Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In Catholic News: Continued Discussion of Bishops' Religious Freedom Initiative, and Mr. Finn Cuts a Deal

And on the Catholic front, here's what the U.S. Catholic bishops hope to accomplish with their expensive and well-funded (by whom?) smoke-and-mirrors campaign making loud bogus claims that the "religious freedom" of "Catholics" is now under assault by the Obama administration: as Sarah Posner reports at Religion Dispatches today, just as the bishops convened their Baltimore meeting, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post screaming that the Obama administration is attacking Catholics!!!! (The word "scream" and the italics are mine; they're not in Posner's more measured analysis.)

Gerson's op-ed statement, conveniently timed to go off like a little bomb just as the bishops were ranting in Baltimore about religious freedom and attacks on Catholic beliefs in the public square, is now making the rounds of right-wing and centrist Catholic blogsites.  It's clearly designed to assist the bishops in creating a meme designed to drive Catholic voters to the polls in 2012, to pull the Republican lever.

And so the "religious freedom" brouhaha is all about politics, in the final analysis, and not about spirituality in the least.  It's all about the U.S. Catholic bishops' continuing determination to serve the interests of a single political party (at the expense of representing the entire Catholic tradition at its best in the public square).  And, above all, it's all about the bishops' continuing determination to serve the super-rich, to whom they have made themselves far more accessible than to any ordinary Catholic in the world.

Or to any protester of the Occupy movement: the reason the U.S. Catholic bishops kept their mouths shut about economic justice at their recent meeting and the reason we don't see Catholic churches leaping to offer sanctuary to displaced Occupy protesters is that the bishops are too busy taking phone calls from the Robbie Georges, Deal Hudsons, Newt Gingriches, and Tom Monaghans of the world to talk to the nation's hoi polloi.

And precisely because such wealth and such power has the bishops' back as they rant and rave about "religious freedom" and "anti-Catholic attacks," I can't say I share the optimism of some of the commentators at recent National Catholic Reporter blog discussions about the bishops' Baltimore meeting.  Jerry Slevin, in particular, has left several comments in recent days at NCR discussions arguing that Mr. Dolan's secret meeting with President Obama last week was all about Mr. Dolan making nice to the president, because the Penn State blow-up now has the bishops running scared.

This analysis proposes that the bishops are now afraid of the ability of a federal government placed on the defensive by their politicking to haul them into court for their criminal behavior with cases of abuse of minors.  I'm inclined to read that secret meeting differently, though.  The U.S. Catholic bishops have a strong recent history of smooth, little publicized behind-the-scenes meetings with federal officials, in which they almost always manage to get their way--as if they are a quasi-offiical theocratic lobbying party to whom Congress and the White House must always bow down when they swoop in to make their demands, as they did with the health care legislation early in the Obama administration.

And as Sarah Posner points out in the article to which I link above, the Obama administration has continued the faith-based programs and rhetoric of the Bush administration, and has shown itself over and over to be susceptible to the arguments of "centrist" Democrats that the Democratic party is alienating people of faith and needs to make concessions to the religious right--and to Catholics as a key constituency of the religious right, per their bishops.  (Though a majority of American Catholics do not stand with the bishops on a wide range of moral issues, and resist the inclusion of Catholics in the fold of the religious right.)

I'm not as sanguine as Jerry Slevin is about the possibility that the bishops are now running scared, and that the Obama administration therefore has the upper hand in dealing with them.  I am not as confident as some commentators appear to be that Mr. Obama won't cave in (or hasn't already caved in) to Mr. Dolan's demands about respecting the "rights" and "freedom" of the bishops to massage civil laws.

I will, however, grant you that the bishops are running scared.  Or they should be running scared, as Mr. Finn of Kansas City ends up all over again in the national spotlight just after the Penn State story broke.  Finn has just cut a plea-bargaining deal with the court in Kansas City to avoid yet another indictment.  For SNAP's valuable analysis of this deal, see Peter Isely's press statement yesterday.

For any sane and spiritually sensitive group of religious leaders, the fact that a brother pastoral leader is in the national limelight immediately on the heels of the Penn State revelations, drawing attention to the shameful (and criminal) way in which he has handled credible reports of behavior endangering the welfare of children, ought to lead to hubris chastened.  And to respectful silence and meditation.

Not to loud media campaigns claiming that we're the ones being victimized.

And so, the louder and meaner the Catholic bishops of the U.S. talk about their "rights" and their "freedom" to remove rights and freedom from others, the more they reveal themselves to the general public and to most Catholics as men devoid of wisdom, of spirituality, of leadership acumen.  And, above all, of love, which is always at the center of any authentic spiritual life and spiritual tradition.

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