Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Bishops choose politics
Roman Catholic bishops and Uncle Sam formerly walked across the same bridge, teaming up to spread social justice. They worked on registering voters, building subsidized housing and offering the poor nutritional meals. Now, the bishops’ support for the Affordable Health Care Act is virtually nonexistent. Fighting between the two sides escalates with Roman Catholic Paul Ryan, D-Wis., running as the Republican vice presidential candidate. The National Right to Life Committee gives him a No. 1 ranking because of Ryan’s antiabortion votes during his 14 years in Congress. Ryan also supports the Republican Party’s platform calling for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. In contrast, the Affordable Health Care Act rules that large Catholic institutions – such as hospitals, social-service charities and schools – be treated like secular employers. Each would be required to offer free contraceptive services as part of the employee insurance coverage.Roman Catholic bishops vigorously protested this mandate, arguing that it overreached. The rule, they claimed, forced institutions directly tied to the church to compromise moral values prohibiting birth control (other than the rhythm method), sterilization and the morning-after pill.President Obama and his team showed flexibility, pressing for a joint solution with the upset Catholic hierarchy. They shifted payment of contraceptive procedures, making the church no longer responsible for them. Now insurance providers are responsible for payment of birth-control procedures.How did bishops respond to this compromise of building a workable bridge? They sank it.The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sabotaged any remedy for reconciliation. They accused Uncle Sam of trampling on religious freedoms that the Constitution guarantees every American citizen. They urged parishioners to protest the Affordable Health Care Act. As the protest movement grew, Catholic parishes sponsored “A Fortnight for Freedom” in which parishioners engaged in a period of prayer and education. Were religious rights of those against abortion jeopardized by an alleged intrusive Affordable Health Care Act? Yes, retorted a Catholic lay group. As intransigent as their bishops, they rallied support with an advertisement peddled on Fox News. It shows a grim President Obama pictured in a shadowy backdrop. A narrator trips a gloomy alarm, “We will defend our right to practice our faith free from governmental coercion.” He sounds like a strident Tom Paine rallying patriots at the birth of our nation.Bishops build a bridge to nowhere when they claim their religious rights against abortion are curtailed. The Affordable Health Care Act isn’t in the business to police or persecute Catholics. Its objective is to broaden the scope of health care, including contraceptive services, to Americans who have been denied coverage in the past. If bishops were biologically constructed to conceive and carry a child in the womb, they would commiserate with women who need these services. Father Thomas Reese, director of the Religion & Public Policy program at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center, has it right. He shows where bishops have gone wrong. They blew up cooperative efforts between Uncle Sam and the church by destroying the wrong bridge. This isn’t a religious freedom issue. “The accusation is that this is a war on religion and this is anti-Catholicism,” observes Father Reese. “I don’t agree with that. I think this is a disagreement over public policy. … This is not an administration that is anti-Catholic or antireligious.”Once bishops started politicking, the respected Christian Century magazine bailed out on the prelates. Does the Affordable Health Care Act violate religious freedom? No, declares the Christian Century in an editorial titled “Liberty Imperiled? (June 27, 2012, p.7). “Under the First Amendment, religious believers have often been granted exemptions from general laws, such as laws requiring service in the military or school attendance or children’s vaccinations. “But the logic of accommodation on religious grounds has never meant that the law in question – requiring military service, say, or vaccinations – is itself a violation of religious liberty and must be repealed. That is the argument that the bishops are trying to make, but it is muddled and unconvincing.”We learned on the playground that you can’t win every game of marbles. Bishops should stop politicking, playing their religious marbles to triumph over the government. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.