The Power of Pulpit Politics and Contraception

Now it came to pass in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, Cardinal-delegate (now just plain cardinal) Timothy Dolan, President of the United States Conference of Catholic s (), that: ever bishops in the United States should send a letter to be read at every Mass, in all parishes throughout their dioceses. The letter should denounce the original wording of the Department of Health and Human Services’ () position on contraception, which required all health-insurance policies provided by employers to include free coverage for contraceptives and other “preventive” services”. Another decree went out to denounce the proposed compromises by the Obama administration, even though many of those who supported the bishops in the beginning thought the compromises were reasonable adjustments. Nevertheless, the bishops rejected the compromise and sent another letter to their constituents to denounce the accommodations HSS had made. 

This is the first of three blogs which will explore different aspects of the issue of artificial birth control. In this blog I plan to focus on USBCC’s strategy in dealing with the issue that was set in motion by the ’ original decision and compromise mentioned above.

In future blogs, I will address: how the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (of Human Life) became part of the beliefs of “teaching Church”, but not of the “believing Church”; and focus on the question, is artificial birth control intrinsically evil?; examine the issue of possibility of the church losing its status of tax exemption by the IRS; and what the faithful can do to become a part of s in a doctrine that most of them don’t believe in, or follow.

Before I go any further, let me state that over the last forty-six years, since 1966, when the association of bishops in the USA became the United States Conference of Catholic s, I have read dozens of their statements on a variety of issues. To mention a few: social justice, poverty, the death penalty, global warming, war and peace, inequality, and have found many of these statements to be spiritually nourishing, reasonable and helpful to me in applying Jesus’ message of compassion for the disenfranchise, and giving me guidelines to engage in social change planning and actions. Even when I was on the side that challenged their position, I never remember them using the same questionable techniques that partisan politicians use to distort and demolish their opponents. Their strategies and messages make me wonder if they’re using Carl Rove’s playbook. To prove their points about contraception, more than one bishop has been vicious and misleading! They’ve accused the Obama administration of attacking the , of declaring war on religion, and they were outright defiant of Obama’s compromise. David Zubic, the bishop of Pittsburg, in a lengthy letter to his flock in The Catholic, the diocesan weekly paper, on February 17, 2012 stated that, “The Obama administration has just told the Catholics of the United States, ‘To hell with you!’ There is no other way to put it.” To me he’s saying, “Don’t vote for Obama”!  I also find it hard to believe that a person with Zubic’s education and position as a Shepherd of the Church, can’t find a more civil way to express his opinion.

In my own small part in the universe, I’ve seen how this attack approach has been translated down to the parish level, and delivered to the faithful. The priest at the Sunday service that my wife and I attend, obediently read the provocative letter from the bishop of Phoenix, and went immediately back to the altar without giving a homily on the scriptures for that day’s liturgy. I’m assuming that he thought the vitriolic words of the ’s letter, would be our spiritual sustenance for the week.

At that same service, the parish bulletin had a letter from the pastor that used a speech by a German pastor in the 1940ies condemning the inactivity of German intellectuals, as they watched silently as the Nazis eliminated one group after another. The pastor then compared the behaviors of the Nazi administration under Hitler to the Obama administration, accusing the president of being guilty of an “assault on religious freedom”. This approach is just the opposite to the bishops’ pronouncement in  Forming Consciences for Citizenship – Part I – The U.S. s’ Reflection on Catholic Teaching and Political Life. In article 14 of that document they declared, “Unfortunately, politics in our country often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype.” It seems to me that the bishops’ attacks on the president are exactly the same as they say politicians are guilty of. At the very least, it’s a “do what I say, but not as I do” posture, that reeks of hypocrisy.

The more I read and thought about it, the more it became apparent to me that the tactics the adopted was not something they came up with over night, when they responded to the rules. They obviously had been planning it for some time; just waiting for what they thought would be the “right moment” to launch their campaign. It appeared to be a “knee jerk reaction”. Not so! It had been festering for a number of years. I first noticed it during the Bush vs. Kerry campaigns for president.

According to Peter Steinfels in an article in the New Times, October 27, 2007, the had issued statements on Catholics’ political responsibilities every year since 1976, but during the 2004 campaigns the tone of the bishops’ statements changed. Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic, was the democratic candidate for president. Although Kerry personally express his belief that abortion was wrong, he came under attack from a number of bishops, for his view that he could not impose on society the Church’s moral standards over issues such as whether abortion should be legal.[1] For Kerry, it would have been the same as a Muslin running for president of the United States intending to impose Islamic Law, Sharia, on American citizens. It would be tantamount to creating a Theocracy.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Colorado was one of a handful of bishops who went so far as to say that because Kerry supported legal abortion he should not be permitted to receive communion. Not only would they deny him communion, other bishops said “…Catholic voters would be committing sin by voting for a politician whose public actions conflicted with the church teaching on the sanctity of , s, or embryonic stem-cell research.”[2]

Given the two candidates for president, George W. Bush, who was on record that abortion should not be legal, and the other Kerry, who had publicly stated his position that abortion should be legal, who could a Catholic vote for, without committing a sin? At least in the eyes of the Church! This is tantamount to telling Catholics that they should vote for Bush, even though the bishops vociferously denied that. They wanted us to believe that, “we bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote.” This statement seem disingenuous to me. Without saying publicly “Vote for Bush”, they were asking many of the faithful to not follow their own consciences. As John Allen Jr, [3] suggested recently, there is a myth of the Purple Ecclesiology (the bishops wear purple). My interpretation of the myth is that the bishops are demanding that the faithful should obediently play the game we used play when we were kids, “follow the leader”.

Even the emphasis of the bishops’ statement from “ Citizenship” to “Forming Consciences for Citizenship”[4], changed from the 2004 election to the 2008. The 2008 doctrine according to Steinfels was more commanding. To me it seemed to rely on the authoritative posture of pre-Vatican II, in that it was less pastoral and came across that, the bishops have the authority to trump our conscience (more about that in the next blog). It had a flavor of “let us sit down together and discuss the primacy of conscience, but when push comes to shove, you need to agree with our judgment of what is evil.” The old position of “” or the expectation that the role of faithful is to “pray, pay and obey”.

It soon became more apparent that my suspicions that the bishops had a hidden agenda that they had kept under their high hats, (miters) was accurate. My first clue was when after Cardinal-deligate Dolan was informed by the Obama administration of their offer to compromise, Dolan’s answer was a cordial, “It’s a step in the right direction”. But the very next day the rejected it and took a more rigid position. It was like they could smell bigger game. Their rationale was, this is  not going to be a victory just for the , it had the potential for being an opportunity to pave the road for others “fellow travelers” and eventually get to the real issues, bringing the evangelical conservatives on board with abortion, s, etc.

His eminence to be, was no longer “Mr. Nice Guy”, the jovial, backslapping, corpulent, cleric, “hail hearty fellow well met” He was more like the legendary pool shark, Minnesota Fats, who was known for his ability to charm opponents to the point where they underestimated his cleverness and skills. The cast of characters grew larger. The rejection of the accommodations made by the president enlarged the playing field. There are now new allies on both sides. On one side, the Republicans, who claim their goal is not to block women’s access to birth control but to challenge the government’s right to mandate religious employers, e.g. Catholic hospitals, don’t have to cover contraceptive if it violates their faith. The Democrats on the other hand frame the debate as a women’s health issue and gender equality, not a religious debate, “…because the American public is not divided about the use of contraception. A Pew poll released Tuesday [February 15. 2012] showed just 8% of Americans believe contraception to be morally wrong.[5]

At this point it seems as if the has won support from the evangelistic conservatives and the republicans in congress, but since they refused the administrations’ compromises have lost a lot of its original supporters including many progressive Catholics organizations, and rank and file Catholics, who never accepted the Catholic position on contraception.

Here is one more example to illustrate how the hierarchy is ratcheting up their game plan to make it more politically palliative, and aggressive. In an article by Tim Stelloh and Andy Newman in the New York Times on March 3,2012, Cardinal Timothy Dolan told Catholics that in “…an era when the church was fighting the government on several fronts, they needed to make their voices heard more clearly in the political sphere.”[6] I have no problem with that, except I wish he could have used a less warlike word than “fighting”. What I thought was inappropriate was the story the article quoted him using to illustrate that prelates might not be the church’s most persuasive advocates. The story was about bishops hiring an “attractive”, articulate, intelligent, laywoman to speak against abortion and said it was “the best thing we ever did,” adding a self-effacing quip, “In the public square…the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over.” The article goes on to say, “Though he called his flock to action, Cardinal Dolan reaffirmed the primacy of the church’s leadership.” He was clear that the “good ole boys” are still in charge.

Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I just don’t think it is princely for a newly minted “Prince of the Church” to use stories typical of the clerical culture of celibates, that I remember from my years as a Catholic priest in the late fifties and early sixties. Although he doesn’t just focus on the laywoman’s “attractiveness”, I think his little joke verges on sexism and is indicative of women’s second class citizenship in the Church.

I realize that this blog is getting rather long, so I’m going to briefly mention just a few organizations that have either jumped ship or were hesitant to take their battle stations. I will use the format of an annotated bibliography that will provide enough information so you can chose if you want to open the link for more detailed information. I hope to hear from you!

Annotated Bibliography

  • The Bishops Have Gone too Far Says Jesuit American Magazine. Article from the website of Battle for the Core of the World. February 27, 2012.  This article is a critique of an editorial in the Jesuit magazine America, on March 5, 2012, for the position the took on the compromise presented by the Obama administration. There is a link to the editorial in the first paragraph of the article, which gives you the opportunity to look at both sides. Although the article applauds America for standing with the bishops in the beginning, it is critical of them for taking “cheap shots” at the bishops, and claims the editorial was poorly argued.
  • Bishops Were Prepared for Battle Over Birth Control Coverage. Article by Laurie Good stein, February 9, 2012. New York Times. After describing the timing of the process over a period of seven months, Ms. Goodstein goes on to give her interpretation of why she believes the bishops had given more thought to the process and were planned to draw a line in the sand. She provides reasonable evidence to support her position. She points out how Archbishop Dolan’s, immediate response, when asked about ’s original proposal was, “It’s a step in the right direction” seemed disingenuous, since the had been collaborating for some time with conservative evangelicals “…who do not share the ’s doctrinal prohibition on contraception but were delighted to see the bishops adopt the Right’s longstanding grievance, that government had declared war on religion.” She also questions whether the will be able to get Catholic support because of the large number of the faithful either practice artificial birth control or don’t believe contraception is evil. I got the impression that she is implying that the bishops seem to want to legislate beliefs, when they can’t even get their own flock to accept it.
  • Why the Bishops Will Never Be Satisfied. Article by by Jamie L. Manson on Feb. 13, 2012, National Catholic Reporter. Jamie L. Manson has a regular column in the National Catholic Reporter’s on-line venue. Her columns have earned her a first prize Catholic Press Association Award for Best/Regular Commentary in 2010. She has a Masters of Divinity degree from Yale, where she studied Catholic theology and ethics. She is often very provocative, as she is in this column and several others on contraception issue, especially on ’s positions on sexuality and ethics. In this article her underlying position is, ‘…if Obama had given the bishops and inch, eventually they would have taken six miles.” She is one of my favorite columnists, to say this is an excellent analysis of the ethics of the issue, perhaps shows my prejudice.
  • Senate Rejects Change in Contraception Rule. Article by Daniel Burke and NCR staff, March 1, 2012, National Catholic Reporter on-line.  This was an amendment to a bi-partisan highway bill aimed not only to reverse Obama’s birth control rule but to let employers pick and choose which health-care services to cover based on their religious or moral beliefs. I placed it here because if it had passed, it would have been a victory for the and conservative evangelists.
  • Catholic Nuns File Brief Supporting Affordable Health Act. An article by Ian Millhiser,Feb 23, 2012 ,  This is a report that supports the position “…that conservative efforts to paint Obama as the enemy of religion are a red herring.” Nearly two dozen leading Catholic nuns, many of whom are leaders of prominent religious orders, filed a brief in the Supreme Court supporting the ’ legislation, which by the way, ironically is called the Affordable Care Act. It is the legislation intended to ensure the just treatment of woman and couples who can’t afford adequate preventive medical treatment when it comes to contraceptives. I suspect that the bishops were not too please to hear that the nuns had not agreed with them.

End Notes

  1. Catholic Bishops’ Taxing Task: Election Year Statement, Peter Steinfels, in an article in the New Times, October 27, 2007.
  2. Elections Could Signal Changes for Church in Society. Article by Patricia Zapor, November 2, 2004, Catholic News Center.)
  3. Three Myths about the Church to Give Up for Lent. On-line Article by John Allen Jr. March 2, 2012. National Catholic Reporter.
  4. The USCCB’s statement on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.
  5. Political Risks Abound over Contraceptives Rule. Article by Susan Davis, February 17, 2012. USA Today.
  6. Dolan Urges Catholics to Become More Active in Politics. Article by Tim Stlloh and Andy Newman. March 3, 2012.  New York Times.
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