It turns out that many bishops, notably the church leadership in California, saw the litigation as premature. They are upset that the lawsuits were brought without a broader discussion among the entire membership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and wanted to delay action until the conference’s June meeting.
Until now, bishops who believed that their leadership was aligning the institutional church too closely with the political right had voiced their doubts internally. While the more moderate and liberal bishops kept their qualms out of public view, conservative bishops have been outspoken in condemning the Obama administration and pushing a “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign aimed at highlighting “threats to religious freedom, both at home and abroad.”
But in recent months, a series of events — among them the Vatican’s rebuke of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, encouraged by right-wing U.S. bishops — have angered more progressive Catholics and led to talk among the disgruntled faithful of the need for a “Catholic spring” to challenge the hierarchy’s shift to the right.
Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., broke the silence on his side Tuesday in an interview with Kevin Clarke of the Jesuit magazine America. Blaire expressed concern that some groups “very far to the right” are turning the controversy over the contraception rules into “an anti-Obama campaign.”
“I think there are different groups that are trying to co-opt this and make it into [a] political issue, and that’s why we need to have a deeper discussion as bishops,” he said. “I think our rhetoric has to be that of bishops of the church who are seeking to be faithful to the Gospel, that our one concern is that we make sure the church is free to carry out her mission as given to her by Christ, and that remains our focus.”
Dionne writes that more dissent within the ranks of US bishops would be a healthy development both for the church and American politics. Given the tremendous diversity of the Catholic Church in the US, I have found it difficult to believe that there is not some fissure in the outward unity among US bishops.
It will be interesting to see which dioceses participate next month in the US Bishops Conference’s Fortnight for Freedom campaign, “a 14-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom, from June 21-July 4.” Fewer than 20 dioceses are listed on the USCCB webpage that offers examples of activities around the nation.
Do you think internal debate and public dissent is healthy for the church? Will you participate in a Fortnight activity? Do you see the effort as underhanded electioneering for the GOP, or as an effective way for Catholics to resist true incursions of their religious freedom? If your bishop were to ask you to rank the top five issues facing Catholics in the US today, would religious freedom rank among them?