In the political standoff between the U.S. government and the nation's Catholic bishops, "religious liberty" has become the new buzzword of late. In fact, some would say the recent string of decisions in Washington that have come at the expense of the church amount to nothing short of an anti-Catholic bias.
Last week, Bishop William Lori, who heads the bishops' ad hoc committee for religious liberty, testified before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee. Lori ran through a laundry list of recent decisions that he says pose "grave threats to religious liberty," including the mandate that health insurance plans cover contraception, requirements for state contracted international development agencies like Catholic Relief Services to provide condoms as a method of HIV prevention, and the current administration's decision to no longer support the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the recognition of same-sex marriage. Lori expressed concern that the Catholic Church will be labeled as bigots for their stance on marriage, although this already seems to be happening regardless of whether government laws on the issue change.
The bishops' conference was also denied a federal grant to support its efforts to combat human trafficking by the Department of Health and Human Services. Though the bishops' Office of Migration and Refugee Services is a highly-rated national leader in the war against trafficking, they were denied the grant because they refuse to provide contraception or abortion access to victims, which hardly seems like enough of a concern in helping trafficking victims that it should cost the bishops' conference a grant. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the USCCB's director of media relations, cited this as evidence of the HHS department's "ABC" rule: "Anybody But Catholics" may apply. Of course, HHS is denying any kind of bias, but Walsh is still suspicious, noting some key changes in the Washington Post's original version of the story and HHS's response to it.
But the bishops have pressed on, particularly when it comes to battling same-sex marriage. Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, who chairs the bishops' subcommittee on the promotion and defense of marriage, this week made another plea to the judiciary committee to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act. So far, it looks like those efforts are falling on deaf ears. Meanwhile, others have argued that the bishops have too much sway when it comes to influencing law and policy, particularly on abortion.
A group of lay Catholics this week also issued a call for religious tolerance, toward Catholics and people of other faiths, as religion becomes an issue of contention in the 2012 election.
So all of this begs the question: is there really an anti-Catholic bias in Washington? Ultimately, the rift comes down to a core set of social issues: abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The church, in holding its moral ground on these issues, is navigating very rough political waters. Faith in Public Life summed up the issue well on their blog this week, saying "in a pluralistic democracy it's also inevitable that there will be times when the particular moral beliefs of a religious organization clash with a government agency tasked with providing public funding drawn from taxpayers who don't share those views."
As long as Catholic leaders–or leaders of any religious group, for that matter–take their views into the political arena, they are bound to hit some roadblocks.Whether or not you call it "anti-Catholic bias," government leaders simply aren't concerned with making sure their laws conform to Catholic teaching, because their constituency extends far beyond Catholics. But that doesn't mean the bishops aren't going to keep trying to change their minds.