Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A battle for the soul of the Catholic Church

If you think Wisconsin is a fierce battleground in this election year, keep your eye on the Catholic Church.

President John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, worked overtime to keep his religion out of his politics and to reassure voters that he was not a Trojan Horse for the Vatican.

Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum and Republican wunderkind Rep. Paul Ryan — backed by increasingly militant, well-funded and uber-conservative Catholics — are doing their best to put their religion in the forefront of their politics.

But a sizeable number of Catholics are uncomfortable with the attempt to equate Catholicism with the Republican agenda. A pushback has begun.

The Church itself is caught between its obsession with all matters sexual and its rhetorical but too-often dormant commitment to social justice.

Catholic conservatives clearly have the upper hand, and the Church’s wrath is primarily focused on its triad of no-nos: gay marriage, birth control, and Obamacare.

The Vatican made a mistake, however, when it decided to take on the U.S. nuns because they cared too much about social justice. That woke up a lot of Catholics who realized that the church they loved was being decidedly un-Christian toward those who dared to disagree with Rome.

Two articles in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel highlight the coming battles.

The first is an opinion piece signed by 54 faculty and academic staff at Marquette University challenging Ryan’s statements that his budget proposals are in line with his Catholic faith.

The second is an AP/Journal Sentinel story that leading Catholic institutions— from the University of Notre Dame to the Archdioceses of Washington and New York — have filed suit against the Obama administration’s requirement that Catholic institutions provide contraception coverage as part of their health insurance.

The Marquette letter is a follow-up to a similar letter signed by faculty at Georgetown University last month when Ryan spoke at Georgetown.

The Georgetown letter welcomed Ryan, but then noted: “However, we would be remiss in our duty to your and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.”

Ryan’s attempt to involve the Church in his budget-cutting forced even the bishops to take action, who noted that the GOP measures failed to meet “moral criteria” of protecting the poor. If Ryan had not linked his Catholicism to the budget, it is unclear whether the bishops would have spoken up.

As the liberal Catholic group Sojourners noted, “The hierarchy’s pushback comes after liberal Catholics in Congress and progressive activists challenged the bishops to resist the GOP budget proposals with the same vigor that they have challenged the Obama administration’s contraception mandate and its perceived violations of religious freedom.”

Georgetown again made headlines when it invited U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, to speak at an awards ceremony May 18 as part of commencement day.

Needless to say, Georgetown was well aware that Sebelius was on the conservatives’ list of most-despised Catholics. In essence, the Jesuit institution was throwing down the gauntlet.

Sebelius has earned the wrath of conservatives because, in addition to her role in Obamacare, she supports abortion rights. While governor of Kansas, her bishop said she should not be given communion because of her stance supporting women’s reproductive freedom.

A few days after the Sebelius controversy at Georgetown, a wide range of Catholic institutions filed suit in federal court against the pending requirement that employees at Catholic-run workplaces be provided contraception coverage as part of their health insurance.

The church has long opposed contraception, including condoms, in line with its view that the purpose of sex is to procreate.

Ignoring issues of a woman’s right to comprehensive healthcare and the freedom to practice medicine in line with 21st Century best practices, the church has framed the issue as one of religious freedom.

Catholics United, which is dedicated to promoting a Catholic message of justice, denounced the lawsuit and accused the bishops of serving a “right-wing political agenda.”

In a statement on its website, Catholics United wrote, “Given past silence on the part of the bishops and Catholic institutions over very similar, often more comprehensive, contraceptive health care mandates in 28 states, it remains a curious coincidence the bishops would choose to stand opposed to a Democratic administration in an election year.”

“A curious coincidence” indeed.

Stay tuned. The coming battles will shape not just U.S. politics, but the Catholic Church as it struggles to maintain its power and relevancy in the 21st Century.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.

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