The Honeymoon’s (Almost) Over

So will this be that moment when the media finally turns on Pope Francis?

In a rather fortuitous bit of timing following my post yesterday, the Pope may now find himself in a bit of a pickle, when it comes to his relationship with the media.  Today the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a report not only condemning the sex abuse scandal, but going even further, insisting that the Catholic Church change its teachings on issues like contraception and abortion.  The Vatican has issued an initial, somewhat terse response, acknowledging the findings of the Committee but also its “regret to see in some points of the Concluding Observations an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of human person and in the exercise of religious freedom.”

Putting aside the issue of the sex abuse scandal itself, one does have to ask oneself what children have to do with issues such as contraception and abortion.  Well, other than the fact that both prevent children from existing, of course.  The fact that these issues were thrown in to a final report on what was supposed to be an examination of how the Church handled the abuse crisis seems rather strange – until, that is, one looks a little more closely at who created it.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child is composed of 18 “experts” from around the world.  One of them, Ms. Amal Aldoseri, a Vice-Chairwoman of the Committee, is the foundress of Y-PEER Education in her home country of Bahrain. Y-PEER is an organization which seeks to “increase access to information, knowledge, and services on sexual and reproductive health,” i.e., teach adolescents how to put on a condom, take The Pill, or get an abortion.  Another Vice-Chairwoman of the Committee, Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne of Sri Lanka, began her career as the medical officer/project director of a “family planning” clinic in her home country, i.e., “teach adults how to put on a condom, take The Pill, or get an abortion.  Therefore it should surprise no one that demands that Catholics become gnostics – or at best, Anglicans – when it comes to issues of sexual reproduction would issue from a body headed by such individuals.

What interests me most at this point is anticipating how Pope Francis himself is going to react to this report, for react he must, whether he wants to or not.  The story was the lede on virtually every news outlet today; in fact it was the first story I heard on NPR this morning, a network whose reporting bias works better than any alarm clock at getting me out of bed in a fit of yelling and indignation.  The media will be paying very close attention to what the Pope has to say about the findings and recommendations issued by the Committee, and they will hound him until he does so.

When that statement comes, the Pope will find out who his real friends are.  He may once again surprise us by finding a way to deftly avoid the diplomatic and public relations trap that has been laid for him.  However it is hard to see how he will be able to step around a direct challenge to the fundamental teachings of Christ, the Apostles, and their successors, handed down through the Catholic Church in an unbroken chain for the past 2,000 years.

Hopefully his response, when it comes, will be a clear and unequivocal statement, even if it means that the press honeymoon will come to an end, as a result.


Catholic Women Speak, I Listen

Friday evening I had the great pleasure of attending the book launch for “Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves” at the Catholic Information Center here in Washington, D.C.  Dr. Helen Alvaré of George Mason University Law School – who by the way will shortly be publicly debating a woman named Sandra Fluke whom you might have heard of – is both the editor of and a contributor to this new collection of essays by Catholic women.  Dr. Alvaré moderated the event which included presentations by several of the book’s contributors, as well as a Q&A discussion with the panel afterwards. It was a great pleasure to be able to hear from thoughtful, faithful Catholic women themselves, about how they integrate their Faith into their lives, wherever they happen to be personally and professionally.

Dr. Alvaré began by making some observations on the origins of the project, including a letter to the present Administration which has now been signed by over 30,000 women, and how she approached the women who contributed to the book. She noted that one of her greatest concerns, as someone who has worked in the Pro-Life movement for many years, was that what used to be viewed as the opinions of interest groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL seem to have been taken on board by the present Administration as policy. Thus, the sound bites of these organizations have in many cases become the government’s talking points. Dr. Alvaré noted that the continued thinking of these organizations is that children are a damper on a woman’s possibility of success, and that the availability of abortion and contraception makes a woman as “free” as a man – a line of thinking based on an underlying assumption that somehow the woman was either flawed or not free to begin with.

The book covers many subject areas, including the relatively new phenomenon of a woman being the major breadwinner in the home, the sex/mating/marriage market, and the challenges of motherhood.  Other topics include the continued draw of the religious life in the modern world, and ways of living Catholic life to its fullest every day. In addition to Dr. Alvaré herself, four other contributors to the book spoke about their subject areas, as well as their own experiences as Catholic women from different backgrounds and different age groups, including an Ob/Gyn, a college preparatory school theology teacher, an attorney in private practice, and another attorney at a non-profit.

What was remarkable in the presentation of each of the women was that none of them were shrinking violets laboring under the yoke of an oppressive male patriarchy.  Rather it was clear that each was unafraid to speak about her own experiences, and both the pleasant and difficult aspects of the path that she was on in her life. This was not a panel of holier-than-thou church ladies, sitting on a dais and casting disdainful glances at the imperfect, but rather real people, who have joys and sorrows, achievements and disappointments, as we all do, and are trying their best to make their way toward sainthood, instead of presuming they are there already. As one of the panelists pointed out, even saints who lived a century or five centuries ago suffered many of the same fears and doubts that any of us do today.

Moreover, there was a common recognition among the panelists that each felt she was able to exercise her God-given freedom in her life to make decisions and seek answers. None expressed a sentiment that she was somehow being prevented by any external, supposedly anti-woman force from pursuing her own aspirations or the fulfillment of her own identity. In addition, the very good point was made that this book itself was not a part of a “war on women” but rather an invitation to witness to other women, rather than seeking to win some sort of battle.  This leads us to an important consideration.

As a man, I will admit as I did on the Catholic Weekend show the following day that at times I did feel ever-so-slightly the interloper at this discussion. This was not because I was in any way made to feel unwelcome, I hasten to add.  Rather it was because I felt angered by some of the things these women spoke of experiencing first-hand, in contemporary society, which so often tries to make them seem out of touch or propping up some sort of evil organization by their remaining faithful to the Church.

If you have read me lo these many years, gentle reader, you know that anti-Catholicism is something I will not quarter, though I do confess I could be a bit gentler and perhaps thereby more productive in my reactions to attacks on the Church, at times. As Dr. Alvaré herself mentioned during the Q&A session, sometimes you have to send in the Marines, but sometimes you have to send in the Peace Corps. I have no question that she herself would be fully capable of both choosing and leading either option.  However that bit of wisdom on her part, that sometimes seeking to have a conversation rather than an argument will yield better results, was definitely something I need to chew on.

That being said…

Over the past year or so since the present Administration rather foolishly decided to have a go at the Catholic Church, we have learnt much about what it is that women, and particularly Catholic women, allegedly want for themselves. We have been told that a tiny, select group of half-wit activists and theological contortionists collectively represent the views of Catholic women everywhere. To dare to disagree with this intellectual flea circus is viewed as tantamount to advocating the collective subjugation of, or indeed the making of war upon, all women.

The women whom I listened to at this presentation were not subjugated or enchained, but rather very much free. They were free to seek light and nuance where others seek hyperbole and clichés.  More importantly, they are able to exercise their freedom within the context of both their faith in God AND from within His Church. They do not need anyone to tell them how to think for themselves, as those crying “war on women” so haughtily and presumptuously do.

It was a distinct pleasure for me to be able to spend an evening listening to and learning from such a grounded, smart group of women, each individually bringing something unique and beneficial to the conversation, and collectively impressing me with how very much more I need to reflect upon my own Faith and its integration into my personal and professional life.

Freedom of Religion Attacked Again

This weekend, many Catholics who attended mass in their local churches and picked up a copy of the parish bulletin probably read a letter from their local bishop, concerning a recent decision of the Obama Administration to force religious institutions to provide medical coverage for abortifacients, contraceptives, and sterilization.  These procedures and practices run directly counter to the teachings of the Catholic Church, as well as those of many Protestant churches, and also those of other non-Christian faiths.  Following the airing of a few thoughts of my own, I am providing the text of the letter we received from Cardinal Donald Wuerl, our Archbishop here in Washington, D.C., for those who are interested in reading his views on this subject.

Those of my readers who are fellow Catholics, or who are pro-life in their views, are well-aware of why we oppose these things.  However just as large a concern here is the question of religious liberty, which is one of the foundation stones of the American system of government.  Whether or not you agree with the Catholic Church’s firmly-held teachings over the past 2,000 years regarding abortion, contraception, and sterilization, ask yourself whether you are comfortable with the idea that the government has the right to force a religious institution to pay for something that runs directly contrary to its core religious beliefs.

Two weeks ago, in the unanimous decision of the Justices in the Hosanna-Tabor case, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Administration’s arguments for interference with religious liberty as being “extreme,” “untenable”, and “remarkable.” Apparently, the Administration has not learned its lesson, and intends to set itself up for a fight on the issue of religious liberty once again. Who knows what else the present government has in store for religious groups, if it cannot even accommodate institutions such as Catholic charitable organizations, who are now going to have to very seriously look into the question of whether they will have to shut down. And by the way, the Catholic Church is the single largest provider of education, social services, and healthcare in the United States after the government, often working in very poor, remote, or dangerous areas where no one else INCLUDING the government will even try to help.

Here is Cardinal Wuerl’s letter, which you can also read by following this link. Please share it with others, as you see fit:

January 26, 2012

Dear Brother Priests,

On January 20, 2012, the United States Department of Health and Human Services with the approval of President Barack Obama issued a new federal mandate making coverage of abortifacient drugs, sterilization and all FDA-approved contraceptives obligatory for virtually all employers, including faith-based institutions.

What is at the center of the concern of Catholic bishops and others about this action by the Obama administration? How can it affect the institutions of the Archdiocese of Washington?

The new mandate is the first federal regulation in our nation’s history to require all faith-based institutions to pay for coverage of abortifacient drugs, sterilization and contraceptives. People were already free to use such widely available products and procedures. Up until this mandate, employers could choose whether or not to cover them and individuals could choose whether or not to seek employers that pay for them. Now nearly all those who provide insurance must include abortifacients, sterilization and contraceptives. Virtually all Catholic institutions and individuals will have to pay for that coverage. Being forced to provide these services violates both our faith conviction and our freedom.

In upholding the HHS regulation, the administration has ignored the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and has denied Catholics the most fundamental freedom, religious liberty. Despite the Church’s appeal for a broader religious exemption, which was echoed by many other faiths, the administration refused to modify the regulation’s current exemption that is limited to religious groups that hire and serve people primarily of their own faith. Most churches and church-run institutions do not qualify for the exemption because of their very openness to serving the common good of society and all people regardless of creed.

Even those who may disagree with the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life, such as the editorial boards of The Washington Post and the New York Daily News, have stated that the government has no business forcing religious institutions to sponsor and pay for procedures and drugs which violate their beliefs.

What will happen if this mandate stands? Our schools, hospitals and charitable organizations will be placed in the untenable position of choosing between violating civil law and abandoning our religious beliefs.

For example, the mandate will allow a Catholic school one of three options: 1) violate its beliefs by providing coverage for medications and procedures we believe are immoral, 2) cease providing insurance coverage for all of its employees and face ongoing and ultimately ruinous fines, or 3) attempt to qualify for the exemption by hiring and serving only Catholics.

A Catholic school simply cannot effectively teach Catholic doctrine while providing insurance to its teachers – and in the case of Catholic universities, to its students as well – that violates its own beliefs. Nor should it have to deny its employees access to affordable health care, a basic human right. Nor could it afford to pay crippling fines. Nor should it be forced to close its doors to non-Catholics.

There can no longer be any doubt that religious liberty in our country is in jeopardy. Only weeks ago, the Obama administration unsuccessfully argued to the Supreme Court that the government has the right to interfere in a church’s choice of its ministers. Thankfully, the Court unanimously rejected this radical position. Undeterred, the government has advanced on another front.

Catholics across America are already fighting this mandate. Catholic journalists of all backgrounds have widely criticized the HHS rules as unjust, and leaders of major Catholic organizations — such as the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Relief Services, and Catholic Charities USA — have also spoken out against them. In the meantime, the Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty is actively exploring options for litigation and legislative proposals to remedy this injustice.

I hope you will bring this information to the attention of your parishioners and encourage them to pray that justice will prevail and religious liberty may be restored. You may wish to include a bulletin announcement or information on your parish website recommending that parishioners visit and for details about the new federal mandate and how to contact Congress to support legislation that would reverse the administration’s decision. Please consider calling attention to this issue and all of these resources as soon as possible.

With gratitude for your collaboration in this very important matter and with every good wish, I am

Faithfully in Christ,
Donald Cardinal Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington

Cardinal Wuerl at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C.