We became aware on June 7, that news mediareceived a memo from John Gehring, casting aspersions on the Catholic bishopsand their educational project on religious liberty, the Fortnight for Freedom.
Mr. Gehring is CatholicProgram Director of “Faithin Public Life,” a group founded with help from a pro-abortion group longdirected by John Podesta called the Center for AmericanProgress (CAP); like the CAP it hasreceived fundingfrom billionaire atheist GeorgeSoros. These do not seem like eminent qualifications for telling bishopshow to guide the Church.
In his memo, Mr.Gehring juxtaposes what he calls the bishops’ “Fictions” with his “Facts” – andhe provides the media with “questions to ask Catholic bishops” that heapparently thinks are embarrassing.Infact we’re happy to answer those questions in this memo.But we’ll begin by showing how fiction andfact is mixed up in his account.
Gehring:It’s especially important to scrutinize the bishops’ campaign because of “thecharged political backdrop of this high-profile initiative -- five monthsbefore a presidential election.”
Fact:Mr. Gehring should have noticed that the bishops’ key insert for Churchbulletins during the Fortnight for Freedom lists sevenrecent threats to religious liberty – only two of which have anything to dowith the President or his administration.None of our materials, of course, say anything about an election.The Fortnight for Freedom responds to a broadertrend in our society: We are in danger of forgetting our nation’s great legacyof religious freedom, and of neglecting to defend such freedom for everyone whenthat is most needed.Even regarding theHHS contraceptive mandate – the only one of the seven threats that Mr. Gehringseems to notice – the timing of the regulatory process and resultingcontroversy has been determined by the Administration, not by the Church.
Gehring:The bishops have accused the Administration of waging “a war on religion” and“a war on the Catholic Church.”
Fact:Thoughhe puts these phrases in direct quotes,Gehringproduces noevidence of this. Insteadhe pulls a bait-and-switch, citing (and misusing) other quotes.For example:
Gehring accusesCardinal Dolan of saying that the Administration is “‘strangling’ the CatholicChurch.”What Cardinal Dolan said was:“The exemption given to the church [by the HHS mandate] is sostrangling and so narrow and it’s also presumptuous that a bureau of thefederal government is attempting to define for the church the extent of itsministry and ministers… It’s almost like we’re being punished for the fact thatwe serve a lot of people.” The Cardinal was noting that the narrow religiousexemption is “strangling” the Church’s ability to live out its mission, becausea Church institution can’t be exempt from the morally objectionable coverageunless (among other things) it stops serving people of other faiths – thus itmust violate one call of the gospel or the other.To point out this Hobson’s choice is simplyto recognize reality.
Gehring says BishopJenky of Peoria has “compared Obama administration policies to those of Hitler andStalin.”Actually Bishop Jenky expressedconcernthat the federal government may have begun to distrust the churches as rivalsto its own claims to authority – as happened with many European leaders of thepast century and more, whether of the mainstream right and left (Otto vonBismarck and Georges Clemenceau) or of the extremist right and left (AdolfHitler and Joseph Stalin).But then, “Bishopwarns against government trend toward a century-old European view of religion that,for all their other vast differences, was shared by Hitler and GeorgesClemenceau” would not make a racy headline.
Finally, Gehring saysBishop Cordileone has expressed worry about the “despotism” of the HHSmandate.Bishop Cordileone was citingan 1886 speech by Cardinal James Gibbons that said the U.S. has “libertywithout license, authority without despotism.” Noting recent attacks on theconscience rights of individual Americans, and on the right of religiousinstitutions to serve the public without violating their teaching on marriage,he worried that “we could be starting tomove in the direction of license and despotism.”In this context the bishop did not mention theHHS mandate or the Administration -- and the conference at which he spoke distributeda list of ten recent threats to religious freedom, only three of which haveanything to do with the Obama administration. Yet Gehring simply assumes thatall this is a direct reference (and an overreaction) to one federal policy.
Gehring:The Obama administration has now provided a “wider religious exemption” to itscontraceptive mandate, and the bishops initially welcomed this before “quicklymoving the goalposts” so they could object to it and support the Bluntamendment in Congress.
Fact:There was no “moving of goalposts.”Thebishops have voiced principled objectionto coerced contraceptive coverage as part of HHS’s “preventive services”mandate since 2010; they have supported exemptions from such mandates on moralor religious grounds for many years; and they have supported the “Respectfor Rights of Conscience Act” (identical with the Blunt amendment) sinceDecember 2010.What happened on February10, 2012 was that the bishops initially welcomed the Administration’sannouncement that its incredibly narrow religious exemption would be broadened;but before the end of the day they saw the actual “final rule” from HHS, andfound that the mandate and narrow exemption had been finalized “withoutchange.”So “spin” gave way to grim reality.A widening of the exemption not only did not happen – it would actually now be illegal, unless a new rulemaking processwere to nullify the current one.
Gehring:The“accommodation” to which the bishops object“makes sure no religiously affiliated institution will have to pay forservices that violate its moral beliefs or even refer employees for thiscoverage,” and so has been welcomed by Catholic Health Association and otherCatholic groups.
Fact:No, the Catholic Health Association has objectedto the proposed “accommodation,” as have others across the political spectrum, oncethey found that the coverage will ultimately be subsidized by premiums paid byemployers and employees and that the Administration’s various proposals areunworkable.Religious employers are excludedfrom having to “provide” the coverage only in the sense that the decision about providing it to their ownemployees will be taken away from them by the government.And Gehring’s claim that the coverage will beprovided only “if a woman employed by an objecting Catholic institution wantsthis coverage” is absolutely false: The Administration’s new notice says thecoverage will be provided “automatically” to these women, and to their teenagechildren, even if the woman objects.Soindividual conscience rights as well as parents’ rights to guide their childrenin matters of sexuality are now also at risk.Gehring doesn’t notice that in this respect, the new advance noticepromotes a more coercive policy thanthe original one he describes (which is now obsolete).The problems with the “accommodation” havebeen thoroughly explained in a recent commentletter and factsheet from the USCCB.
Gehring:Covering contraception is nothing new for Catholic institutions because it isalready required in 28 states.
Fact:This canard was thoroughly addressed in the USCCB’s August 2011 commentletter to HHS.The state mandatesusually apply only to health plans that provide prescription drug coveragegenerally; only one state requires coverage of sterilization; the mandates canbe side-stepped by self-insuring, or coming under federal ERISA standards; andonly three states have a religious exemption as incredibly narrow as the HHSmandate.The federal government has themost inescapably draconian mandate and the narrowest religious exemption in thecountry.No, this is not “business asusual.”
Gehring:Most Americans and Catholics support the HHS mandate and reject the Church’sconcerns.
Fact:The findings of public opinion polls are notoriously changeable and dependenton the wording of questions, but in fact many polls contradict Gehring’s claim.Majority or plurality opposition to themandate and/or its application to religious institutions, among Catholics andthe general public, has been seen in polls released between February and June byRasmussen,CNN,Gallup,QEV Analytics,CBSNews/New York Times, and Marist.In any case, our entire history of religiousfreedom in the United States has been aimed at defending the consciences ofminorities against coercion by majorities.
Gehring’sProposed Questions for Bishops
Now for the questionsMr. Gehring wants news media to ask of the bishops.
“Catholic organizationshave received significant funding increases under the Obama administration.Doesn't this undercut your claims that the administration is ''strangling” theCatholic Church?”
We didn’t quite saythat (see above).But we note that theclaimed funding increases are for Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011.The restrictive requirements that tend toexclude Catholic organizations from domestic and foreign service grants did notappear in federal grant documents until mid-2011,so 2012 would be the first year that is even relevant.In any case, the government grants are notgifts that signify how much the government likes the Catholic Church.Nor are they payments in exchange for oursilence when our religious freedom is attacked elsewhere.Instead, they are payments in exchange forthe delivery of human services, without profit.They are a sign only of the fact that the Church delivers human servicesmore effectively and efficiently than others participating in a competitiveprocess.
“How much money is being spent on thisreligious liberty campaign and where is it coming from?”
This cannot be answered nationally because each diocese chooses its ownactivities and funding. But Gehring’s focus here is to discredit the nationalfunding received from the Knights of Columbus, which has devoted many hundredsof millions of dollars to nonpartisan life-saving humanitarian goals, becausethat group’s current leader worked for a Republican president 25 years ago.This is an unwise objection for Faith inPublic Life to raise, since its own staff of seven peopleincludes: one person who came to the group directly from serving ascommunications director for a Democratic congressman and his election campaign;one who worked for various Democratic campaigns and for the DemocraticSenatorial Campaign Committee; two(including Gehring) who worked for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, ablatantly partisan Soros-funded political initiative; and an executive directorcoming from the secular and partisan Center for American Progress.People in glass houses shouldn’t throw boomerangs.
“In all of your religious liberty materialswhy is there no mention that it was a conservative Catholic, Supreme CourtJustice Anton in Scalia, who wrote a major decision weakening religious libertyprotections?”
As a start: (a) We don’t tag Supreme Court justices with religious andpolitical labels to discredit them, (b) this decision in Employment Divisionv. Smith happened 22 years ago, and (c) we already have spent manyyears of litigation and legislative advocacy to counter its effects, with somesuccess.Among other things, we helpedenact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to restore federalprotection of religion to the status it had before the Smith decision –and it is most likely under that law that the HHS mandate will be invalidated by federal courts.
“Are you concernedthat this religious liberty campaign is in danger of becoming politicizedduring an election year? Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committeeon Domestic Justice and Human Development, recently expressed concern that somegroups ‘very far to the right’ are trying to use the conflict as ‘an anti-Obamacampaign’."
Partisan misuse of suchlegitimate issues by other groups is indeed a concern, whether those others comefrom the right (as Bishop Blaire has properly warned) or from the left (as Mr.Gehring has exemplified).The solutionis for the bishops to resist the distractions of those others and stay focusedon the merits of the substantive issue, emphasizing the Fortnight for Freedomas a time for education, prayer, and action on the great gift of religiousliberty.
“Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. bishops' conferencehas argued there is now ‘a drive to neuter religion,’ but aren't yourobjections to the Obama administration disputes over policy issues not aculture war clash between Church and State?”
No.A dispute over whether existing governmentfunding of contraception should be increased would be an example of a “disputeover policy issues.”But a dispute overwhether the government will forcereligious employers to fund and facilitate contraception, even when they objectto it in conscience, is a religious freedom dispute.Mr. Gehring simply ignores the element ofgovernment coercion, as do so many others who attempt to diminish the religiousfreedom aspect.In any event, the trendCardinal Dolan describes goes well beyond the HHS mandate, or even thisAdministration.It also involves actionsby state legislative and executive bodies, some courts, and powerful interestgroups.
For example, theAdministration has excluded the Catholic Church’s efforts to serve victims ofhuman trafficking from federal support because of the Church’s religious andmoral conviction not to promote abortion.Adding insult to injury, ACLU claims that such religious discriminationis not only permitted, but required, by the First Amendment—and a trial courtrecently agreed (and is being appealed).Similarly, the Administration has taken the position that the FirstAmendment affords no special protection for the hiring of ministers by religiousorganizations.Fortunately, this viewwas rejected unanimously by the Supreme Court as “remarkable” and “untenable.” At the state level, some states wouldcriminalize ministry to undocumented immigrants as forbidden “harboring.”At the local level, religious groups aredenied equal access to public facilities, which comparable secular groups couldobtain without difficulty.No, somethingnew and troubling has been happening, and to ignore that is to bury one’s headin the sand—or worse, to try to protect from criticism those who are fosteringthe trend.
“Are you willing to sacrifice Catholic charities, colleges and hospitalsif you don't get your way on the contraceptive mandate?”
We will keep fightinguntil we prevail.And if, in themeantime, any Church institutions are ever “sacrificed,” it will be the resultof government action making it impossible for those Church institutions tocontinue to operate consistent with their religious beliefs.
“Are you willing to drop all health insurance for your employees?”
Thank you for yourattention to these observations. For more about the bishops’ religious freedomefforts, see www.usccb.org/conscienceand www.fortnight4freedom.org.If you have other questions feel free tocontact the USCCB Office of Media Relations at @email
## # # #MEDIA CONTACT ONLY:Sr. Mary Ann WalshO: 202-541-3200M: 301-325-7935Email
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