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. Denise

    The ones with the pink hats are the gay ones.

    April 27, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  2. Michael Robinson Gainesville FL

    IBunch of religious freaks, brainwashed and trying to brainwash the rest of us. Religion is garbage and poison to today's society. We don't even need religion, it's all fake anyway.

    April 27, 2012 at 2:55 pm |

    Excellent article, Mr. Prothero! Me thinks the ladies doth protest too much!
    It appears that the bishops have determined that President Obama should not be the President anymore....

    April 27, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  4. Reason

    The government forces me to finance war with my taxes. This offends my deeply held religious beliefs and hinders my ability to follow my conscience. I have not heard the Bishops (or any other religious leader) speak out against their taxes paying for humans dying in war lately.

    April 27, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  5. Steven

    Since when do women have the right to free contraceptive and sterilizations? It's not healthcare that's an issue, we're talking about paying for people's lifestyle choices. More anti-Catholic garbage from CNN.

    April 27, 2012 at 3:11 am |
    • sam stone

      it is health care, steven.

      if you want to paint this as "anti-catholic", well, i guess you need to feel persecuted.

      April 27, 2012 at 3:51 am |
    • Robert

      If you check you'll find that those very same health plans cover Viagra. I guess it's OK to pay for some lifestyyles but not others. Convince them to give up their happy pills and you'll have half an argument, till then it's just hot air.

      April 27, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • sam stone

      Robert: without viagra, how will the priests and bishops get up for their alterboys?

      April 27, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  6. Pope_Inquisitor

    sick old men all dressed up in garments that cost enough to feed a city or poor children. Catholics are sick, their cult is sick, the rulers are sicker

    April 26, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • Michael Robinson Gainesville FL

      I agree. Bunch of religious freaks, brainwashed and trying to brainwash the rest of us. Religion is garbage and poison to today's society. We don't even need religion, it's all fake anyway.

      April 27, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • AverageJoe_Catholic

      Spoken like a true, ignorant bigot. Well done sir.

      April 27, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  7. john dandois

    you are a moron steven, get a clue! its about liberals trying to strip away our freedom!

    April 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • sam stone

      ah, the famous liberal boogeyman again. the sure sign of a morton downey jr wannabe

      April 26, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      What freedoms are liberals trying to take away?

      April 26, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  8. shelou

    Nothing more dangerous than a group of extremely religious men "only" with control over women's rights to become priests, to be called by Jesus to do anything that they can be called to do, to make reproductive decisions so that their families can survive. Really, a priest molesting children gets protected with job retention and silence, but a woman wishing to protect her family or to become a priest unites religious men to speak up? Dark ages....

    April 26, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  9. For Religious Liberty

    What is being taken away from the bishops is the freedom of conscience...the freedom to refuse to participate in something that they consider a moral evil. The Catholic Church's reasons for refusing to pay for something they feel so deeply to be wrong may not be agreed upon by the majority of our society. The Catholic Church is not saying that women should be denied their right to use contraception. The Church just wants to be free from having to pay for it.

    April 26, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • sam stone

      the pill is used for more than preventing pregnancy. i wonder if these old men consider stuff like heavy periods to be immoral. and, if so (?), what is their basis for such a belief?

      April 26, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • sam stone

      there are lots of stuff we consider to be immoral that we have to pay for. quakers have to pay taxes that support the DoD, despite them being anti-violence.

      April 26, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • J.W

      Why would this only be true in the case of Catholics and birth control? Nobody ever answers that question.

      April 26, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • HawaiiGuest


      A lot of the religious heirarcy love to feel victimized, so they can spew whatever they want in the name of defending their religious views. Christian preachers tend to do the same thing, and televangelists even more so.

      April 26, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • sam stone

      Hawaii Guest: The persecution thing gets the church members to give, give, give.

      April 27, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Rabid Wombat

      Jesus wept. Steve, if you had read and comprehended the compromise, you would know that the Church isn't paying for anything. The insurance companies are covering it as an offset. Before you claim it's a 'hidden fee', honest to goodness actuaries employed by the companies looked at the costs involved and decided it would be cheaper to provide contraception than to provide pre and perinatal care. The only hole that could be blown in the argument is if the insurance company in question was wholly owned by the Church, which it is not. Private companies – even those with religious owners, are being made to comply as the cost of doing business in the United States, just like they have to pay taxes.

      April 27, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  10. BADGUY

    These Archbishops work for a foreign power, the Vatican. They are attempting to exert the influence of a foreign power and it's leader, Joe Ratzinger, on our society. How are they ANY less dangerous than the Communists, in the 1930's, attempting to exert Joe Stalin's influence on our government?..OR...the American Nazi Party in the 1930's attempting to exert Adolf Hitler's influence on our government?

    April 25, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  11. Anne

    Thank you for pointing out that bishops do not speak for American Catholics. We can think and vote for ourselves, thank you. A recent poll shows that American Catholics prefer Obama over Romney by 6 percentage points, ample proof to me that we are ignoring our hopelessly hypocritical bishops, and following the example of our absolutely fabulous nuns, who pursue social justice, just as our creator would if he were in Washington today.

    April 25, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • Christi

      Anne, as a Catholic, even an American Catholic, you are required to obey the bishop of your diocese. If you prefer following nuns that refuse to follow the bishops (the successors of Peter) then quit calling yourself a Catholic. There is no such thing as an "American catholic." You are either with us or against us.

      April 27, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • sam stone

      Christi: All she is "required" to do is follow her conscience.

      April 27, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  12. Ken Reed

    I don't recall hearing the bishops object to forcing followers of the Jehovah's Witnesses to get blood transfusions for their children to save their lives. No objection, either, to forcing Christian Scientists to seek medical attention for their children. The bishops believe in freedom of religion for their own religion, not necessarily for other faiths that have beliefs that are out of step with common practice.

    April 25, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  13. sortakinda

    What exactly IS a "religion scholar?" I think this guy earned his BS degree.

    April 25, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  14. sortakinda

    Is there something wrong with CNN's plumbing? This stuff keeps backing up and spilling all over the CNN website.

    April 25, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  15. Cissy

    I wonder why after being raised in the Catholic dogma, I identify with Agnostic Christians? Wait, no I don't wonder at all.

    April 25, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  16. John

    Bishops: Stop taking donations and contributions from those who use birth control. It would be inconsistent, hypocritical and immoral to do otherwise. See how this works for a few years, then get back to us about your insurance issues.

    April 25, 2012 at 8:04 am |
  17. Jespo

    When every last priest who ra-ped a child is turned over by the church to be dealt with by the legal system, these pigs are not worth listening to, esp to profess what they believe in their warped minds to be for the common good....

    April 24, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • BADGUY

      The church just declared bankruptcy in Milwaukee, WI to keep the names of Priests who have been accused of being pedophiles "off the record"! Seems like the Archbishops are busy either hiding their past "indiscretions" or complaining about paying their "fair share" in insurance premiums.

      April 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
    • xpert

      I'm not a Catholic but that's a childish remark to make. u cannot label these men as "pigs." not every priest has molested a child. and the ones who have should be dealt with by the authorities. You cannot label someone from a group of people whether it be religion or creed because their forefathers or fellow members did something bad. that's pure arrogance.

      April 27, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
  18. jon

    Still waiting on Mr Prothero to comment on the damge done by extremist Imams...can't recall the last time a Cardinal ordered a building blown up with 3000 humans in it.

    April 24, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • sam stone

      feeling a bit put upon, jon?

      the marjority of the citizens of this country identify themselves as "christian", so it would make sense to do articles on "christians".

      April 25, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • sam stone

      jon: what do imams have to do with this article?

      stick with the program

      April 25, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • BADGUY

      Well..they sided with Adolf Hitler and helped give him dictatorial powers in 1933. HE did A LOT more than kill 3,000 people!

      April 25, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • pritka

      You really don't want to go there. Throughout history since it's beginning and as recent as WWII, the Catholic Church has been guilty of persecution and collusion in murder and genetic cleansing among other crimes against humanity. If not for the Catholic Church's tremendous wealth, they would be a whimpering and apologetic handful of over dressed old men begging for true believers in the one, true and apostolic church.

      April 26, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  19. SouthernCelt

    Birth Control is a very personal choice that the Government should not be pushing one way or the other. The same First Amendment that allows this article, also allows whatever Church member to follow their conscience without Government interference.

    April 24, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • pritka

      Exactly right and it remains the only thing standing in the way is the Catholic Church.

      April 26, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Reason

      The gov't is not "pushing" birth control. The gov't is protecting personal choice.

      April 27, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • xpert

      i agree

      April 27, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  20. Steve

    To everyone saying "why should I be forced to pay for birth control if I don't believe in it" My reply is "the same way I and many others who don't believe in religion tax dollars have gone to faith based initiatives for years and years" And any opposition to those initiatives has been met by Religious groups with harsh critisism. This argument is further evidence as to why these initiatives should be stopped!

    April 24, 2012 at 6:18 am |
    • pritka

      You are absolutely correct sir.

      April 26, 2012 at 10:29 am |
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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.