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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Fissures in the religious liberty debate?

May 29, 2012, 2:06 pm | Posted by

birth control pillsIn 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.

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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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Catholic Bishops’ Straw Man on Religious Freedom

April 15, 2012, 8:13 am | Posted by

Reading the USCCB’s statement on religious freedom from last week, I was struck by this line in particular:

…as Christians of various traditions we object to a “naked public square,” stripped of religious arguments and religious believers. We do not seek a “sacred public square” either, which gives special privileges and benefits to religious citizens. Rather, we seek a civil public square, where all citizens can make their contribution to the common good. At our best, we might call this an American public square.

This characterization matches the Bishops’ consistent talking point that the current debate is not about the details of birth control policy, but rather about whether religious freedom should exist. The implication, of course, is that anyone who disagrees with their particular interpretation of this policy is actually objecting to the First Amendment.

But this is a false dichotomy. Yes, there are some people who think the public square should be “stripped of religious arguments and religious believers,” but it’s hardly an overwhelming view, and it’s certainly not the view of many of us who have offered nuanced critiques of the Bishops’ position. To suggest as much is to simply dismiss legitimate questions without answering them.

Even more interesting though, is the second part of the quote in which the Bishops alternately reject the idea of a “sacred public square” that gives “special privileges” to religious citizens. But this is exactly the language many perceptive observers use to characterize the Bishops’ position. Ed Kilgore lays it out well:

What the bishops are actually seeking is not “freedom” but a sort of unwritten concordat—a broad zone of immunity from laws they choose to regard as offensive. Now there is nothing terribly unusual or inherently outrageous about this desire; Vatican diplomacy for centuries has focused on the establishment of such arrangements—though typically written rather than plenary—with a wide array of governments. It’s the idea that this sort of arrangement involves “freedom” rather than frankly acknowledged special privileges that’s novel. [emphasis added]

The heart of the matter, of course, is defining what exactly is a “special privilege” (and subsequently when should they be granted). Is any request for an exemption from an otherwise generally applicable law special? Or is it, as the Bishops seem to say, only descriptive of exceptions that fall outside of the scope of those they choose to designate as matters of religious freedom?

In either case it’s clear that the issue is not as simple as the Bishops portray it to be. As the Blunt amendment debate revealed, religious freedom as an unlimited principle is an untenable solution. But neither are its limits self-evident. As the editors at Commonweal identify in their editorial on this statement, “Church-state relations are complicated, requiring the careful weighing of competing moral claims. The USCCB’s statement fails to acknowledge that fact.”

Negotiating this tricky balance is the messy work of democracy. It’s fair to take issues with particular attempts to strike that balance, but it’s unfair to broadly claim that those who disagree with you object to religious freedom at large.

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