Undermining Religious Freedom

This week is the Archdiocese of Washington is participating in the Summer of Mercy 2.0 initiative. It could not be a more perfect response to decisions being made by the Health and Human Services Department.  This posting has been written by  Sr. Mary Ann Walsh of the USCCB Communications Office and really gets at the heart of the matter.

Health and Human Services must think Catholics and other religious groups are fools.

That’s all you can think when you read HHS’s recent announcement that it may exempt the church from having to pay for contraceptive services, counseling to use them and sterilizations under the new health reform in certain circumstances. As planned now, HHS would limit the right of the church not to pay for such services in limited instances, such as when the employees involved are teaching religion and in cases where the people served are primarily Catholic.

HHS’s reg conveniently ignores the underlying principle of Catholic charitable actions: we  help people because we are Catholic, not because our clients are. There’s no need to show your baptismal certificate in the hospital emergency room, the parish food pantry, or the diocesan drug rehab program. Or any place else the church offers help, either.

With its new regulation, HHS seeks to force church institutions to buy contraceptives, including drugs that can disrupt an existing pregnancy, through insurance they offer their own employees. This is part of HHS’s anticipated list of preventive services for women that private insurance programs must provide under the new health reform law.

The exemption is limited, to say the least.  The pastor in the Catholic parish doesn’t have to buy the Pill for his employees, but the religious order that runs a Catholic hospital has to foot the bill for surgical sterilizations. And diocesan Catholic Charities agencies have to use money that would be better spent on feeding the poor to underwrite services that violate church teachings.

Whatever you think of artificial birth control, HHS’s command that everyone, including churches, must pay for it exalts ideology over conscience and common sense.

Perhaps HHS is unduly influenced by lobbyists. No surprise there. Certainly a major lobbyist is Planned Parenthood, the nation’s chief proponent of contraceptive services. Contraceptive services make a lot of money for Planned Parenthood clinics, which (again no surprise) provide the “services” HHS has mandated.

HHS and Planned Parenthood are narrow in focus. Respect for religious rights isn’t likely a key concern for them. However, it ought to be a key concern for President Obama, who last year promised to respect religious rights as he garnered support from the church community to pass the health care reform act. To assuage concerns, President Obama went so far as to issue an executive order promising that the health care reform act would not fund abortion or force people and institutions to violate their consciences. HHS is on its way to violating that promise. For the sake of basic integrity – the President’s keeping his word and for the protection of the right to religious freedom – President Obama needs to speak up now.

Written by:  Sr. Mary Ann Walsh

But Is It Bigotry?

It was recently called to my attention that a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships,  Harry Knox has been  outspoken opponent of the Catholic Church for many years. This piqued my attention and so I dug a little further. My brief research yielded some of the following facts:

  1. In a March 2009 Statement Knox declared that Pope Benedict XVI is “hurting people in the name of Jesus” by not condoning condom distribution as the solution to AIDS in Africa. “The pope’s rejection of scientifically proven prevention methods is forcing Catholics in Africa to choose between their faith and the health of their entire community.  Jesus was about helping the marginalized and downtrodden, not harming them further” he said.
  2. He has recently reaffirmed these views
  3. Knox who is a member of the “Human Rights Campaign” an organization working that  advocates on behalf of some in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and “transgender” communities also publicly decried a decision last year of a Catholic Pastor in Wyoming to refuse communion to an openly lesbian couple.   Knox said, “In this holy Lenten season, it is immoral and insulting to Jesus to use the body and blood of Christ the reconciler as a weapon to silence free speech and demean the love of a committed, legally married couple. The Human Rights Campaign grieves with the couple, Leah Vader and Lynne Huskinson, over this act of spiritual and emotional violence perpetrated against them.”
  4. Knox was also critical, along with others of the Vatican’s opposition to a UN initiative to decriminalize homosexual activity. The 2008 HRC Statement  signed by Knox reads  in part: As faith leaders we were shocked by Vatican opposition to this proposed initiative. By refusing to sign a basic statement opposing inhumane treatment of LGBT people, the Vatican is sending a message that violence and human rights abuses against LGBT people are acceptable. Most Catholics, and indeed most Catholic teachings, tell us that all people are entitled to live with basic human dignity without the threat of violence.
  5. There are other statements by Knox and his group that are also strongly critical of the Pope and the a Vatican along similar lines.

 It is surely unfortunate that President Obama has such an outspoken critic of the the Pope and the Vatican on his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. His presence seems divisive, at least from the perspective of Catholics, faithful to Church teaching.  His opposition to the teachings and policies of the Catholic Church is vigorous and at times specifically directed at the Pope.   In a recent Press Conference Congressman John Boehner was asked if he thought Harry Knox should resign from the President’s commission. He answered quite clearly “yes” and went on the refer to Knox as an anti-Catholic Bigot. The  St Michael Society  has begun to circulate a petition calling for his removal the President’s Council.

So, here is the question I have for you: Is Harry Knox an anti-Catholic bigot? He surely has strong differences of opinion with the Catholic Church in general and the Pope in particular. He has not hesitated to state these in the strongest possible terms even going so far as to accuse the Pope of “hurting people in the name of Jesus.” He is vigorous, wrong-headed and also absurd in his use of Scripture. His tactics are sadly typical of many who advocate on behalf of some in the Gay community. Namely, use lots of bullying and/or provocative language, venom, anger etc.  But again I ask, does all this amount to him being an anti-Catholic bigot?

I ask this question respectfully and with a concern. I think anti-Catholic bigotry does exist. But my concern is that we not over use the phrase “anti-Catholic bigot.” So many others today over use words like racist, homophobic, hate speech, reactionary, bigot etc. I am often called or accused of some of these things in the very comments of this blog. I think we would do well to be very careful to avoid adopting a similar practice of possibly over using the category “Anti-Catholic Bigot.”  There are those who vigorously disagree with the teachings and practices and policies of the Catholic Church but does that alone make them an anti-Catholic Bigot?  I guess if that were the case many if not most Protestants would qualify for the term! I think we have to allow for the fact that people can respectfully and even strongly disagree with us without being a bigot necessarily.

So here are a few questions I would like to ponder with you?

  1. What are some of the benchmarks of true anti-Catholic Bigotry?
  2. How is anti-Catholic bigotry different from simple opposition to the practices, beliefs, and policies of our Church.
  3. Are there certain phrases or actions that immediately make you suspect anti-Catholic Bigotry? What are they?
  4. Is there something in particular the Harry Knox has said that is for you, over the top and puts him in the category “anti-Catholic bigot” ?
  5. Even if he isn’t a bigot should he still step aside?

Not to steer the conversation too much, but I will say that my “anti-Catholic bigotry” alarms start going off under the following circumstances:

  1. When Church teaching is deliberately or carelessly misrepresented for the purposes of stirring anger and resentment at the Catholic Church.
  2. When Catholics who are trying to be faithful to Church teaching and/or the clergy who teach it are excoriated with name calling and attacks on their personal motivations. For example when we who articulate or uphold Catholic teaching or seek its reflection in culture and law are called hateful and bigoted, insensitive etc.
  3. When Catholics are told that they have no right to enter the public square or to influence the public discussion on matters of culture or public policy. Or when it is said that Catholics (or other Christians) cannot have a place at the public policy table because their religious point of view is ipso facto excluded due to false and severe interpretations of the so-called “separation of Church and State” (A phrase that nowhere occurs in the US Constitution).

So you have my questions and I’d value your comments. The fundamental question is this: What is the line to be drawn between opposition to Catholic teaching or policy (which non-Catholics in our culture are entitled to have) and anti-Catholic bigotry? When is the line crossed? Did Harry Knox cross it?

Here’s a brief clip referenced above wherein Rep. John Boehner calls for the resignation of Harry Knox:

The Pope and the President

Below is some remarkable “raw footage” of the President’s visit at the Vatican yesterday (July 10) First a brief article:

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama arrived at the Vatican on Friday for his first meeting with Pope Benedict and what the White House says will be frank discussions on issues they agree and disagree on.

Obama arrived at the Vatican under tight security from the central city of L’Aquila, where he participated in the G8 summit. Much of the area around the Vatican was blocked off and cell phone coverage was jammed as his motorcade passed.

Obama was driven up to the San Damaso courtyard at the base of the apostolic palace where he was greeted by an honor guard of the Swiss Guard in full regalia Michelle Obama and their children Malia and Sasha were given a private tour of St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.

So what did the Pope say? Among other things he delivered a strong pro-life message to the President. Here is an excerpt from John Allen’s Article:

Pope Benedict XVI today used his first-ever meeting with President Barack Obama to deliver a strong pro-life message, even pointedly offering President Obama a copy of a recent Vatican document on bioethics. In effect, Benedict made clear that he backs the American bishops in their challenge to President Obama over matters like abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

Latest form Gloria TV News:

In this issue are some items related to the aftermath of the President’s Speech at Notre Dame. It looks like the former President of Trinity University here in Washington is rather upset with critics of the Honorary Degree Awarded to President Obama. At Commencement exercises she refers to these critics (which include a fairly large number of Bishops) as “Catholic Vigilantes.”  Another interesting bit of news about the protests at Notre Dame is that among the “vigilantes” 🙂 present at the protest was Norma McCorvey (who was the Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade). Most of you know that she converted to Catholicism in 1998 and has worked actively in the pro-life movement for many years now. It is a great and healing thought that she is now among us as a fellow Catholic and a pro-life advocate. God is good, very good.

Also in this edition of Gloria TV News is a strange and sad story about a Catholic school boy who wants to be  a  girl.  There are also some reflections from Former Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland about the Abuse Scandal.

Update – L’Osservatore Romano and The Notre Dame Speech

Yesterday (see link to May 18 below) I featured excerpts from a Catholic News Service (CNS) article that summarized a rather upbeat review of the President’s speech at Notre Dame by the official paper of the Vatican L’Osservatore Romano. (MY ORIGINAL ARTICLE HERE) Today CNS expanded on it’s coverage a bit and also pointed to another article more critcal of the speech, particularly in reference to Embryonic Stem Cell research. Here are a few excerpts from the CNS Article:

A few pages later, L’Osservatore Romano dedicates another, far more critical article of Obama’s stand on embryonic stem cell research, marking a clear departure from the somewhat positive evaluation the newspaper recently made of the President’s first 100 days. The article, titled “Campaign in the US against stem cells,” features the effort launched by the U.S. bishops, especially the web site of the USCCB, to oppose Obama’s new policy regarding the use of embryos for scientific research….[which]….reversed the decision of the Bush administration regarding the ban on (federal funding for) embryonic stem cell research, for the first time taxpayers’ money will be used to kill human beings in embryonic state to obtain stem cells.” In the article, L’Osservatore Romano extensively quotes Cardinal Justin Rigali and Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the most vocal critics of Obama’s anti-life policies. “The Archbishop of Denver –the Vatican newspaper says- insists that ‘American public life cannot function if we keep our religious beliefs in the closet … the US does not need to be a Christian country, but it cannot survive if it is not open to solidarity and faith.” By expressing strong support to the U.S. bishops and quoting Archbishop Chaput’s recent conference at the Becket Fund dinner, L’Osservatore Romano has put to rest speculation that the Vatican was being “unsupportive” of the American Bishops’ strong criticism to Obama’s anti-life policies.

You can read the full CNS article here: CNS Full Article

President’s Address at Notre Dame

The video below shows an excerpt from the President’s speech at Notre Dame. A couple of thoughts occur to me in terms of his remarks:

  1. The President has laid out a case that we should not demonize and that we should disagree agreeably in this matter. At one level this all sounds fine. But the issue here is not about being nice, it is about whether a Catholic institution should honor someone who is vigorously and uncompromisingly pro-abortion with an honorary degree of Law.  Being nice is one thing, honoring what is not honorable is another. The President as a man, and as the President of the United States of America is honorable but his philosophy about the law is not. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians  whom he loved: “In hoc non  laudo” (in this I do not praise (you)).
  2. Therefore the issue before us is more about us, than the President. What are WE doing here? What are we NOT doing? Are there going to be corrective moves from Church authority that will prevent such honors being bestowed in the future?
  3. An analogy here: When a non-Catholic asks me if they can take Holy Communion I have to answer no. Perhaps this is not the “nicest answer” but it is the truest. Why can they not receive? Because communion means something. It means that I share communion with Jesus Christ. But it also means that I share communion with his Body the Church, that I accept what the Church teaches  in faith and morals and the truth that this really is the Body of Christ I am receiving. In the same way that communion actually means something and is not just an old ritual, bestowing an honorary Doctorate of Law means something. It means that we honor the recipient’s understanding of and interpretation of the Law. But we do NOT honor an interpretation of law that says it is legal to kill thousands of innocent people every day. We cannot honor an interpretation of law that  sanctions what has caused the death of tens of millions. It is not. Just as Holy Communion (which actually means something) must be withheld when such communion is lacking so should honors be withheld when when what is held cannot be honored. Again, this is no personal disrespect to the Office of President, nor to President Obama as a man. But we cannot honor his interpretation of the law here. And it is not some small point of law in question, it is a point of law that has led to the death of many millions.
  4. So, being nice and agreeable is fine, being truthful and maintaining integrity is better.
  5. Pray for our our President. He is clearly an articulate and intelligent man. What an ally he could be if he were converted on this matter. Pray too for our Church that we can use a moment like this to look more deeply and what we are doing and what it all means.

What Do Catholics Think about President Obama at Notre Dame?

Well that depends on what Catholics you ask. Church going Catholics are more likely to oppose the President’s visit to Notre Dame but not by as much as you’d think. Catholics who do not attend Church regularly were more likely to support the visit. White, Church going Catholics were most likely to be non supportive of the President’s visit. All of this is depicted in a graphic summary by a Pew Survey of Catholics on this issue shown at the right. But no group of Catholics surveyed polled above 50% in disapproval of the visit.

So what is going on here and what does this say about Catholics? I am not a sociologist nor a statistician, just a biased observer. Of course I am biased. I am a Catholic priest who is strongly pro-life. Hence I am somewhat alarmed by how few Catholics actually are alarmed. But perhaps if I could venture a few observations about this poll and I will try to be fair.

  1. The poll asks about a visit and speech of the president. Some are angry just about that. But there is the further matter about the President receiving and honorary  Law degree. Thus I wonder if the poll numbers would be different if this question were asked: “Do you favor the conferring of an honorary degree?” I have heard some Catholics say that their disagreement is more about the honors than the speech. Others just don’t think he should come period. But it would have been interesting to see the results of my question.
  2. Politics complicates everything, even moral issues. It has been my experience (sadly) that many people (both right and left) are more passionate about their politics than their faith. Faith, and moral and ethical issues tend to be “tucked under” political views and worldview.  Thus, in vacuum over 60% of Church-going Catholics oppose legalized Abortion. But take it out of a vacuum and into the world of politics and the numbers swing a lot. If opposing abortion means one is  opposing a favored candidate or party many who oppose abortion theoretically do not do when it “rocks their world” somehow.  Conservatives too struggle with some of the moral issues and often do not wholeheartedly support the requests of recent Popes to oppose use of the death penalty nor did they wholeheartedly agree with the Pope’s opposition to the Iraq War. I am aware of the many arguments that declare that these are not dogmatically defined positions but my only point is that, when requested to oppose these things  disinclination due to political leanings was a strong factor.
  3. Race complicates this matter as well. Here too many who oppose abortion as an isolated issue are reticent to apply their opposition directly to a President who also represents a kind of racial healing in this land. Just as Abortion is now, racism was and to some extent remains another of the great moral struggles of our time. Thus, I suspect, even to generally anti-abortion Catholics, the President is a complicated figure. On the one hand he represents injustice by his support of abortion, on the other hand he is a sign of greater racial justice. I suspect it is not always easy for everyone to sort all this out.
  4. With all the complicating issues of race and politics therefore I am not sure what to make of these numbers. It remains true, (and you can check these numbers by using the link to the Pew Study above), that Church going Catholics are against legalized abortion by over 60% but only 39% oppose the visit of the President.  I think some heard the question not as a question about abortion but more this way: “Do you like or dislike President Barack Obama?”  Generally people like to report that they like people. Generally too the President remains a popular figure even to those who do not like some of his policies or decisions.

What do? It seems clear that the Church has not closed the deal with most Catholics on the pre-eminence of the Abortion issue. Even many Catholics who do oppose Abortion do not see it as trumping other things they also see as important. It is an important issue to them but context and abortion’s inter-relatedness to other matters sways how they register their opinion. Many are simply not as focused or adamant as the Church would like when it comes to this critical moral issue. Hence we have to work to close the deal more. We have to teach and encourage. When I say encourage I mean it as the word was originally intended. To encourage meant to summon a person to courage. Many will privately say they oppose abortion but when a pollster calls they do not always have the courage to stand firm when it appears they are opposing a popular President who is a symbol of racial healing and thus represents far more than himself or even his party.

In the end, as many Bishops have already indicated, Notre Dame has made a huge moral compromise here. I pray for our President every day and respect that he has authority from God to lead this land. But he is wrong on this issue of abortion and honoring him with a Law Degree sends the wrong message. As the Church we must remain unambiguous on this issue. We must respectfully engage our president on this matter but a law degree would suggest we accept his jurisprudence on this and find it honorable. We do not. Yet it remains true that more than half of even Church-going Catholics may disagree with what I have said. That is on us. We are once again reminded as a Church that there is work to do.

Remember, this is a blog. I have written to provoke a response and to initiate discussion.  I do not write to pontificate (even though my name is Pope 🙂  ) If you disagree or would like to clarify a point, if you prefer to distinguish or debate a point that is what the comments are for. If you want to agree and add a point, comment . Agree or disagree, and comment.  Please be civil and above all else, pray to end abortion in this Land. Pray for Church leaders and for civil authorities. Pray.