The bishops in my church instituted a pitched campaign to resist the HHS mandate, as part of the overall healthcare reform known as “Obamacare,” requiring religious institutions to cover contraception to their employees. The bishops teach that active contraception is wrong and argue that being forced to provide such violates the religious freedom of Catholics to practice their faith and live according to their consciences. All this is par for the course in American politics. Our democracy is about a battle of rights, an ongoing fight about whose rights deserve protection and how. If you are a constitutional buff, this is heady stuff and part of what makes this country great. No guns, just words.
On the merits, this battle is worth fighting. Each side has a legitimate case to make. And rights are at stake. Make no mistake about it. My problem has always been how the bishops have chosen to wage this battle as soldiers of Christ or as mere political prosecutors of war?
As a Catholic, this whole “Fortnight for Freedom” thing made me nervous. The timing of this battle, the vigor with which is waged, and the lack of compassion for our opponents once again demonstrates how myopic the bishops can be and how their credibility (and the Church’s as well) is withering before the rest of the country. I am not alone in this view. Here are the problems I see in a nutshell with trenchant humor from Jon Stewart to liven it up!
- Selling Wolf Tickets – The bishops sound more like the Tea Party than Christ by comparing Obama to Stalin and Hitler and characterizing him as “radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist.” Lying about a man is not Christlike and taking up the smear rhetoric of the right presents us as more rightwing than righteous. Further, it just makes us look like foolish, entitled extremists crying wolf.
- Distraction 1984 Style – We are a decade into the sex abuse scandal here in the U.S. Children were raped and molested and the vile deeds covered up and pedophiles foisted on unsuspecting faithful. Almost a decade later we are still waiting for accountable, definitive action where we can feel safe. Recent convictions show that the coverup, at least in Philadelphia, was about practice and pattern not isolated mistakes. So the bishops have serious religious, criminal and organizational issues that they have been slow to fix. Contrast that with the speed and organization of the response to the HHS mandate. Frankly that difference disgusts me and I look on this campaign with a jaundiced eye in that respect.
- Freedom to Do What? – I am not impressed by simplistic calls to the First Amendment and buttressing them with clarion calls that Christ fights for us! No right is absolute nor without constraint in a secular democratic country. We are not free to do whatever we want under the guise of religious freedom. There are limits, secular limits and to behave as if they don’t exist is wrong. Bob Jones University came out of segregation, banned interracial dating, and fought all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to do so as a tax-exempt religious organization. (They lost and have since repented of their institutionalized racism. They remain non-tax-exempt to this day.) The situation is similar here in that the religious freedom rights of the Church are in conflict with women’s health and reproductive rights. To deny this is to strain credulity. It is the crux of the battle!
- Religious Freedom Makeup on Misogyny? – Contraception is tied up with the politics of women and reproduction. While there have been loud denials that it’s not about women, the Church’s hostility toward so-called “extreme” feminism, the inquisition of nuns, listing the ordination of women as grave a sin as pedophilia, and the fact that, at least initially, men represented the face of this fight all paint an ugly picture to the secular world that does see this as about women. The bishops have done little to nothing to rectify this. I found Jon Stewart’s comedy perfectly emblematic of the problem.
Ultimately this will be decided by the proper institution: the courts. Since the compromise that Obama offered did not satisfy the bishops, that’s where this is headed and the true arguments made. And while we are in the court of public opinion let’s behave as ambassadors of Christ not like right wing moralists whose greatest contribution to our cause is the word “hypocritical.”