Sunday, February 12, 2012

The USCCB & Obama

Crusty Old Dean spent the last post beginning a discussion on the thorny question of religious conscience and how that relates to broader society: where does acknowledging the right of religious liberty relate to the right of people not to be bound by another's conscience?

In passing, COD noted the current folderol between the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Obama administration on the question of requiring contraception coverage in health care plans administered by Catholic institutions which employ large numbers of non-Catholics. We're not talking about St Joseph the Worker's music director and Christian education director. We're talking about Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, and secularists who work for, say, Georgetown University.

Twenty-eight states already have some form of provision for this. Yet the Obama administration's mandate unleashed a well-planned and well-orchestrated onslaught from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, denouncing this as an attack on religious liberty. The administration offered a compromise, and Crusty Old Dean opined that we will see the bishops' true colors in how they respond.

The compromise has been rejected by the bishops as not enough: and thus they show their hand.

Why not the onslaught on those 28 states as well? Why this concerted effort now?

Might it be an election year?

The USCCB is stepping consciously into the culture wars to campaign against the President: attacking a President who probably agrees with them on other Catholic social concerns like a social safety net to care for the poor and needy in order to get one a Republican one that agrees with them on abortion, stem cell research, birth control, abstinence only education, and other issues.

And, in doing so, have chosen to play into the attack on religious liberty of the anti-Christian Obama administration, a trope already created by evangelical Christian organizations and Republican strategists, culminating in the farce of a hearing in the House of Representatives which only permitted testimony by people opposed to contraception regulation (read more about it here.)

And, in doing so, cloaking their efforts under the guise of religious liberty. Look, it's true Amish people don't have to buy health insurance and are exempt from many of these provisions. But if Amish people required people who buy their cheese or furniture to get ride of the buttons on their clothes, we would think that absurd. After all, the knee-jerk anti-Muslim sentiment in this country came down hard on Muslim cab drivers who refused to carry passenger carrying alcohol because it was against their religion. How dare they force their opinions on other people! While at the same time not letting me force my opinions on other people working for large organizations employing thousands of non-believers and already required under 28 state laws is a violation of religious liberty.

But we are to accept that a student a Georgetown University might need to have to an ovary removed because the University could not cover the birth control pill which might have saved her from having that procedure and she developed an ovarian cyst while appealing that decision.

It's not only the naked political overtones to this, because, frankly, everyone does it. Religion and politics are intertwined, and one the one hand every Democratic presidential candidate goes to places like First AME Church in Los Angeles while conservative religious organizations do their own thing. Problem is, the USCCB runs the risk of falling prey to sliding into two major ethical morasses:

One is what Pope John Paul criticized much of society for doing: failing to have a consistent ethic of life. John Paul and Catholic teaching have argued that one cannot be anti-abortion but pro-death penalty -- to value life is to create a society where it is valued and treasured. COD supports this, in principle, while he still believes abortion should be safe and legal, he also believes we should live in a world which also makes sure there are fewer unwanted pregnancies, where we don't forget about fetuses once they become children and are no longer useful political weapons and do things like have adequate health care and education for them. These conversations should be part of valuing life in all its stages, not just reduced to the worn-out talking points of political wedge issues. In giving in so openly to the political dimensions of this, is this consistent ethic of life in danger of becoming a thing of the past for the USCCB?

A second is that the Catholic Church has been a victim of persecution and prejudice in this country, when they were a minority in a larger tide of Protestantism, forced to read from the King James (Protestant!) version of the Bible and sit through prayers led by Protestants. Catholics founded their own schools because they resented, in part, the pan-Protestantism of American public education at the time. Now they want to impose they insist on doing exactly what was done to them: forcing their opinions onto other who are not just persons of another faith, but not faith at all.

Not that the USCCB has headed down either of these paths: but their current actions suggest that this is not as once unimaginable as it may have seemed. The USCCB, after all, bucked its own precedent in passing over its Vice President to elect Archbishop Timothy Dolan as its current President -- indicating, to many, that the VP was passed over because he was not deemed conservative enough.

There is another option, here, one which frankly isn't much better. It's that the USCCB isn't as well organized and on-point as we might assume, and even though they are picking up these Republican party taking points maybe it's not intentional. Maybe this is just them venting their spleen and anger that we live in a society where they no longer have the power and influence they once used to. Crusty Old Dean grew up in Boston, and when Pope John Paul II came, they canceled school. They canceled public school. I don't really imagine that happening now. The bishops may just be furious they no longer have the influence they once did, and are lashing out.

Neither explanation is a pretty one. Hard to believe the rich history of the Catholic bishops in this country in caring for the least and the vulnerable in this society is being sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

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