Are the U.S. Catholic bishops becoming de-facto supporters of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign?
The Holy Hour for Freedom at St. Jerome’s in Oconomowoc on July 2— part of the bishops’ campaign against the Obama administration’s inclusion of contraception in health care coverage — gave credence to such concerns.
In his 15-minute sermon, Father John Yockey of St. Jerome’s delivered a fire and brimstone message on “the many ways that the current administration has demonstrated downright aggression and hostility [to religious liberty], for the Roman Catholic Church in particular.”
The political message was saved for the end, when Father Yockey pointedly asked those gathered “to go out and engage in action that will turn this dreadful threat around.”
Prayer was recommended, as was talking to neighbors “who perhaps don’t understand the gravity of it all.” But Father Yockey’s most direct message was his ending admonition: “And we can vote Nov. 6.”
Having established “the current administration” as the enemy, Father Yockey did not need to connect the dots and mention Obama as the man to be defeated in November.
The St. Jerome’s gathering was part of the bishops’ nationwide organizing effort known as Fortnight for Freedom. The campaign ends with a mass on July 4 in Washington, D.C., and here in Milwaukee with a mass at St. Mary’s in Elm Grove.
A number of Catholics worry that the Fortnight for Freedom is leading the church down an unnecessarily vitriolic path where opposition to birth control trumps all other concerns and where the bishops have carved out little space for peacefully resolving a highly emotional and complicated issue.
“From stymying the needed health care reforms in 2010 to waging an all-out political campaign against the President over (of all things!) contraception access, the priorities of the Church in America are in utter disarray,” notes the liberal group Catholics United.
Even some bishops are worried. After 43 Catholic institutions filed suit last May against the Obama administration, Bishop Stephen Blaire of the diocese of Stockton in California argued that the move was premature and overly partisan.
Some groups on the “very far to the right” are turning the controversy over contraception into “an anti-Obama campaign,” Bishop Blaire said.
Bishop Blaire was one of many who preferred dialogue and discussion over drawing lines in the sand. As a blog for the Catholic magazine Commonweal noted, “The contraception mandate does not go into effect until August 2013. It doesn’t take a year to put together an employee health plan. So why sue before exhausting all other options?”
Interestingly, only 13 of the country’s 195 dioceses joined in the anti-Obama lawsuits.
At St. Jerome’s on Monday night, Archbishop Jerome Listecki attended but did not speak. While much of the Holy Hour for Freedom was inside the air-conditioned church, the core of the event involved reciting the rosary while walking outside around the church’s perimeter, in 90-something temperatures. Listecki was dressed head-to-toe in archbishoply garments and perhaps it was the heat, but he seemed noticeably subdued.
WOMEN VERSUS THE CHURCH
The Catholic bishops have defined the dispute as a matter of religious freedom. The heart of the controversy centers on birth control.
Under Obamacare, all employees that provide insurance are to include, free of charge, voluntary sterilization and contraceptive services. Official Catholic doctrine, however, considers both sterilization and birth control as evil.
In an effort at compromise, in February the Obama administration exempted religious employers from the contraception mandate. Catholic organizations that are not primarily religious in nature — such as universities, hospitals and social service agencies — would be required to provide contraception coverage but the church would not have to pay.
The bishops rejected the compromise.
The bishops’ stance led to a growing unease among many Catholics. They are concerned that, under the banner of religious freedom, the bishops are denigrating the complexities of religious pluralism in a democratic society.
“The bishops cannot coerce non-Catholic women employees in Catholic institutions by denying them their right … to receive free contraceptions and sterilizations,” Father Edward Ruetz argued in the National Catholic Reporter. “This creates a dilemma — the conscience of Catholics vs. the conscience of non-Catholic employees.”
Cathleen Kaveny, who teaches law and theology at the University of Notre Dame, argues that “the most striking aspect of the bishops’ claims about religious liberty is the absolute nature of their assertions (they don’t really make arguments). They give the reader virtually no hint that such questions must be assessed in a framework of competing rights and duties, particularly the duty to promote the common good.”
Unlike the bishops, a number of Catholic institutions have had little difficulty in finding a workable compromise. The National Women’s Law Center notes that a range of Catholic-affiliated institutions, mostly universities but also some hospital chains, provide various levels of contraception coverage to their employees.
Marquette University is among such universities, and its coverage predates a 2010 Wisconsin law not dissimilar from Obamacare’s contraception requirements.
Although the Catholic Church condemned the Wisconsin law, Marquette spokeswoman Mary Pat Pfeil said at the time that the university recognized many of its employees are not Catholic and that contraceptives are sometimes prescribed for reasons other than birth control.
“The choice to use a contraceptive is both a medical decision and a matter of conscience,” Pfeil said in defending Marquette’s position.
The sharp differences between the Catholic bishops and the rights of women have received considerable press coverage. Less discussed are the racial implications of the bishops’ stance.
While taking part in the rosary processional around the church’s perimeter on Tuesday, I had a good overview of the several hundred people in attendance. Granted, I did not see every person up close, but it looked to be an all-white crowd.
On the one hand, that’s not surprising. Oconomowoc is 96 percent white, according to the U.S. Census. Only 2.7 percent of its residents live below the poverty level.
The demographics at St. Jerome’s Holy Hour for Freedom give pause.
What does it mean when church leaders encourage an all white, generally affluent gathering that they should vote on Nov. 6 to defeat the country’s first African American president because his health care reform includes birth control?
To be sure, Oconomowoc is Republican territory. But there certainly must be Catholics who see the disconnect between the Romney campaign’s agenda and the church’s teachings on social justice. Which raises another question.
Is the church providing cover for those who can now cite religious liberty and rationalize why they won’t vote for a Black man who wants to expand the social safety net and increase taxes on the rich?
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For a lengthy but thoughtful series of reflections, check out Commonweal magazine’s essay, “The Bishops & Religious Liberty.”
The National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper and web site, also has extensive coverage.
The New York Times, meanwhile, has had several good articles on whether some contraceptive services, as defined by the Catholic Church, are tantamount to abortion.
This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.