The Catholic Church practically invented politics, so it may be asking too much to expect American bishops to steer completely clear of affairs of state. There are times when they couldn’t if they wanted to, and
they feel this is one of those times.
The upcoming “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign to push back against this administration’s contraceptive health care mandate, however, sounds so much like a “Fortnight to Defeat Barack Obama” that I’ve gotten to wondering what our prelates would have to do to cost the church its tax-exempt status. (IRS rules are pretty clear that churches have to give up their exemption if they campaign for or against a political candidate.)
That is not going to happen, and I’m not suggesting it should. But as a thought exercise, what would it take to provoke such a thing?
If a bishop compared Obama to, I don’t know, Hitler and Stalin, would that be campaigning against him?
Oh, but wait, Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria tried that already. Jenky wasn’t exactly a household name before that tirade.
What if, however, the best-known bishop in the country – and among the most flat-out likeable – said “the White House is strangling the Catholic Church?”
No again; Cardinal Tim Dolan, of New York, did that, too. And Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland said we have reason to fear “despotism” under Obama.
(Even Pope Benedict XVI has joined the fray – though the former Joseph Ratzinger is really not much of a fray-joiner. “Many of you, he told American bishops, “have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection…with regard to cooperation in instrinsically evil practices.’’ Abortion, he means. Birth control, which is barred under church teaching, must be provided free to employees of Catholic institutions as part of their health care plans under the Affordable Care Act. Where does abortion come in? Some opponents argue that the Part B ‘morning-after pill,’ which is also provided as part of the bill, is an abortifacient, though science doesn’t support that claim.)
Surely if the church ran a massive PR campaign just ahead of a national election, calling for widespread civil disobedience and reading letters about it from pulpits across the nation, that would cross the line into campaigning?
Ixnay on that, too, because the “Fortnight for Freedom” set to run from June 21-July 4th, is just such an effort.
Just the other night on Twitter, the Archdiocese of Washington tweeted several messages that struck me as partisan: “Unconscionable #HHSMandate #Obamacare set to trample sanctity of human life,” said one of them, sent on June 5th.
In a press release, the bishops compared themselves to Martin Luther King writing his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and a priest in San Francisco called this “our Rosa Parks moment.’’
But that was nothing; a frend in Pennsylvania told me he recently heard a homily drawing parallels between the Catholic Church in 2012 under Obama and the persecution of Catholics in Mexico under Plutarco Calles, who between 1926 and 1929 systematically razed churches and executed priests.
Maybe he got that idea from the May issue of Columbia, the magazine put out by the Knights of Columbus, which featured a rifle-toting, crucifix-wearing cowboy on its cover, and made the same comparison. Archbishop William E. Lori, of Baltimore, has suggested that Catholics should take a look at that issue of the magazine, which also published the bishops’s statement about religious freedom.
And as Catholic University’s Steve Schneck, a board member of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, pointed out in a recent piece on that group’s Web site, the whole issue is “devoted to mobilizing Knights to fight for religious liberty against the Obama administration. Cracking the cover, it turns out that the Cowboy With Rifle and Crucifix illustration is a stylization of General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde,’’ a leader in the Cristero uprising against Calles, which is the subject of a new movie, “For Greater Glory.’’ (Bad timing, liberal Hollywood?)
If you haven’t read Graham Greene’s ‘The Power and the Glory,’ you might not even know about this bloody chapter in history, though it was neither so long ago nor so far away. But in exactly the same way that that Moroccan girl who committed suicide after being made to marry her rapist put the so-called “war on women,’’ into perspective, so, too, does the slaughter of Mexican Catholics in the last century help us see the similarly over-hyped “war on religion” a little more clearly.
Then there is this: We’re so persecuted that when the issues raised by the more than 40 Catholic dioceses and institutions who’ve filed suit against the administration’s mandate make their way to the Supreme Court — and they will — history will note that six of the nine justices who heard the arguments were Catholic.
This is not to say that the bishops have no valid complaints. The Health and Human Services definition of a religious institution is indeed problematic. As Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops, points out, “It says you have to hire your co-religionists and serve your co-religionists’’ to qualify as such. “We help people because we’re Catholic; not because they are.’’
There are also some legitimate outstanding issues — and not as in ‘excellent,’ either — over the contraceptive coverage, with the White House insisting that self-insured Catholic institutions will not have to pay for the contraceptive coverage. In yet another irony, those institutions are deriding the proposed alternatives as magical thinking.
“Some other organization could come in and do it, but who?” Walsh asks. “Thinking insurance companies would do it for nothing is absurd; I haven’t noticed they are so magnanimous. These ideas are being thrown around, but it would be foolish to sit around like Little Mary Sunshine and hope things change.’’
(Have I mentioned that I love Sister Mary Ann? Yes, I do, even when we disagree.)
But this is one of those times.
A bishop who spoke to me on the condition that I not quote him by name said of his brother bishops that while “there are some people who welcome it being political, that’s a small number. It’s not a small number of our allies on certain questions’’ — abortion, mostly — who welcome the partisanship, though. Which is why, as he acknowledged, “How this doesn’t become defacto political is a huge dilemma’’ — and one that will be Topic A at the upcoming meeting of American bishops in Atlanta June 13-16.
Meanwhile, he said, most bishops are embarrassed by excesses like the Hitler comparison, and see the timing as “terrible in a political year. Or in a presidential year, I should say, since every year is a political year now.’’
The HHS mandate goes into effect in August, though, and there’s been even less message control than usual because the church isn’t very good at rapid response, the bishop said. (That’s for sure; the recent Vatican criticism of Sister Margaret Farley was aimed at a book published six years ago.)
Ahead of the presidential election in 2004, we similarly had the “wafer wars,’’ over whether pro-choice Catholics – like John Kerry, and also John Kerry – should be able to receive Communion. That issue suddenly became such a big deal that in Denver, someone in a Kerry t-shirt was turned away by a lay Eucharistic minister. (The candidate himself was never refused.) The difference between then and now, though, is that then, only a handful of bishops spoke out.
On Wednesday, Archbishop Lori insisted, “We’re not trying to throw an election.’’ But as the bishop I spoke to said, “It’s impossible that there won’t be some partisan implications.’’
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors ‘She the People.’ Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.