Friday, January 27, 2012

Catholic Bishops Crank Up Republican Voting Machine in Response to HHS Guidelines

Here is an example of the kind of wild over-the-top, scare-infused political rhetoric we can begin to expect from many U.S. Catholic bishops now that the Obama administration has accepted guidelines for HHS to require contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans: Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria says the new regulations may close down "every Catholic school, hospital, and other public ministries of our Church."

They will do nothing of the sort, and it's hard to imagine Jenky isn't fully aware of this as he issues a letter to be read in every parish in his diocese urging Catholics to resist the new guidelines.  This is raw politicking.  It's an attempt by the U.S. Catholic bishops to mobilize the Catholic church in the U.S. as a Republican voting machine in the coming elections.  

As Jenky and other bishops (and here and here) now using this tactic certainly know very well, many Catholic institutions have already been covering contraceptives in their health care plans.  And the church has carried on.  It hasn't toppled.  Its schools, hospitals, and other institutions have continued their services unabated, even when a number of these Catholic workplaces have long been offering contraceptive coverage for their employees.  Even the fringe-right Catholic college now suing the U.S. government over these guidelines, Belmont Abbey College, was already offering contraceptive coverage in its own health care plan prior to 2007.

The insinuation that the new guidelines will shut down Catholic institutions and the wild over-the-top scare rhetoric are part and parcel of the response of many Catholic commentators who support the USCCB to the new guidelines.  As I noted a few days ago, Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter, who has done everything but stand on his head to promote the USCCB position in this debate, immediately responded to the acceptance of the new guidelines by claiming that the administration has  

essentially told us, as Catholics, that there is no room in this great country of ours for the institutions our Church has built over the years to be Catholic in ways that are important to us . . . .

Winters has gone on to pen an equally non-reality-based appeal to the bishops to chain themselves to the White House fence in protest of the new guidelines--as if defending Humanae Vitae and its magisterial teaching about birth control, which more than 90% of Catholics long ago rejected for theologically sound reasons, is the burning issue as Catholicism deals with the world today.  And not the preferential concern for the poor and those shoved to the margins of society that we claim is our central concern in our interaction with the public square . . . . 

Readers may recall that Jenky has previously announced that the Obama administration is at war with Catholics (since, evidently, Catholics = Jenky and his fellow bishops).  So his latest we're-at-war screed is nothing in the least new.

What is new about this tactic is that it's part of a wider picture of bishops seeking to mobilize parishes and Catholics in general to bring in the vote for the Republicans in the coming elections.  We're seeing with this orchestrated campaign on the part of the USCCB the political face of the Catholic church at its ugliest.  This is an undisguised get-out-the-vote effort, and it's hardly to the credit of the bishops involved in this campaign (or to Mr. Winters) that they're willing to sling around absurd fabricated claims that the current administration is at war with "Catholics" and trying to shut down Catholic institutions--something they certainly know is not true.

A tiny footnote to this discussion of the USCCB in partisan political (= Republican machine) mode: remember how the bishops are up in arms after the Pew Forum published a report showing them, in terms of dollars spent, the second largest faith-based lobbying group in D.C.?  They are seeking to maintain that Pew got it wrong, and has classified money they spend in Washington for advocacy as lobbying money.

For those who have been following this discussion, I highly recommend today's New York Times editorial, "So Who's a Lobbyist?"  As it notes, the current federal guidelines for defining who's engaged in lobbying are so loosey-goosey that even Newt Gingrich can legitimately claim he's not a lobbyist.  And so, the American Bar Association is recommending a tightening of federal lobbying guidelines that would close loopholes and "require far more people to register as lobbyists, and subject them to ethics and disclosure requirements."

The reason the bishops are able to play the lobbying-vs.-advocacy game when it comes to counting the dollars they spend politicking in D.C.?  It has everything to do with the slipperiness permitted by the federal lobbying guidelines.  

If they want their new welcome-back campaign to have any real effectiveness for the many, many Catholics who've been alienated by their abandonment of authentic pastoral leadership, maybe they need to tone down the politicking and money counting and saber rattling, and start acting like real pastors for a change.  You know, like the kind of pastors who visit and console the sick, see that the homeless are clothed and sheltered, comfort the grieving, and so forth.

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