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My Take: Catholic bishops against the common good
The American Catholic bishops celebrating Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
April 15th, 2012
08:00 PM ET

My Take: Catholic bishops against the common good

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN)–The U.S. Catholic bishops who claim, increasingly incredibly, to speak on behalf of American Catholics hit a new low last week when they released a self-serving statement called “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” As this title intimates, the supposed subject is religious liberty, but the real matter at hand is contraception and (for those who have ears to hear) the rapidly eroding moral authority of U.S. priests and bishops.

On Easter Sunday, Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CBS that the controversial Health and Human Services contraception rule represents a “radical intrusion” of government into "the internal life of the Church.” On Thursday, 15 of his fellow Catholic clerics (all male) took another sloshy step into the muck and mire of the politics of fear.

In “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” there is talk of religious liberty as the “first freedom” and a tip of the cap to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. But first and foremost there is anxiety. “Our freedoms are threatened,” these clerics cry. “Religious liberty is under attack.”

But what freedoms are these clerics being denied? The freedom to say Mass?  To pray the Rosary?  No and no. The U.S. government is not forcing celibate priests to have sex, or to condone condoms. The freedom these clerics are being denied is the freedom to ignore the laws of the land in which they live.

When I first heard of the HHS rule requiring all employers to pay for birth control for their employees, I thought it should include, on First Amendment grounds, an exemption for Catholic churches. And in fact it did.

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Moreover, when Catholic bishops and priests opposed the contraception mandate, HHS modified its rule, exempting not only Catholic churches but also Catholic-affiliated hospitals, universities, and social service agencies. (For these organizations, employees would receive contraceptive coverage from insurance companies separately from the policies purchased by their employers).

Once the Obama administration presented this compromise, I thought Catholic clerics would withdraw their objections. I was wrong. Instead they acted like political hacks rather than spiritual authorities, doubling down on the invective and serving up to the American public an even deeper draught of petty partisanship.

The bishops refer repeatedly in their statement to “civil society.” But think for a moment of the sort of "civil society" we would have if religious people were exempt from any law they deemed “unjust” for religious reasons.

Mormon employers who object to same-sex marriages could deny life insurance benefits to same-sex couples.

Jehovah’s Witnesses who object to blood transfusions could deny health care coverage for blood transfusions.

Christian Scientists who oppose the use of conventional medicine could refuse to cover their employees for anything other than Christian Science treatments.

And Roman Catholics could demand (as the bishops do in this statement) state financing for foster care programs that refuse to place foster children with same-sex parents.

As the Roman Catholic Church has taught for millennia, human beings are not isolated atoms. We live together in society, and we come together to pass laws to make our societies function. Virtually every law is coercive, and care must be taken not to violate the religious liberties of individual citizens. But care must also be taken to preserve the common good.

In their statement, Catholic bishops accused American political leaders of launching “an attack on civil society.” They also attempted to cloak themselves in the mantle of Dr. King. But theirs is a vision of an uncivil society, and their cause has nothing to do with the civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement succeeded because its cause was just, and because its leaders were able to mobilize millions of Americans to bring an end to the injustice of segregation. The effort by male Roman Catholic leaders to deny contraception coverage to female employees who want it does not bear even a passing resemblance to that cause. And even the bishops behind this so-called "movement" must admit that it is failing to mobilize even American Catholics themselves.

At least since the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, Catholics worldwide have been asking, “Who is the Roman Catholic Church?” Is it the hierarchy–a collection of priests, bishops, and cardinals overseen by a pope? Or is it the "People of God" in the pews whom these leaders are ordained to serve?

In recent years, this question has jumped by necessity from the realm of Catholic theology into the rough and tumble of American politics. Does American Catholicism oppose contraception? It depends on who speaks for the Church. The 98% of American Catholic women who have used contraception?  Or the 15 male clerics who issued this statement?

According to “Catholics for Choice,” which has published a rejoinder to "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," “The bishops have failed to convince Catholics in the pews to follow their prohibitions on contraception. Now, they want the government to grant them the legal right to require each of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to set aside our own guaranteed freedom from government-sanctioned religious interference in our lives."

The bishops' statement gives lip service to “civil society” and the “common good,” but what these 15 clerics are trying to do here is destructive of both. To participate in civil society is to get your way sometimes and not others. To seek the common good is to sacrifice your own interests at times to those of others.

I will admit that the HHS contraception rule does ask these Catholic clerics to sacrifice something. But what is this sacrifice? Simply to allow the women who work for their organizations to be offered contraceptive coverage by their insurers. To refuse this sacrifice is not to uphold civil society. It is to refuse to participate in it.

Toward the end of their statement, the 15 bishops who signed this statement called on every U.S. Catholic to join in a “great national campaign” on behalf of religious liberty. More specifically, they called for a “Fortnight for Freedom” concluding with the Fourth of July when U.S. dioceses can celebrate both religious liberty and martyrs who have died for the Catholic cause.

As Independence Day approaches, I have a prediction. I predict that rank-and-file American Catholics will ignore this call. They will see that the issue at hand has more to do with women’s health than with religious liberty. And in the spirit of Vatican II, which referred to the church as the “People of God,” they will refuse to allow these 15 men to speak for them. Whatever moral capital U.S. bishops have in the wake of the sex abuse scandal that rocked the nation for decades will be insufficient to win over lay Catholics to what has been for at least a half a century a lost cause.

These 15 clerics write that American Catholics “must have the courage not to obey” unjust laws.  I think the courage called for today is something else—the courage not to obey those who no longer speak for them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Bishops • Catholic Church • Church and state • Culture wars • Health care • Leaders • Politics • Religious liberty • United States

soundoff (783 Responses)
  1. Max Rockatansky

    The pointy hat brigade is out to force their version of Jesustan on America.

    April 16, 2012 at 12:53 am |
    • bruce

      Today it's the "point hats"
      Tomorrow it's the "boys in beanies"

      Hitler and Stalin started out small like this-until the words Juden were everywhere

      June 30, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  2. S the F U

    I like dog nuts in my mouth

    April 16, 2012 at 12:47 am |
  3. Pavloosh

    Wave just heard from another bigot!

    April 16, 2012 at 12:20 am |
  4. err

    I dont get it? If you dont like Catholic doctrin then dont be catholic. Pretty simple. If you want birth control then go somewhere else and get a job where you can get free loader birth control.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Shayna

      Apparently you don't 'get it' because you suffer from reading INcomprehension. Try again or have someone read this to you.

      April 16, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • err

      Seriously, if you dont like catholics dont hang out with them. Ive heard the episcapalians like the Gays and baby killers, im sure birthcontrol would make them happy to. Go get a job with them. This is a free country nobody is twisting your arm to be catholic you have a choice of many religions in America. Sounds like some people just dont like Catholics so the are trying to destroy them. Why bother wasting your time it just makes libs look like commies.

      April 16, 2012 at 12:45 am |
    • Shayna

      Well take me for example, Im poor and like to participate in gangebangs. I need birthcontrol from all the loads I take. Its not fair.

      April 16, 2012 at 12:56 am |
    • tallulah13

      Catholic hospitals and schools take money for services, therefore they are businesses and are subject to the laws that pertain to all businesses. If they don't wish to obey the law, they should get out of business or face the legal consequences of their actions.

      April 16, 2012 at 2:49 am |
    • err

      wow sounds fascist

      April 16, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • Lion

      Why is there contention over this? Why a dispute? Don't you know you're not to be contentious? Proverbs 17:14 says, "starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out."

      April 16, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  5. truth

    Isaiah 5 >>
    New Living Translation

    18What sorrow for those who drag their sins behind them
    with ropes made of lies,
    who drag wickedness behind them like a cart!
    19They even mock God and say,
    “Hurry up and do something!
    We want to see what you can do.
    Let the Holy One of Israel carry out his plan,
    for we want to know what it is.”
    20What sorrow for those who say
    that evil is good and good is evil,
    that dark is light and light is dark,
    that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.
    21What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes
    and think themselves so clever.
    23They take bribes to let the wicked go free,
    and they punish the innocent.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  6. Chad

    So... it's not OK for them to speak up for something that they believe in?

    April 15, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      Chad... of course,,society accepts the input from religious groups who may base ideas on mysticism, but those groups have to also accept the fact that they cannot always get their way, or the ideas may get rejected in the same way that ideas from other groups can be. In what way are their religious freedoms being taken away.....perhaps they are feeling the pain they inflict on groups they chastise.. such as gay folks?

      April 16, 2012 at 12:19 am |
  7. Jennifer

    I am a Catholic college student and I respect your opinion Mr. Prothero but I find it very offensive and feel you did not take the appropriate time to place yourself in the shoes of a Catholic and understand how this mandate truly goes against what we believe and what is healthy for all human beings. Religious freedom no matter what the religion is something personal and honestly when pondering any faith gives our lives a sense of purpose and value. (If you have not found this true in your life I pray you do and find strength when times get hard for you) Think about it for a moment and I quote Blessed Mother Theresa here but Wouldn't you rather live your life as if God exists and die to find out he doesn't or live your life as if he doesn't and die to find out hes there waiting for you with open loving arms. The relevance of this is that the Health mandate goes against what we believe and this choice is an obstacle that is holding us back from running to those loving arms when our earthly life is over. Individual Catholics who do not work for a Church, do not work for a Catholic hospital, do not work for a service organization, they are still offered this temptation and there is no need to all of a sudden incorporate this for every one when bottom line it prevents the creation of a beautiful baby.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      .Jennifer..in what way is it offensive? And why are you not allowed to be offended? your world view of say gay folks and your treatment of them could also be held as being offensive to others yet because you believe in a god, you feel vindicated You have absolutely no proof of any of your assertions of god, and your church, as all the others, is based on an idea that you claim without justification, is real.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • chubby rain

      It is your individual right to not use contraception. You do not have the right to deny someone else contraception - that is what is meant by religious freedom.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Catholic run businesses are still businesses and therefore are subject to the laws of the land. Ours is a secular government, insuring representation for all citizens. If you don't wish to take birth control, don't take birth control. If catholic run businesses do not wish to obey the law, they should either get out of business or face the consequences of breaking the law just like any other criminal.

      April 16, 2012 at 2:54 am |
    • jim86

      if you don't want to provide the service of a real hospital then don't take the money from the government...

      April 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Wrenn

      Allowing a catholic shool to not cover something of an employee's health care due to the organizations views opens to much of a pandora's box, Jennifer.

      I know of at least 1 Jehovah's Witnesses run and affiliated high school (in Sacramento CA) Would it be all right for that school to disallow blood transfusions as part of the health care for their employees?

      April 20, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  8. terry

    From the hatred for Catholicism in these responses, it's easier now for me to understand how those in the media get away with this type of distorted journalism.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • S the F U

      Shut. the F. Up.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      if catholics stopped trying to shove their nutty world view down everyone's throats, there would probably be a lot less ire directed against them. they also defend child molesters at the expense of the victim. you don't think that's a reason to be angry with them....?

      April 15, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • elizdelphi

      terry, exactly. I am a 33 year old Catholic lay woman and I am so sad when I see this kind of distortion and sheer contempt toward our bishops, whom I very strongly agree with about this matter.

      April 16, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Evidence exhibit "A" above

      June 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  9. John

    You are absolutely right, sir – "the courage called for today is something else—the courage not to obey those who no longer speak for them." That would be our President and other public officials who establish laws against morality and justice, against Christ and His Church. Most of all, however, dear author, I tell you this: Our Dear Lord Jesus Christ loves you, and He holds out His Hand to you in Love. All you have to do is turn from your hate, and grasp it. You will be in my prayers.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • EvolvedDNA

      John..In what way is morality and justice being affected? you may have been told that your church is gods church but its just a story with out any proof. Your church is not the moral compass you have been lead to believe ..look at the recent appalling history of cover up, and the earlier history of the residential schools in Canada. If this is a church that any god wants any thing to do with he/ she will have a lot of explaining to do.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • sam stone

      john: laws against morality? what makes you think it is the job of the president to uphold (your view of) morality?

      April 16, 2012 at 5:46 am |
  10. Russ

    Prothero said: "To participate in civil society is to get your way sometimes and not others. To seek the common good is to sacrifice your own interests at times to those of others."

    I wonder... would he have said the same to MLK?

    When it's somebody else's beliefs, we label it 'fanaticism' & insist on pragmatism & compromise.
    When it's our beliefs, we call it a civil rights issue – and state on principle we must never compromise.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • No

      No, not really....

      April 15, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      lol, like the church is fighting for civil rights. bad analogy.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Yeah, but quite typical of the quality of Russ's usual arguments.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Bootyfunk & TomTom: look up the definition of civil rights. It is exactly what the Catholic Church is pursuing.

      Again – I'm not a Catholic. But the nature of your objections are demonstrating my point.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:21 am |
  11. dilberth

    The one true thing about Christianity is that it is entirely false.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
  12. steven p is the knight in shining armor for...

    women's rights.

    Woman, fret not! your womb is safe with Prothero.

    😉

    April 15, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
    • terry

      Sadly, there are many who follow Steven's foolishness until they find that there are no freedoms left and those in govt. control u from cradle to grave.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
    • Colin

      Well Terry, that's better than religion, that wants to control us from erection to resurrection.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  13. Jonathan Baker

    The issue is NOT about the morality of contraception, but on the limits of the power of the state. The actual issue is secondary here. If you care about your liberties you need to oppose Obama.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • AGuest9

      What about the limits of the power of religion? That's why there is a separation in the first place!

      April 15, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Bwahahhhhahhhahahh. OMG, are you feckin' kidding? Do you really think I'd trust Mittsy with my reproductive rights, you idjit?

      April 15, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
  14. Mr Chihuahua

    Give 'em hell, Prothero! lol!

    April 15, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
  15. ry

    The author is sowing misinformation. There are 195 US Catholic bishops but he is talking about a letter of 15 bishops which he labels "The US Catholic Bishops." See the anti-Catholicism of this CNN author. This inaccurate article should not be published and the author fired. He is a liar and publishing false information.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Colin

      Yes, 195 old men v. 98% of Catholic women is so different to 15 old men v. 98% of Catholic women.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
    • Answer

      Trust any evangelical to overlook the actual relational facts and just go with their gut reaction to 'defend their faith no matter what'.

      Idiots. All you religious nuts are just pitiful.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
  16. Colin

    "Does American Catholicism oppose contraception? It depends on who speaks for the Church. The 98% of American Catholic women who have used contraception? Or the 15 male clerics who issued this statement?"

    Tha is a great comment that just about captuers it all about the Catholic Church. I would say that I hope this silly, Dark Ages inst.itution disappears, but it is so out of touch that it is the greatest door opener to the liberating intelligence of atheism since Charles Darwin. People are finally realizing that one does not need to believe in a god in order to be moral.

    Keep it up you costumed, comical old fools, you are opening minds to the fundamental inanity of your religion all over the Western World. I just wish Ratzinger was only 56 years old.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • terry

      98%? Me thinks you may have something in common which the author: misinformation. The issue here is: just because you think all the women should have something does not mean govt. should force others to pay for it. Who is forcing their beliefs on whom?

      April 15, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Joel

      Hey Terry, I'll stop forcing my beliefs on insuring contraception on you when people stop forcing their beliefs in drone missile strikes and indefinite detention facilities on me. Or, we can acknowledge that we live in a society where we don't all agree and we all have to bend a little.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  17. The Central Scrutinizer

    Why are all those men wearing paper hats from "Dick's Last Resort" on their heads? Must have been party night in Texas last night!

    Top ten Sharpie words of wisdom for the Biships:

    1. I am a poo poo head.
    2. I love giving head.
    3. I love poo poo.
    4. You can trust me....
    5. Sit on my lap, don't worry that is a flash light.
    6. It's just baby powder....
    7. Your Mom and Dad said it's okay.....
    8. God love you. And I love you more.....
    9. It is normal to get turned on. Trust me....
    10. God wants me to molest you.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • dilberth

      Oh, that is so funny. But then again, it's not so funny for the thousands and thousands of young boys who were molested by the theological testicles of catholic priests.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • The Central Scrutinizer

      @dilberth
      Been to the deep end. you have no idiea

      April 16, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  18. JustIn

    One has to acknowledge that Catholic bishops go up and down enthusiastically on their supporters often.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  19. Colin

    If we only taught our children the following principles of independent thought, the ability of the Catholic Church to engage in political activities such as this would erode from within.

    1. DO NOT automatically believe something just because a parent, priest, rabbi or minister tells you that you must.

    2. DO NOT think that claims about magic and the supernatural are more likely true because they are written in old books. That makes them less likely true.

    3. DO analyze claims about religion with the same critical eye that you would claims about money, political positions or social issues.

    4. DO NOT accept it when religious leaders tell you it is wrong to question, doubt or think for yourself. It never is. Only those selling junk cars get frightened when you want to "look under the hood".

    5. DO decouple morality from a belief in the supernatural, in any of its formulations (Christianity, Judaism, Islam etc.). One can be moral without believing in gods, ghosts and goblins and believing in any of them does not make one moral.

    6. DO a bit of independent research into whatever book you were brought up to believe in. Who are its authors and why should I believe them in what they say? How many translations has it gone through? Do we have originals, or only edited copies of copies of copies– the latter is certainly true for every single book in the Bible.

    7. DO realize that you are only a Christian (or Hindu or Jew) because of where you were born. Were you lucky enough to be born in the one part of the World that “got it right”?

    8. DO NOT be an apologist or accept the explanation “your mind is too small to understand the greatness of god” or “god moves in mysterious ways” when you come upon logical inconsistencies in your belief. A retreat to mysticism is the first refuge of the cornered wrong.

    9. DO understand where your religion came from and how it evolved from earlier beliefs to the point you were taught it. Are you lucky enough to be living at that one point in history where we “got it right”?

    10. DO educate yourself on the natural Universe, human history and the history of life on Earth, so as to be able to properly evaluate claims that a benevolent, mind-reading god is behind the whole thing.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • .....

      Avoid useless copy/paste bull sh it

      April 15, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Robert

      Interesting, this is exactly how I was taught, by the Catholic Church itself. Funny, huh.
      RM

      April 16, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Wrenn

      Exactly what I was taught. But I went to private catholic shools, and had relatives in orders who were university and college professors. Discussion and even disagreement, as long as it was backd up with rational argument was completely allowed in my parents house.

      It wasn't until later that I met people who were raised otherwise, in the Catholic families. Where the parent would take the word of the priest or the nun over their child's, even when it did not make any sense. Where I met people who were taught to never disagree with the parish priest.

      When I heard the parish priest preach divorce is immoral at church and later that year sit in my parent's living room and gossip about who was divorcing whom in the community, and how much they were paying the church for the annullment. When my parents were hit up for the Catholic evangelical iniative leading up to the year 2000, (Jubilee Year I believe)... asking my parents to donate a large sum of money to it, and asking them, also, who else did they know in the parish who could afford to pay more. Basically, who he could go and visit and also try to guilt out of a couple grand.

      April 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  20. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    April 15, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • Bill M.

      just another one of countless religious lies

      April 15, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • just sayin

      Truth. God bless

      April 15, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • dilberth

      Prayer can be compared to sitting in a rocking chair and rocking back and forth. You may have found something to do, but it won't get you anywhere.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Concur, dil. It's pretty much exemplary of the existence of justsayin, HS, and the other idiots who post drivel here.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • AGuest9

      He can't even keep all his handles straight. How can you expect him to tell the truth?

      April 15, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
    • otto

      A lie told often enough will come to be truth.

      -Joseph Goebbels

      Proven

      Powerfull

      April 15, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.