Boston Globe columnist, religious historian and Catholic progressive James Carroll offers some important context to a story we’ve tracked closely – Catholic bishops’ increasingly tense relationship with the Obama administration over what the Catholic hierarchy has broadly defined as an assault on “religious liberty.”
Carroll isn’t buying it and steps back to offer some perspective about the shifting institutional priorities now driving the Church:
With the bishops’ new “liberty” initiative, the political partnership between the Catholic hierarchy and the largely Protestant religious right is more solid than ever. Such salvos echo those of far-right Christian groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council – self-appointed advocates of public prayer, Christian supremacy, family autonomy, and “a culture of life.” Traditional values are, in a favorite phrase, “increasingly belittled” by secular society. Religion is striking back.
But Catholic participation in this extremist counter-culture is uniquely risky. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental organization in the world, carrying out tremendous works of charity and justice across the globe. In the United States, church agencies like Catholic Charities, and institutions like hospitals and schools, are essential to the common good. A narrowly politicized American episcopate can gravely weaken the integrity of such outreach.
Catholic and Protestant evangelical leaders didn’t always sing from the same hymn book. When the religious right was first empowered during the Reagan era, Catholic bishops hummed a very different tune. In numerous declarations, they blasted the economic injustice of the unfettered market, defended the social safety net, criticized prevailing assumptions about the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and mustered decisive opposition to the wars in Central America. They did all this without launching partisan electoral campaigns. Those were different days, and different bishops.
As I’ve noted before, Catholic leaders are asking legitimate questions when it comes to a grant denied to the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services. And many Catholics who have supported a range of Obama administration policies are urging the Department of Health and Human Services to broaden a proposed religious exemption to include Catholic hospitals and charities that are morally opposed to covering contraception in employee insurance plans.
But Carroll is widening the lens on this “religious liberty” story in a fashion that most reporters can’t because of daily deadline pressure or their own lack of knowledge regarding the tectonic changes that the Church has experienced since Vatican II. As an acclaimed writer and former Catholic priest who has explored both the power of the Catholic Church and the military in a way that blends deep reporting with an intriguing personal narrative, Carroll is well positioned to not miss the forest through the trees.
Catholic bishops’ current fights with the Obama administration can’t be fully understood in isolation from the broader institutional dynamics shaping the U.S Church. This includes the growing influence wielded by a well-oiled Catholic Right lobbying machine – led by groups like the American Life League, CatholicVote.org and the Cardinal Newman Society – that challenge the bishops to toe a harder line in their political engagement.
The American Life League blasted Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston for participating in the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s funeral, attack the bishops’ national anti-poverty initiative and even sought to blacklist a longtime social justice staffer at the bishops’ conference. Catholic conservatives also helped derail the candidacy of Bishop Gerald Kicanas, a moderate bishop from Tucson, who was widely expected to be elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last year.
Archbishop Dolan of New York, the USCCB president, unwittingly proved the point that largely conservative thinkers and right-wing grassroots activists have the ears of bishops these days when he told reporter John Allen that he gets “far more criticism from people who feel we bishops are much too soft on the Democrats, who feel that we are actually in the pocket of the Democrats.” This is a stunning and revealing statement about the conservative bubble many Catholic bishops live in.
Stepping back for an even wider view of what’s driving the U.S. Church today, one can’t discount the significant impact of the late Pope John Paul II and his appointment of bishops. His nearly 27 year pontificate included a strong critique of unfettered capitalism. But the gravitational center of his papacy was often defined by staunch opposition to abortion, contraception, women’s leadership and a “theology of the body” widely embraced by a new generation of priests and bishops.
Many conservatives, including Protestants aligned with the Republican Party, were quick to cheer this worldview. Conservative Catholics like Deal Hudson, former outreach coordinator for George W. Bush, sought to make political hay by aligning Catholics and evangelicals to vote for Republicans.
While in past decades leaders like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago sought to find some common ground amid the conservative-liberal tensions roiling the American Catholic community, these days Catholic progressives, religious sisters and Catholic social justice leaders who supported the health care reform law are demonized as dissidents. George Weigel cheers the End of the Bernardin Era and today’s Church leaders are getting an earful from Catholic Right bloggers, conservative intellectuals like Robert George of Princeton University and culture warriors like Bill Donohue.
Most bishops are unlikely to heed Carroll’s warnings, but that’s a missed opportunity for some needed self-reflection.
Photo: James Carroll
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In his Values Voters speech yesterday morning, Majority Leader Eric Cantor promised that a Republican victory in the White House and the Senate will lead to legislation “eliminat[ing] government funding for any and all organizations that perform abortions.”
Cantor was referencing Republican attempts to de-fund Planned Parenthood, but–as Eliot Spitzer identified when challenging Tony Perkins on this same claim earlier this year–this broad promise would go much further than that.
According to a 2008 Guttmacher study, there are over 600 hospitals across the country whose federal funding would be jeopardized by such a standard. The question for Leader Cantor is whether he intends to de-fund these hospitals as well or, if not, why they should get a special exception.
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When political leaders claim that businesses need less regulations, they don’t usually provide specifics about which rules should be cut. Instead they seem to hope that general anti-government sentiment will provide cover when they try to eliminate common-sense policies that protect the American people from dangerous abuses by companies trying to cut corners.
This week, a coalition of evangelicals and Catholics are speaking out against this very effort, targeting new attempts to delay regulations on mercury emissions from cement plant smokestacks. The campaign includes letters from evangelical leaders and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as radio ads targeting the three Congressman most responsible for this roll back effort–Reps. Ed Whitfield (KY-1), Fred Upton (MI-6) and Joe Barton (TX-6).
Appealing to these politicians’ stated pro-life principles, these leaders specifically highlight the danger mercury poisoning poses to pregnant women and children. Directly challenging the corporate industry groups behind this effort, they lay out the moral choice before Congress:
Opponents of the mercury standards are seeking to weaken or delay the regulations. They argue that the cost of cleaning up our air (about $3-7 per month per family) is too expensive. We welcome an honest debate about how much our children’s health is worth.
The radio ads are sponsored by the Evangelical Environmental Network. Listen to one here:
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Nicholas Carfardi, the dean emeritus of Duquesne Law School and former chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, has an important op-ed in the Philadelphia Daily News today that is sure to catch the attention of incoming Archbishop Charles Chaput and political leaders in this 2012 battleground state. Archbishop Chaput formally begins his tenure in Philadelphia this afternoon with an installation Mass that will include nearly 700 cardinals, bishops and priests.
A pro-life Catholic who was one of the most prominent Catholics to publicly support Barack Obama for president, Cafardi challenges Chaput and other bishops who make abortion the defining political issue for Catholics. Cafardi sensibly urges the archbishop to focus on healing the wounds of Philadelphia’s clergy sex abuse crisis and to tone down his combative political rhetoric, which includes accusing Catholics of “cooperating in evil” if they ever vote for politicians who don’t support criminalizing abortion. Cafardi writes:
A disproportionate focus on criticizing politicians who do not accept that criminalizing abortion is the only way to solve this terrible problem gives the false impression that the Catholic Church is a religious wing of the Republican Party. Elected officials who support the death penalty, demonize immigrants and slash life-saving programs that protect the poor and most vulnerable – all in contradiction to Church teaching – rarely receive the sort of public rebukes Archbishop Chaput and other conservative Catholic bishops direct at those who deviate from the Church’s position on abortion.
I believe in the sanctity of human life and support policies and laws that care for pregnant women and prevent abortions. But Catholicism is not a single-issue faith. Catholic social teaching and the moral principles of diverse religious traditions challenge the agendas of both political parties by insisting that the poor, the unborn, the undocumented immigrant and even the prisoner are children of God. Religious leaders must preserve this essential voice as a prophetic witness to truths that transcend the partisan fray.
As I’ve noted before, unlike episcopal leaders such as Cardinal Donald Wuerl in Washington, who rejects turning the Communion rail into a political arena, Bishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, NM, who has urged his fellow bishops not to “isolate ourselves from the rest of America”, or retired Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, who warns that the Church is in danger of being perceived as choosing the Republican side in political fights, Chaput represents a wing of the U.S. Catholic Church that relishes publicly lambasting Democrats for deviating from church orthodoxy while taking a far gentler tone when it comes to conservative politicians’ contradiction of church teachings.
Cafardi’s compelling argument has recently been echoed by a growing number of Catholic theologians, social justice leaders, priests and women religious who believe abortion is a moral tragedy, but refuse to accept that it’s the only “life issue” that elected officials or candidates should be judged on. Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, certainly heard that message loud and clear when his draconian federal budget proposals were challenged as being “anti-life” before his commencement address at The Catholic University in America this spring.
During the 2008 presidential election, it was the rare bishop who stood up to fellow Catholic leaders and Catholic culture warriors who reduce centuries of Catholic social teaching to an abortion litmus test. The exception was Bishop Gabino Zavala, an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles who is bishop president of Pax Christi USA, a respected Catholic peace group. In an interview with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne just weeks before the election, he noted: “We’re not a one-issue church…But that’s not always what comes out. What I believe, and what the church teaches, is that one abortion is too many. That’s why I believe abortion is so important. But in light of this, there are many other issues we need to bring up, other issues we should consider, other issues that touch the reality of our lives.”
In an interview with the Associated Press yesterday, Archbishop Chaput criticized “cafeteria Catholics” and blithely dismissed those who love the Catholic Church but sometimes find themselves grappling with how broad moral principles best find prudent expression in the public square. “If they don’t believe what the church teaches, they’re not really Catholic,” Chaput said, mirroring the same defiant tone that George W. Bush’s former Catholic outreach director Deal Hudson adopted when he branded many progressives in the Church “fake Catholics.” At its worst, this love-it-or-leave-it Catholicism is deeply anti-intellectual and offensive to many thinking Catholics, frequently educated at Catholic universities, who understand that the Church tradition is most alive when it engages with culture and is led by bishops who are pastors not pugilists. As Michael Sean Winters writes at National Catholic Reporter today:
Of course, in a sense, Chaput is right. We are, as Catholics, bound to believe what the Church teaches…But, in Chaput’s smug articulation of the matter, he and his pals are the saved, the already converted, and everybody else is not just wrong, they are not really Catholic. I hope Archbishop Chaput will find a way to engage people that is not so dismissive of them and of their struggles. His “my way or the highway” approach does speak to the normative quality of our Catholic beliefs, but I doubt it will be pastorally helpful. I do not see how alienating people will help convert them.
We need more authentic voices like Nick Cafardi and Bishop Zavala speaking from the heart of the Catholic tradition. A global faith with a proud history of social justice witness and intellectual vigor can’t be tucked into suffocating ideological boxes to serve a narrow partisan agenda.
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As Tara noted earlier this week, a federal judge in Ohio has found that the health care reform law does not allow for taxpayer funding of abortion, an important first legal test of the argument’s legitimacy. The federal judge denied a request from the Susan B. Anthony List to dismiss a defamation suit brought against the organization from former Rep. Steve Driehaus. During the 2010 midterm elections, the Susan B. Anthony List waged a relentless smear campaign against Driehaus and other pro-life Democrats who voted for health care reform legislation.
Here are some powerful reactions from national organizations that represent Catholic sisters, who were influential in advocating for health care reform:
“As Catholic sisters who stood proudly with the Catholic Health Association and other faith-based organizations in support of health care reform, this ruling brings welcome clarity to an issue that has often been muddied by deliberate distortion,” said Sister Pat Farrell, OSF, President-Elect of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. “Attacking pro-life representatives who fought for historic changes to our nation’s broken health care system as proponents of taxpayer funding of abortion is factually and morally wrong. Instead of engaging in destructive political games that distort the truth it’s time to focus on building a health care system that lives up to our nation’s best values and highest ideals.”
“This important ruling untangles the knots of lies and innuendo about the health care reform law that has been exploited for partisan gain,” said Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK, a national Catholic lobbying group that along with 60 heads of Catholic women’s religious orders endorsed health care reform legislation. “As this decision makes clear, the Affordable Care Act does not provide for taxpayer funded abortions. Religious sisters on the front lines of our nation’s health care crisis know from experience that health care reform will save lives, support pregnant women and even help prevent abortions. Groups that attacked pro-life Members of Congress for supporting health care reform have now been exposed for holding greater allegiance to partisan agendas than making sure women and families have access to quality and affordable medical care.”
As the 2012 elections approach, Religious Right organizations will likely keep touting smears and falsehoods against health reform. Journalists and other observers should think twice before lending legitimacy to this consistently debunked lie about health reform and abortion.
Photo: LCWR Members, Credit: 350.org, Flickr
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