Supporters say 'partisan' charge misses point of bishops' efforts

FortnightforFreedomMass CNA US Catholic News 6 22 2012 People participate in the opening Mass of the Fortnight for Freedom on June 21, 2012 in Baltimore, Md.

Critics who accuse the U.S. bishops of "partisanship" have misunderstood their motives by viewing religious questions in secular terms, supporters of the Catholic hierarchy say.

"The media has no quibble at all when the bishops issue a statement questioning some aspects of Paul Ryan's budget, or when they express their support of recent decisions on the part of the Obama administration relating to immigration," Church historian Dr. Matthew Bunson told CNA.

"It's only when the bishops decide to exercise their authority in areas the media disagrees with" – such as marriage, sexuality, or theological orthodoxy – "that the bishops are suddenly 'reactionary.'"

The charge of partisanship has surfaced during 2012 in the fight over the federal "preventive services" mandate. Created under the federal health care reform law, it is opposed by the bishops for requiring religious employers to provide contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs.

Bunson, editor of the Encyclopedia of the American Catholic Church, said the bishops' critics seemed obsessed with judging their actions by secular standards of "left" and "right," rather than viewing their words and deeds in light of the Church's non-partisan social teaching.

There is an element of "selective memory," he said, in portraying the bishops as servants of a right-wing agenda. In the service of this narrative, critics must ignore important aspects of the hierarchy's public policy work and the Church's teaching.

In their coverage of the U.S. bishops' religious liberty initiative, the June 21-July 4 "Fortnight for Freedom," outlets like USA Today and National Public Radio suggested that the Church's religious liberty effort could be a veiled campaign against President Obama.

"Feeling Under Siege, Catholic Leadership Shifts Right" was the title of NPR's July 4 story on the fortnight. While acknowledging the Church's concern for religious freedom, the story highlighted the "many Catholics" who "view the controversial campaign as an anti-Obama move in an election year."

On NPR's website, the story was accompanied by a large photograph of protesters holding signs with slogans such as: "Bishops! You don't speak for me!" and "I love the Church, I hate the politics."

Meanwhile, USA Today's religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman was criticized for inaccurate coverage of the fortnight's closing Mass at Washington, D.C.'s National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. 

In her July 4 "Faith and Reason" blog post, the reporter wrote that Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput delivered "a bell-ringing homily on the Affordable Care Act as an enemy of freedom under God" at the national shrine. The sermon, however, made no mention of the health care law.

"We've heard from dozens of people – some delighted, some enraged – commenting on the archbishop's giving a 'political' or 'partisan' homily, based on your article. That is precisely and deliberately what the archbishop didn't do," archdiocesan adviser Francis Maier told Grossman in an e-mail.

In fact, Archbishop Chaput's homily offered a reflection on the higher form of "true freedom"  which is found by "living according to God's plan."

Maier noted that the archbishop's religious freedom advocacy predates the Obama presidency by several years. But the "bottom line," he told Grossman, was that Archbishop Chaput "said nothing at all about the Affordable Care Act or the HHS mandate in his homily, and saying that he did is factually wrong."

A July 3 New York Daily News editorial, by Catholic Voices USA representative Melissa Moschella, also took issue with the notion that the bishops were putting politics before faith.

Moschella pointed out that the bishops showed themselves willing to criticize the Obama administration's contraception mandate, and to support the administration's position against Arizona's immigration law, on the same principled grounds derived from the Church's social teaching.

She also noted that the bishops had been "strong supporters of health care reform from the beginning," pushing for corrective changes to the Affordable Care Act rather than a wholesale repeal.

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While "skeptics" may view the bishops' religious freedom advocacy as "election-year political opportunism," a full account of their actions shows they are "in nobody's pocket," Moschella argued.

By Bunson's assessment, the critics and the media – rather than the U.S. bishops – were at fault in politicizing religion.

"The bishops represent rightful authority in the Church. By wearing that down, in the public mind, they're able to reduce the effectiveness of the bishops to deal with those issues that are most pressing to the 'progressive' agenda," the historian observed.

The end goal, he suggested, was a "reduction of the voice of Church in the public square," particularly in areas where its teaching challenges the prevailing secular orthodoxy.

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