Health and Human Services mandate, against which our archdiocese has now announced a lawsuit in federal court, but we are united in our concern that the bishops’ alarmist call to defend religious freedom has had the effect of shutting down discussion.

It is a step too far. We, the faithful, are in danger of becoming pawns and collateral damage in a standoff between our church and our government.

While HHS may have been tone-deaf and stubborn in its handling of the mandate, we believe that the points of disagreement have been grossly overstated by the bishops.  In no way do we feel that our religious freedom is at risk. We find it grotesque to have the call for this “Fortnight” evoke the names of holy martyrs who died resisting tyranny. And we are concerned that the extremist rhetoric used to describe the “threat to our freedoms” both undermines the credibility of our church and insults those in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who are truly suffering for their faith.

Furthermore, we find it incomprehensible that, in this time of worldwide economic distress and suffering, and with the church still reeling from the child abuse scandal, our bishops have chosen to focus the spiritual and material resources of our church on this issue, at the expense of the gospel injunction that we serve the poor and attend to the needs of the “least of these”.

The letter echoes the critique made by Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California who recently publicly challenged the tactical wisdom of the lawsuits and warned of right-wing groups trying to co-opt the bishops’ efforts for partisan ends.

It also reflects the feelings of Catholics across the country, 57% of whom do not believe religious liberty is threatened in America today and about 60% of whom believe religiously affiliated social-service agencies, colleges, hospitals, and privately owned small businesses should be required to provide health care plans that cover contraception.

Add in the Vatican’s controversial campaign to reform American women religious and renewed attention to top bishops’ handling of the sexual abuse crisis, and it’s clear that Catholic leaders who ignore the concerns raised in this letter risk creating serious division among faithful Catholics in the pews.

UPDATE: The group now has a website: http://www.familiesunitedinfaith.blogspot.com/

Read the full letter below:

Religious Liberty, Health Care, and the Catholic Faithful

We are a group of thirty parishioners at The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, DC. Our group, formed into a small faith community in the 1960s, has been active in and deeply committed to our parish for all the intervening years. Blessed Sacrament is our parish community, and we have loved and served it to the best of our abilities. We have helped to build and strengthen its institutions, participated in every aspect of its spiritual and social life, seen our children educated in our parish school, and received the sacraments in our church. Our views and actions on issues of social and economic justice, war and peace, and the dignity of all peoples have been in great measure determined by our life in this faith community.

Situated in Washington, our parish community is a complex one, reflecting and bringing together the political diversity of the nation’s capital, with leaders in government and media joining each Sunday in prayer. We have been through trying times together–war, civil strife, scandals in the church, terrorist attacks on our nation, contested elections, and controversial legislation–but we have remained a community, with our parish serving as our refuge. For all of us, whatever our political philosophy, our church has been a welcoming home.

This, we fear, may be changing.

On two recent consecutive Sundays, our parish bulletin has included rather alarming inserts from the Archdiocese speaking of a grave threat to religious freedom in America. The first of these was entitled “Our First, Most Cherished Freedom,” while the second closed with the dire warning that Catholics must “Act on Your Beliefs While You Still Can.” All of this, we understand, is part of a buildup to mobilize Catholics to participate in the “Fortnight for Freedom”–a two-week long demonstration planned by the bishops chiefly as a protest against the Affordable Care Act.

We are deeply concerned that, under cover of a campaign for religious liberty, the provision of universal health care–a priority of Catholic social teaching from the early years of the last century–is being turned into a wedge issue in a highly-charged political environment and that our parish, and indeed the wider church, is in danger of being rent asunder by partisan politics. We, as a group, may have differing views as to the wisdom of the details of the Health and Human Services mandate, against which our archdiocese has now announced a lawsuit in federal court, but we are united in our concern that the bishops’ alarmist call to defend religious freedom has had the effect of shutting down discussion.

It is a step too far. We, the faithful, are in danger of becoming pawns and collateral damage in a standoff between our church and our government.

While HHS may have been tone-deaf and stubborn in its handling of the mandate, we believe that the points of disagreement have been grossly overstated by the bishops.  In no way do we feel that our religious freedom is at risk. We find it grotesque to have the call for this “Fortnight” evoke the names of holy martyrs who died resisting tyranny. And we are concerned that the extremist rhetoric used to describe the “threat to our freedoms” both undermines the credibility of our church and insults those in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who are truly suffering for their faith.

Furthermore, we find it incomprehensible that, in this time of worldwide economic distress and suffering, and with the church still reeling from the child abuse scandal, our bishops have chosen to focus the spiritual and material resources of our church on this issue, at the expense of the gospel injunction that we serve the poor and attend to the needs of the “least of these”.

And finally, to return to the subject of our own parish, we are anguished by the threat of its being drawn into the vortex of partisanship. This destructive process has already begun.

One of our group recounts being disturbed and deeply hurt by an incident that occurred recently at a parish-sponsored lecture featuring a diocesan official speaking about the health care controversy.  The lecture itself contained references to what was repeatedly referred to as “Obamacare”–a term that elicited more heat than light. During the question-and-answer period the atmosphere became even more charged, until finally one person arose and spat out: “I have seen cars in our parish parking lot with Obama stickers on them. They are complicitous in all this.”  Since the member of our group had such a sticker on her car, she felt unwelcome and left the event before it ended.

This is what we fear: that our church becomes tragically reduced to a partisan player in an election-year campaign and that our parish community becomes a battleground and no longer a source of spiritual strength.

Given our opposition to the misguided and costly “Fortnight for Freedom we are heartened by recent reports that the bishops are not in full unity on the question of how to respond to the Affordable Care Act and that at least some of them may be disposed to reconsider the overwrought statements that have been made concerning threats to our religious liberties.

And so we pray that our bishops, the clergy, and Catholic laypeople in our parish and across the land will join hands to pull us all back from the brink before it is too late. We pray also that we can come together as a community of faithful, and as a country, with renewed resolve to address the broad range of critical social, political, and economic issues affecting our nation and the world.

Our Group:

Marie and Paul Barry; Tony and Judy Carroll; Joy and Jerry Choppin; James and Jean Connell; Christa and Richard Cross; Larry Carter and Odelia Funke; Kathleen and Richard  Hage; Timothy and Marilyn Hanlon; Ann and Ray Hannapel; James and Elizabeth Kane; Anne Kilcullen; Marion and John McCartney; John and Betty O’Connor; Ivo and Patricia Spalatin; Eileen and James Zogby

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Robert George Condemns Anti-Muslim Bigotry While Funding It

June 7, 2012, 2:47 pm | Posted by

A long-simmering conflict between two conservative religious liberty organizations has come to a head, with board members of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty recently releasing a statement publicly condemning a staff member of the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC) for a tweet disparaging the Muslim faith as a threat to “destroy the US” and not a religion.

The release comes after a private letter to TMLC President Richard Thompson in March went unanswered. It’s authored by board members Bill Mumma, Mary Ann Glendon and Robert George. Said George:

If the Thomas More Law Center professes itself to be a defender of religious liberty, let it follow the lead of the Becket Fund in standing up for the rights of all. Religious freedom organizations should be leading the fight against religious bigotry; they should not be practicing it against our Muslim fellow citizens or anyone else.

While the other authors deserve credit for speaking out against this hateful bigotry, it raises larger questions about Dr. George in particular. Namely, if he opposes these kinds of views so strongly, why does he continue to associate with a group that funnels millions of dollars to extremists that hold them?

As I’ve highlighted before, Professor George sits on the board of the conservative Bradley Foundation, which has given some of the worst anti-Islam organizations in the country over $4 million in the last few years. Their grantees are the very people responsible for the kind of rhetoric and anti-Muslim activism George condemns the TMLC for spreading.

When confronted about this apparent disparity, Dr. George was unwilling to talk about it and expressed no indication that he sees any problem with his involvement in a foundation that incubates the hatred he purports to condemn.

Speaking out for the religious rights of Muslims is admirable, but a true ally would lead with his actions.

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Catholic Bishop Goes Off Script About Religious Liberty, Warns of U.S. Despotism

June 6, 2012, 12:11 pm | Posted by

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…

BP. CORDILEONE: Oh absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.

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.

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Catholic Bishop Calls Out Right-Wing Groups Trying to “Co-Opt” Bishops

May 23, 2012, 1:05 pm | Posted by

Bishop Stephen BlaireBishop Stephen Blaire, who previously stood up to a conservative journalist trying to soften his critique of the Ryan budget, is speaking up again about right-wing groups trying to “co-opt” the bishops.

In an interview with America magazine’s Kevin Clarke, Bishop Blaire talks about the bishops’ religious liberty campaign and his concerns about public perceptions of it:

Bishop Blaire explained he was worried that some national groups appear to be seizing on the issue and transforming the dispute over religious liberty into a political fight.

“I am concerned that in addressing the H.H.S. mandate,” he said, “that it be clear that what we are dealing with is a matter of religious liberty and the intrusion of government into the church and that it not be perceived as a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue.

“I think there are different groups that are trying to co-opt this and make it into political issue, and that’s why we need to have a deeper discussion as bishops.”

Bishop Blaire believes discussions with the Obama administration toward a resolution of the dispute could be fruitful even as alternative remedies are explored. He worried that some groups “very far to the right” are trying to use the conflict as “an anti-Obama campaign.”

Bishop Blaire makes an excellent point. While many defenders of the bishops dismiss any charges of partisan electoral motivation, it’s important to remember that the bishops aren’t acting in an apolitical bubble.

Both the Republican Party and Religious Right groups are piggybacking on the bishops’ efforts for partisan ends. In some cases, these parallel efforts appear to be intertwined when partisan groups coordinate shared events and Bishops making thinly veiled electoral endorsements.

The Church does need to be very careful to separate out what it sees as disagreements on specific policy issues from the sweeping electoral narrative about the “War on Religion.” Good on Bishop Blaire for calling out this dangerous dynamic. Hopefully more of his fellow bishops will join him in publicly rejecting partisan politicization of sensitive issues.

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Secretary Sebelius at Georgetown

May 16, 2012, 12:00 pm | Posted by

Secretary Kathleen SebeliusA few weeks ago conservative wunderkind Rep. Paul Ryan faced scrutiny from nearly 90 Georgetown professors for distorting Catholic teaching to justify his draconian budget proposal. Now, Catholic conservatives are outraged that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius will be speaking at the university on Friday as part of several weekend graduation ceremonies.

Sebelius is at the center of a controversy over an Obama administration policy that requires birth control to be covered at no cost under preventative care provisions of the health care reform law.

The Cardinal Newman Society, which acts as a self-appointed watchdog for Catholic orthodoxy on college campuses, CatholicVote.org and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty are all circulating petitions urging Georgetown President John DeGioia to withdraw the invitation to Secretary Sebelius.

Since these groups seem more intent on building walls around Catholic campuses and insulating students from the supposed dangers of diverse perspectives, it’s clearly too much to expect them to applaud a Catholic university for inviting two high-profile Catholics from different political parties and ideological perspectives within a few weeks.

Instead of a “scandal,” I think many Catholics who take their faith seriously and believe strongly in the importance of Catholic identity view it as a healthy sign that Georgetown recognizes the real world is about engaging with people who hold different perspectives – not creating a fortress where we hide from them.

A few important facts to help temper the Catholic right tempest. Sec. Sebelius is not the commencement speaker. She will not receive an honorary degree. As Georgetown President John J. DeGoia explained, she was chosen by students and will offer some reflections and encouraging remarks during an awards ceremony. She has not been invited to pontificate about Catholic teaching, abortion or contraception.

Unlike Rep. Paul Ryan, Sec. Sebelius has not been making the rounds defending her policy positions in specifically Catholic terms. Nor does she claim that her views on contraception and abortion are shared by Catholic bishops. In contrast, Ryan argues that cutting food stamps, health care for the poor and an array of safety net programs that Catholic bishops are warning him to protect are policy positions explicitly inspired by his Catholic faith.

Despite this, the Georgetown professors who chided Ryan over his Catholic defense of Darwinian economic policies did not call on the university president to pull the invitation. In fact, unlike the Newman Society and Catholic right activists they welcomed him to campus and used a civil tone that should be a model for how to disagree without descending to personal attacks.

Criticism of Sec. Sebelius’s pro-choice views is certainly legitimate from a Catholic perspective. I understand why some Catholics might disagree with Georgetown’s decision. But elevating the worst of McCarthy-era witch hunts and censorship into a virtue is a poor lesson for students about to enter a world where every bit of their faith and reason will be needed. Defending Catholic identity should not have to mean that intellectual engagement and civil discourse are viewed as signs of weakness that erode our faith.

Photo credit: Eric Bridiers, Fotopedia

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