Michael Sean Winters is right to detect in my post yesterday a level of frustration with Bishop Lori and President Garvey that reaches beyond the specifics of their handling of Bishop Bruskewitz’s impertinent “question.” While Michael is right to point out that there is a certain protocol to the USCCB gatherings, I want to make clear that my concern is with the broader context of the bishops’ ongoing campaign for religious freedom more generally and its upcoming “Fortnight of Freedom” specifically.
I was upset by the ignorance and incompetence displayed in Lori and Garvey’s feeble-minded response to Bishop Bruskewitz because it is part of a pattern of high profile steps indicative of some sort of combination of public relations incompetence, shallow ignorance and latent bigotry that lead me to conclude that the Fortnight of Freedom will be similarly marred by those qualities unless the bishops and the lay leaders who have their ear come to their senses. Examples of this pattern are numerous. Consider the Catholic Governor Sam Brownback, one of the leading politicians in the conservative Evangelical/Catholic alliance, signing into law just weeks ago so-called “anti-Shariah” legislation with nary a peep of resistance from the Diocese of Kansas or key leaders of the USCCB. This came on the heels of the Auxiliary Bishop of Detroit appearing at a religious freedom rally where he shared the microphone with the President of the Thomas More Law Center, an organization known for its reckless attacks on the religious liberty of Muslims. This disregard for the religious freedom of Muslims is sadly consistent with the Bishops’ own failure to even mention the numerous threats to Muslim’s religious liberty in their major “Statement on Religious Liberty”. Lest anyone believe that these judgments are the result of my own progressive bias, know that even a cursory look at the recent actions of the conservative Becket Fund to distance themselves from anti-Muslim laws and bigotry reveals that my outrage is rooted in a very basic understanding of “religious freedom for all” that the bishops claim to represent. Lori and Garvey’s stated ignorance of the gutter level charge of Muslim “exemption” from the Affordable Care Act is therefore to me not primarily a result of protocols surrounding USCCB gatherings but of a consistent display of genuine ignorance of and disregard for the very real threats to religious liberty facing Muslims.
Unfortunately the bishops’ failure to consistently apply their concern for religious freedom to Muslims is not the only major weakness that Lori and Garvey’s actions confirm. By showing such notable absence of even the most basic public relations savvy they follow in a long line of gaffes related to questions of religious freedom. Cardinal Dolan’s choice to compare the passage of a gay marriage bill by the state of New York to North Korea comes to mind, as does Cardinal George’s unfortunate comparison of gay pride marchers in Chicago to the KKK. The instinct to compare their perceived opponents to fascists was also on display when the Bishop of Peoria, Illinois said Obama’s HHS Mandate put him on a “similar path” to that taken by Bismarck, Clemenceau, Hitler and Stalin. In these and other cases the bishops have shown themselves to be, as Saturday Night Live used to say, “not yet ready for prime time players” when it comes to the task of communicating their commitment to religious freedom in civil, competent ways.
I take no delight in pointing these errors out. I have ignored them for weeks now in the hope that the bishops would use this Atlanta gathering as a time to reign in their rhetoric, put forward their competence and put these past incidents in the past--maybe even just let the excellent lawyers bringing suit agains the HHS Mandate do their work. I was perhaps naïve to expect a clear display of perspective and poise by the leaders of the upcoming Fortnight of Freedom. Instead, I saw, in addition to the Bruskewitz incident, Garvey and Lori holding up the example of Thomas More with such simplicity and naivete that Cardinal George took it upon himself, immediately after Bishop Bruskewitz’s question, to engage in a sort of mini-history lesson for Garvey and Lori on the basic fact that THOMAS MORE BEHEADED COUNTLESS PEOPLE FOR THEIR RELIGIOUS VIEWS. The sense that Lori and Garvey are leading “the gang that can’t shoot straight” was not relieved in the session that followed a recess. The very first speaker, the excellent Bishop Pates, noted that there was significant comment and some media questions during the break about Bishop Burkewitz’s question and that it had been decided that he should immediately make a statement to the gathering. The core of Pates’ comments was this: “Our very capable staff here at the Conference very quickly researched the question that Bishop Bruskewitz raised with regard to the Muslims and they asked me to say that they are not exempt.” While I commend Bishop Pates for his intervention, I can’t help but note how easy it was for the “capable staff” to ascertain the truth of the matter. If a few minutes over lunch break were enough time to answer Bruskewitz’s query with competence, what does it say for the general competence of Lori and Garvey that they could not come up with the answer in real time?
I should mention that I worked in the 1990s for a religious publisher, InterVarsity Press, in a public relations capacity and I have been an avid follower of religious and general media for decades. Since moving to Washington DC in October of 2010 I have been particularly active in writing about the intersection of religious leaders and public policy in the media spotlight. I have paid specific attention to the relationship between the Bishops and the leadership of the Obama administration, especially the leadership of the Health and Human Services (HHS). As I have said in the past, part of my interest in this relationship is personal—my wife is one of the thousands of employees of HHS and we are raising our children in the Catholic faith. I also am one of the vanishing breed of pro-life Democrats who watched in horror in 2010 as the hierarchy of the USCCB aided and abetted the demonization of “Obamacare” and helped provide the rhetorical firepower for a campaign by pro-life groups to rid the House of Representatives of pro-life Democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act. The viciousness of this campaign—from the attack on Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to speak, to the takedown of Congressman Stupak for carving out wording on abortion that allowed him to vote for the ACA—was to me stunning and a direct reflection on the leadership of the USCCB in the age of Obama. Despite these reservations about and disagreements with the USCCB, I was very vocal at this blog and elsewhere in supporting the bishops in their initial resistance to the HHS Mandate. Like many other politically progressive Catholics, I could see in the Mandate an Executive Branch overreach with profound constitutional repercussions and potentially devastating effects on religion in public life generally, and Catholic involvement specifically.
I continue to believe, even after the Obama administration’s accommodations, that lawsuits such as those filed by Notre Dame in opposition to the Mandate are appropriate and warranted. But I am done pretending that the leadership of this campaign for religious freedom knows what they are doing, understands the issues at sufficient depth, and is capable of communicating the breadth and depth of Catholic social teaching in a way that will advance the overall common good during the upcoming Fortnight of Freedom. What I expect to see is more folly and I will be pleased if I am proven wrong. Bishop Pates and the countless other outstanding bishops deserve better than the spectacle that is likely to play out in the coming weeks. The Catholic Church is filled with outstanding voices for religious liberty and it is telling that many of them are publicly distancing themselves from the USCCB’s efforts. This is a long-winded response to Michael Sean Winters’ post, but I felt like he and you the reader deserved a richer explanation for the tone and content of yesterday’s post. Thanks for sticking with it to the end!! Peace. God is good!