Friday Afternoon Reflection On A Week Of Catholic Turmoil – Signs Of Hope Ahead?

Stephanie Niedringhaus
May 25, 2012

This week began with Monday’s news about lawsuits being filed by a group of Catholic dioceses, universities and others challenging HHS regulations that insurers cover contraception. Because of NETWORK’s long history of working on healthcare issues, our Executive Director, Sister Simone Campbell, was immediately asked to comment, and she appeared that evening on Hardball with Chris Matthews to present her views.

Today, an op-ed by Cardinal Donald Wuerl appeared in the Washington Post. In it, he claimed that the lawsuits are not about money or even about contraception. They are, he stated, about “religious freedom” and the Bill of Rights.

Are they really about religious freedom – or are they about something else? Many believe that politics and power are actually at the heart of this battle.

When the administration first proposed the insurance mandate regarding contraception a few months ago, NETWORK stood with other Catholic groups and individuals in opposition. The administration quickly proposed an accommodation that would address some of the earlier problems regarding conscience protections. We then expressed our gratitude that “through thoughtful consideration of the competing needs of people of different faith perspectives the administration has found a way to honor faith-based conscience objections.” We have also continued to support ongoing negotiations as details are ironed out.

Why, then, were the lawsuits filed this week, many months before the regulation is even to take effect and while negotiations about the administration’s proposed accommodation are still going on? Why do so many conservative pundits stubbornly refuse to admit that this accommodation was even made – or that negotiations about its details continue to this day? Questions to ponder.

Also, we cannot ignore the fact that the Bishops are about to begin their highly financed, PR-driven “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign next month. A little publicity this month regarding the lawsuits can’t hurt.

And it is no coincidence that this is an election year.

Commonweal’s recent editorial about the Bishops’ campaign raises an important point: “This initiative is being launched during an election year in which one party has assumed the mantle of faith and charges the other with attacking religion. The bishops need to do much more to prevent their national campaign from becoming a not-very-covert rallying point for the Republican Party and its candidates.”

Early signs are not entirely promising. Some prominent Bishops have been quoted making highly disparaging comments about President Obama, with Bishop Daniel Jenky even comparing him to Hitler and Stalin. Cardinal Timothy Dolan went on CBS news this week, where he described the Church’s “horror” at “straightjacketed, handcuffing” and “strangling” religious exemptions in the administration’s HHS proposal.

But, thank God, we have also learned that some Bishops are expressing serious reservations about current tactics. E.J. Dionne gave hope to many Catholic moderates in an op-ed this week. Describing the lawsuits filed on Monday, he wrote, “But the other side of this news was also significant: That the vast majority of the nation’s 195 dioceses did not go to court. It turns out that many bishops, notably the church leadership in California, saw the litigation as premature.”  And referencing the “Fortnight for Freedom,” he noted that “there are reports that some bishops will play down or largely ignore the Fortnight for Freedom campaign, scheduled for June 21 to July 4, in their own dioceses. These bishops fear that it has become enmeshed in Republican election-year politics and see many of its chief promoters, notably Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, as too strident.”

So where do we go from here? Can Catholics come together again to focus more strongly on our Gospel mission, or will our Church become more and more caught up in conservative Republican efforts to deny President Obama a second term?

Time will tell, and prayers are needed.

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