The Catholic Church practically invented politics, so it may be asking too much to expect American bishops to steer clear of affairs of the state. There are times when they couldnt if they wanted to, and they think this is one of those times.
The upcoming Fortnight for Freedom campaign to push back against this administrations health care mandate for contraceptives, however, sounds so much like a Fortnight to Defeat Barack Obama that Ive 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 Im 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 dont know, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, would that be campaigning against him?
Oh, wait, Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., tried that already. Jenky wasnt exactly a household name before that tirade.
What if, however, the best-known bishop in the country – and among the most likable – 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 – although 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 intrinsically evil practices. Birth control, he means, which is barred under church teaching. Yet employees of Catholic institutions must receive it free as part of their health plans under the Affordable Care Act.
Surely if the church ran a major PR campaign just ahead of a national election, calling for widespread civil disobedience and reading letters about it from pulpits across the country, that would cross the line?
Ixnay on that, too, because the Fortnight for Freedom, set to run from June 21 to July 4, is just such an effort.
The other night, 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 5.
In a news release, the bishops compared themselves to the Rev. 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 friend in Pennsylvania told me he recently heard a homily drawing parallels between the Catholic Church in 2012 under Obama to 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 of 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 take a look at that issue of the magazine, which also published the bishops statement about religious freedom.
And as Catholic Universitys Stephen Schneck, a board member of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, pointed out in a recent piece on that groups website, 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 havent read Graham Greenes The Power and the Glory, you might not even know about this bloody chapter in Catholic history, although 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 war on women into perspective, so, too, does the slaughter of Mexican Catholics in the last century help us see the similarly overhyped war on religion a little more clearly.
Then there is this little caveat to the persecution complaints: When the issues raised by the more than 40 Catholic dioceses and institutions that have filed suit against the administrations 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, notes, It says you have to hire your co-religionists and serve your co-religionists to qualify as such. We help people because were Catholic; not because they are.
Some legitimate outstanding issues regarding the contraceptive coverage are yet to be resolved, with the White House insisting that self-insured Catholic institutions will not have to pay for the contraceptive coverage – and 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 said. Thinking insurance companies would do it for nothing is absurd; I havent 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 the Catholic Church and 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 of anonymity said of his brother bishops that although there are some people who welcome it being political, thats a small number. Its 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 doesnt become de facto political is a huge dilemma – and one that will be Topic A at the meeting of American bishops happening in Atlanta.
He said most bishops are embarrassed by excesses such as the Hitler comment 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 is set to take effect in August, though, and there has been even less message control than usual because the church isnt very good at rapid response, the bishop said.
(Thats 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 – such as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. – 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 difference between then and now, though, is that then, only a handful of bishops spoke out.
Last Wednesday, Archbishop Lori insisted, Were not trying to throw an election. But as the bishop I spoke to said, Its impossible that there wont be some partisan implications.