By Ted Frier | 24 May 2012
A house doesn’t have to fall on my head to tell me a battle royal is brewing within the Catholic Church over the conservative hierarchy’s heavy-handed efforts to clamp down on dissenting Catholic voices. Not when a prominent American nun comes “this close” to calling the present Church leadership a bunch of brown-frocked fascists. Or when a parish priest I know gives the sister a thumbs up and pastes her angry, anguished outcry to his Facebook page.
And now, according to the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, a group of progressive-leaning bishops who’ve so far held their tongues are starting to speak out against their reactionary colleagues who seem determined to yank the Church far to the right and make Catholicism little more than an auxiliary of the Republican Party in its campaign against President Obama.
Lawsuits brought this week by 43 Catholic organizations and 13 dioceses seeking to overturn the Obama administration’s decision to mandate insurance coverage for contraception for employees at Catholic-run schools and hospitals were seen as provocative and premature by the vast majority of the nation’s 195 diocese that did not want to go to court, according to Dionne.
The bishops in these dioceses, says Dionne, “are upset that the lawsuits were brought without a broader discussion among the entire membership of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops,” many of whom object that the leadership is “aligning the institutional Church too closely with the political right.”
Unilateral moves to the political right without the chance for discussion. Now there’s a shock.
It’s thuggish behavior like this that set off Sister Joan Chittister this week when she, in a remarkable column in the National Catholic Reporter, likened the bishop’s power-grabbing authoritarianism to efforts by Pope Pius XII to impose “monarchical control” within the Church and to restore “quasi-imperial power” outside it during the precarious decades of the 1930s and 1940s when democracy was under siege everywhere.
These efforts, which included a Condorcet between the Catholic Church and Hitler’s Germany that suppressed Germany’s Catholic Centre Party and those Catholic social action groups strong enough to have resisted the rise of Nazism, created a legacy that continues to haunt Pius XII even to this day with accusations he was a Nazi sympathizer.
Chittister is the past president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, the umbrella organization representing about 80% of America’s 57,000 nuns that was recently issued a “spiritual cease and desist order” by the Vatican, as Washington Monthly editor John Gravois put it, for political activity that did not conform to the approved positions taken by the bishops.
Chittister’s response to the Vatican’s crack-down was roughly the same as that of Sister Jeannine Gramick of the New Ways Ministry when her group was told to cease writing or speaking about homosexuality or advocating on behalf of gays and lesbians in the Church: “I do not choose to collaborate in my own oppression.”
Chittister has suggested the LCWR follow the example of Gramick’s much smaller New Ways Ministry and simply disband in order to reconstitute itself as a non-canonical institution outside the Vatican’s purview, reports Gravois.
And so the schism and civil war begins.
It was bad enough when the Catholic leadership put the American nuns in “canonical receivership” for their “reputed lack of orthodoxy on sexual issues,” says Chittister. Or when the Vatican went after Catholic Charities for not towing the party line. Or the Catholic Caritas charities before that. But when the Magisterium went after the Girl Scouts (!) Sister Joan had had enough.
“The question is,” says Chittister, “where has all this energy for empirical destruction come from in a Church now projecting its own serious problems with sexual issues onto everything that moves?”
Sister Chittister is directly attacking the authoritarianism at the heart of the current political campaign by the Pope and US bishops to impose dogmatic conformity on American Catholics. She even goes so far as to excavate unflattering Church history in order to warn of the dangers of neo-fascist tendencies which inherently lurk within an institution that operates in secret and is led by an all-male hierarchy that occasionally claims it possesses powers of absolute infallibility.
Chittister concedes that it is not easy to run a “universal” church which must take account of so many different cultures. But the Vatican needs to try harder, she says.
The Catholic leadership must have sympathy and respect for the national cultures and traditions and values where it is attempting to evangelize, she says, and for the workings of the society itself. And for American bishops, says Chittister, that means appreciating that “The American tradition comes out of a commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of thought and democratic participation in the political process.”
But this is exactly where the Church falls short, since it is America’s democratic traditions which Chittister says “the Vatican has always suspected and indeed has never liked.”
To ask American Catholics to embrace without question or complaint Papal pronouncements on obedience, Church governance and women’s rights that are not only European, Eastern European, Asian or African in origin but medieval as well, is to expect more than any Church law can possibly command. It is of course easy to force obedience, says Chittister. “But it is impossible to force belief.”
The Pope has said he wants a smaller and purer Church. He seems to be getting his wish, says Chittister, who notes that “The second-largest religious denomination in the United States, after Catholic, is now ex-Catholic.”
The thuggery to which Chittister alludes is evident in the screeching manifestos about liberals who want to “strangle” the Church and its religious freedom which the bishops now pass out at mass, whose tone is more reminiscent of those political handbills you find nailed to trees than the measured communications you expect from doctors of the Church.
This brutality is also manifest in the way these bishops hold the poor and sick hostage – in the very same way Republicans last summer confronted the nation with default unless they got their way – threatening like adolescents to close hospitals, close schools, close shelters, close food pantries unless the president gives in to them on contraception.
It makes you wonder whether the reason bishops like little boys so much is that they behave so much like them.
The bishop’s attempt to make this battle over birth control be one about religious freedom not power politics runs up against three inconvenient truths:
First, since 98% of Catholics use birth control how can it legitimately be said that this controversy is in any way about “religious worship?”
Second, a Catholic-owned school or hospital is not a “church.” It’s a business — one that does good work, perhaps, but still a business that makes money, employs Catholics and non-Catholics alike and, more importantly, gets government subsidies for doing it. The Church hierarchy may define schools, hospitals and taco stands (if they had any) as being integral to the Church’s “religious mission.” But that’s only an assertion, what the bishops say, a matter of opinion. Governments responsible for the health and safety of Catholic and non-Catholic citizens alike are under no obligation to let bishops dictate the terms of workplace health and safety by wrapping themselves in the First Amendment. Especially not when American taxpayers are helping to foot the bill.
And finally, more than a century’s worth of political activism by the Catholic hierarchy devoted to keeping contraceptives out of the hands of ALL Americans — Catholic and non-Catholic alike, married couples as well as single, — deprives the Catholic leadership of all credibility when it claims its efforts to restrict their availability now is one of “religious liberty” instead of an attempt to elbow aside the nation’s democratically-elected leadership so that the Church leadership can tell Americans how to behave, and use the Church’s government-subsidized Catholic social service network to do it.
Apologists for the bishops, like conservative Catholic Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Catholic fellow traveler Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, refuse to engage these objections directly, preferring instead to warn darkly of the political damnation that awaits any politician like president Obama foolhardy enough to risk alienating the monolithic “Catholic Vote” — a monolith which they make far more fearsome by attaching the qualifier “traditional” or “devout” in front of “Catholic” in order to excommunicate all those progressively-minded Catholics who’ve sided with the President after forgetting their catechism with its obligations to obey their bishops in all things.
Trouble is, as New York Times’ Maureen Dowd cheerfully points out, the “Catholic Vote” isn’t with the reactionary or “traditional” bishops at all.
As Dowd reports, Gallup tested the morality of 18 issues, and birth control came out on top as the most acceptable, edging out divorce which got 67% approval. Polygamy, human cloning and infidelity were deemed most morally offensive, which no doubt was hugely embarrassing to those bishops who welcomed into the Church with open arms the three-timing cheat, Newt Gingrich.
As for all those Church leaders who insist they are only sticking up for religious freedom, not attacking women or birth control at all, Dowd says: don’t you believe them.
“Really, it’s about birth control, and women’s lower caste in the Church,” says Dowd. “It’s about conservative bishops targeting Democratic candidates who support contraception and abortion rights as a matter of public policy. And it’s about a Church that is obsessed with sex in ways it shouldn’t be, and not obsessed with sex in ways it should be.”
The bishops want to put women in chastity belts, says Dowd, yet at the same time “they let unchaste priests run wild for decades, unconcerned about the generations of children who were violated and raped and passed around like communion wine.”
Whereas progressive bishops favor a dialog with the Obama administration in a good faith effort to reach an accommodation that recognizes and respects the worthiness of each side’s position, conservative bishops are itching for a fight — as reactionaries always are — while acting as if the President never made any concessions to them at all, says Dionne.
For far too long, says Dionne, the Catholic Church’s stance on public issues has been defined by the outspokenness of its most conservative bishops and the reticence of moderate and progressive prelates to speak up themselves. Signs that other Catholic voices are finally being raised against the Catholic Right are encouraging, says Dionne, both for the Church and for American politics.
Ted Frier is an author and former political reporter turned speechwriter who at one time served as communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party, helping Bill Weld become the first Bay State Republican in a generation to be elected Governor.
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