Musings in Ordinary Time: Bishops’ outrage: Why this, and why now?
(POSTED: 2/15/12) On Jan. 20, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a mandate for all health plans to cover FDA-approved contraception. Religiously-affiliated organizations, save for churches themselves, were not exempt. (On Feb. 10, President Obama announced a compromise, under which insurers would provide free birth control if religious employers denied coverage.)
The U.S. bishops, in a fireworks display of zeal, waged public relations war on the original HHS mandate and have also deemed the Obama compromise insufficient. Overall, their talking point has been religious freedom. Typical was a Jan. 31 letter from my bishop, R. Daniel Conlon, to the people of the Diocese of Joliet.
“The directive applies to religious employers, even if the services in question violate their moral principles,” Conlon wrote. “It also places an unnecessary burden of conscience on other employers, Catholic and otherwise, who consider these services immoral.”
He emphasized in bold text: “The Health and Human Services directive is a violent breach of the wall of separation between church and state. For the government to force a religious body to pursue a course of action that contradicts its beliefs, particularly where no public interest is at stake, is completely unacceptable.”
That’s red-hot rhetoric: “violent breach.” My grandmother’s family, who lived in the former Soviet Union and saw their local Orthodox parish converted into a barn, probably knew more about “violent breaches.”
But my main question: why this, and why now? What about the myriad other problems demanding our bishops’ outrage?
Why didn’t the bishops organize Catholics to demand a public, single-payer insurance option? Catholic organizations would have avoided shelling out for services they deplored. Meanwhile, the spectacle of tens of millions of Americans doing without health coverage, while insurers post eye-popping profits, is pure sin.
War is anti-life, preemptive war especially so. Yet the U.S. bishops did not surround the White House in 2003, when President Bush invaded Iraq. Capital punishment is anti-life, and effectively ruled out by Pope John Paul II. But do you hear about bishops chaining themselves to prison fences at execution time?
Unfettered capitalism upholds death by swelling the ranks of the poor who cannot get basic necessities. But the bishops do not occupy Wall Street. They do not pursue sweeping, public investigations into major Catholic donors, exposing and refusing those who might derive their money from sub-prime mortgages or sweatshops.
Global warming is an urgent issue. There is no womb-to-tomb without a functioning ecosystem. Yet the bishops have never announced they will make a point by simultaneously installing solar panels on all their cathedral roofs.
Gangs, drugs and guns are scourges of our cities. But urban archbishops have little reputation for street marching, knocking on doors, staying available for funerals or personally creating alternatives. Such nitty-gritty is generally offloaded onto the Michael Pflegers and Greg Boyles.
Where are the clarion calls when living, breathing people are in clear and present danger? In 2006, Congress was debating H.R. 4437, which sought to make sheltering illegal immigrants a felony. That Ash Wednesday, Roger Cardinal Mahony told Los Angeles Catholics to defy the bill if it became law, because they had to be free to minister to the vulnerable and the stranger. Mahony’s kind of religious freedom talk sounds odd to us, and isn’t that itself odd, considering the Gospel?
All things considered, the bishops’ fight with HHS highlights another freedom, one they guard all too vigilantly: their freedom to be “Cafeteria Catholics” like everybody else.
Justin Sengstock works for Call To Action. His writing appears at Young Adult Catholics and on the blog of Read/Write Library Chicago (formerly the Chicago Underground Library). Justin, a lifelong south suburbanite, has a theology degree from Loyola University Chicago.