In Election Year, Bishops Are Picking a Fight

By Roberts, Tom | National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

In Election Year, Bishops Are Picking a Fight


Roberts, Tom, National Catholic Reporter


Few would have wagered a year ago that this presidential election season would be marked by a call to arms for Catholics to fend off the impending death of religious liberty in the United States. Or that one of the hot-button cultural issues in the presidential campaign would be distribution of contraceptives under the Affordable Health Care Act.

Most pundits may see the election as a referendum on the economy, but the Catholic bishops of the United States seem determined to focus on what they insist are dire threats to religious liberty and the claim by some in their ranks that President Barack Obama has a pronounced anti-religious and anti-Catholic bias.

The most extreme version of the anti-Obama script was delivered by Peoria, Bishop Daniel Jenky in a fiery homily April 14 during an annual "Call to Catholic Men of Faith." Jenky compared Obama and "his radical, proabortion and extreme secularist agenda" to Otto von Bismarck and his 19th-century Kulturkampf, "a campaign to close down every Catholic school and hospital, convent and monastery in imperial Germany"; to Georges Clemenceau, "nicknamed 'the priest eater,' [who] tried to do the same thing in France in the first decade of the 20th century"; and to both Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, who "at their better moments would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services and health care."

In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, the bishop said, Obama "now seems intent on following a similar path."

This is a war, he said, and no "believing Catholic may remain neutral."

Unless every Catholic votes his or her "Catholic conscience" in the next election, he warned, "by the following fall our Catholic schools, our Catholic hospitals, our Catholic Newman Centers, all our public ministries -- only excepting our church buildings -- could easily be shut down. Because no Catholic institution, under any circumstance, can ever cooperate with the intrinsic evil of killing innocent human life in the womb," adding that Catholic institutions would not be forced to pay for abortions.

There are, of course, federal provisions, including an Obama presidential order, forbidding the use of federal money to pay for abortions. Jenky may have been referring to the contention by the bishops that some birth control methods could be considered abortifacients, a point over which there is scientific disagreement.

'Fortnight for Freedom'

While some of Jenky's as sertions might not make it past the fact-checkers, his points are not entirely disconnected from previous documents released by the bishops establishing their new initiative on religious liberty and summoning Catholics to the cause. In a 12-page statement on religious liberty released in April, the bishops call upon images of the civil rights era and hint at the possibility of the need for widespread civil disobedience. They're also asking Catholics to observe a "Fortnight for Freedom" for the two weeks prior to the July 4 holiday.

Jenky's language is just a few notches beyond that used by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan in recent interviews.

"This is not a fight we picked," he has told several TV interviewers, "but it's one we're not going to back down from." Jenky may have single-handedly elevated the fight to an all-out war with, perhaps, its accompanying fog.

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, in an online column for Commonweal magazine, questioned exactly what issue was causing the argument between the bishops and the administration. "Is it religious liberty, as they insist? Is it contraception and sterilization, as the headlines in my arch-diocesan paper stress? Is it a desire, conscious or unconscious. to reassert their authority after the dog days of the sexual abuse scandal? Is it simply anti-Obama prejudice?"

Whatever the case, writes Steinfels, former editor of Commonweal and currently codirector of the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture, "the daunting task of explaining the Catholic bishops to others and to oneself has come a cropper. …

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