Ginning Up ‘War’ on the Catholic Church

Exclusive: Republicans and the Right are on the offensive again, decrying an Obama administration ruling that some Catholic-run institutions must offer employees birth-control coverage in health care plans. Yet, this latest “war” rhetoric again misrepresents the countervailing principles, Robert Parry reports.

By Robert Parry

It is sometimes breathtaking to watch the right-wing media/political machine turn a relatively minor dispute into a “war” — as is now happening over a provision of the health-care law that requires some church-run institutions like hospitals and universities to include contraception coverage in plans offered to female employees.

America’s conservative Catholic bishops are up in arms. In the words of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, this is President Barack Obama declaring “war on the Catholic Church.” To former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the requirement is an assault on the First Amendment and its guarantee of religious freedom.

Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney

This hyperbole has now been picked up by the cable news channels and talk radio, but there has been remarkably little written about the actual merits of these arguments – and what the role of the government should be when rights clash: women, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who want birth control, and a religious institution whose dogma goes against secular law.

Of course, this argument is as old – indeed older – than the Republic. Many of the key Founders strongly opposed the idea of an established religion, knowing how many wars and other human rights abuses sprang from the practice of having official religions in Europe. The Catholic Church was especially egregious, conducting the Inquisition, burning heretics at the stake and encouraging a wide range of genocides and brutal wars.

But most Founders also didn’t want to interfere with the practice of religious faith. So, as part of the Bill of Rights, the first U.S. Congress approved an amendment that stated, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This so-called Establishment Clause, in effect, declared the federal government neutral on the issue of religion. The government would do nothing to promote a faith nor stop adherents from proselytizing their religious views.

But there were always gray areas, including where the government extended some special legal protections to churches and where secular law took precedence over doctrinal teachings. For instance, if a church or sect harmed an individual, it would not be exempt from legal penalties.

In recent years, that supremacy of civil law over actions of a church was demonstrated in connection with the Catholic Church’s long-running cover-up of pedophilia cases in which priests who sexually abused boys were shielded by the Church hierarchy, especially by bishops who shuttled abusers from parish to parish. When the pedophilia scandal became public, the Catholic Church was required to reach civil settlements with the victims and agreed to call in police when such acts occurred in the future.

Similarly, secular law prohibited polygamy as practiced by Romney’s Mormon faith. Indeed, Romney’s grandfather fled to Mexico to evade U.S. laws against a man taking more than one wife. The Mormons later altered their doctrine and banned polygamy.

In Griswold v. Connecticut and other cases, the U.S. Supreme Court also found a constitutional protection for the right of privacy, which includes such matters as a woman having substantial control over her own body. It is fundamentally that civil right which now clashes with the Catholic bishops’ determination to block women from obtaining contraception under health insurance offered by church-run institutions, such as hospitals and universities.

The escalation of this into a “war” on the Catholic Church reflects Gingrich’s typical incendiary rhetoric that has put to the torch civil debate in the United States over the past three decades. (Gingrich, who has converted to Catholicism and has benefited from its liberal provisions for granting absolution for sins, apparently still sees no obligation to support other Church doctrine, such as caring for the poor and avoiding warfare, not to mention committing many other deadly sins, from pride to greed to wrath.)

To call the requirement for birth-control coverage an assault on the First Amendment, as Romney claims, is equally off-point, since the Catholic Church is not being prevented from professing its curious doctrine against birth control — nor trying to convince the 98 percent of Catholic women who have used contraceptives that they are going to Hell. The Church is just being told that it can’t impose its dogma on employees, many of whom are not even Catholic.

It is a clash of rights – and in such matters, the First Amendment and other constitutional provisions prevent the federal government from siding with any church over any individual.

As Catholic ethicist Daniel C. Maguire has noted, “the American bishops say the administration’s [birth control] decision on Jan. 20 was a case of religious freedom. In that, they are right but not in the way they intend it. The bishops are claiming the religious freedom to violate the religious freedom of those who are employed in their institutions or who are served in their tax-supported hospitals. By denying contraception as part of employee health plans, what the bishops seek is more like religious fascism than religious freedom.

“Furthermore, traditional Catholic teaching rests on a tripod, including the hierarchy, the theologians and the sensus fidelium, the experience-fed wisdom of the laity. These three sources of teaching are, as Cardinal Avery Dulles said, ‘complementary and mutually corrective.’ An accurate look at Catholic teaching on contraception today shows strong support for the position that contraception is not only permissible but even mandatory in many cases.

“Catholic theologians overwhelmingly support contraception. Dozens of Catholic hospitals and universities cover prescribed contraceptives. Ninety-eight percent of Catholic women have used contraceptives. Only 2 percent of Catholic women use the ‘rhythm method’ of birth control favored by conservative Catholics.

“Therefore the decision of the Obama administration, rather than threatening Catholic teaching on contraception, is actually more attuned to actual Catholic teaching than are the American Catholic bishops with their idiosyncratic taboo on contraception.”

But logic and ethics are one thing. Politics and propaganda are another case altogether.

And just as the American Right loves to make dubious claims about how the Founders wanted a weak central government and favored states’ rights – when the framers of the Constitution actually sought the opposite in wiping out the states-dominated Articles of Confederation and devising a strong central government – the Right is now asserting that the First Amendment means that the government can’t impose a civil law on a religious institution, even when the institution is violating the constitutional rights of individuals.

[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

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11 comments on “Ginning Up ‘War’ on the Catholic Church

  1. There’s a psychological term, “projection.” The religious right has proclaimed a “cultural war” against those who are not right wing nutcases. They’ve declared war on Gay Americans, feminists, the right of women to make reproductive choices, and any group who supports any of the religious right’s “enemies,” such as Starbucks, JCPennys, etc. So, it only stands to reason that they lie and say that others are declaring war the religious right. We are merely defending ourselves in their “cultural war.” I don’t know why they are all upset. They started the “cultural war” and expect everyone to fall down dead. But that’s not the way wars are waged. Calling the religious right bigots and exposing their lies is a part of returning fire in the midst of battle.

  2. Celsus (AD 180) criticized the early church for not holding public office, not participating in civic festivals, and not fighting in Caesar’s legions. The church has turned 180 degrees from what we once were, and Celsus would be happy with Christians in America today. Ancients had many criticisms of the pre-Constantinian church, but did not criticize for hypocrisy or meddling in the affairs of outsiders. I am a conservative Christian, but I recognize “ballot-box Christianity” as an effort to impose moralism on outsiders that do not share Christian premises. That never works; think prohibition. If I understand Coxhere correctly, Christians are not being persecuted but experiencing ‘blowback’ based on misguided efforts to ‘save America.’ A note of curiosity, Coxhere’s post is east of our eastern time zone in the states. Only if you do not mind, where do you live?

  3. charles sereno on said:

    Here’s a note about Newt that may be a little off-topic. I’m not certain if BOTH of his former wives are still alive. Since his conversion to Catholicism, his marriage to his present wife entailed an annulment(s) to his previous marriages. Annulments are granted by Church tribunals under Canon Law (cf, Sharia Law). Historically, annulments have sometimes been difficult to obtain (cf, Henry VIII and all the problems that caused). Historian that he is, Newt must have deftly navigated all the obstacles in his way. All’s well that ends well.

  4. O'really on said:

    According to the “good old days”,according to the Roman Catholic church,
    No marriage outside of the Catholic Church was considered a legal valid marriage.
    I remember when it was a great sin, to even enter a church of another denomination.
    Unless Newt was previously married in a Roman Catholic Church, all those other marriages, were null and void, and never existed.

    • charles sereno on said:

      If both partners were non-catholic, they could be legitimately married. However, if they were unbaptised, they went to Limbo.

  5. Brian F. Wood on said:

    Any real war against the Catholic church should include their own motto from the Siege of Beziers: “Kill them all; God will know his own.”

    Ecrase l’infame!!

  6. The issue is a little more nuanced than you’re presenting. In outlining this case the issue is the extent of religious freedom/expression. Can the government require a religious institution from promulgating it’s doctrines.? If for example the government began requiring Catholic hospitals to perform abortions that would clearly be an overreach. The birth control issue follows the similar trajectory of thought.

    More likely than not this case will end up in the courts either via the church or those who demand coverage of artificial birth control by employers. It will be interesting to see what interests the government actually has in such an instance vs. the church and by extension other employers.

  7. Frances in California on said:

    No, Tom; it’s not that complicated. Do they want to be a health care entity or a religious one? There are rules for health care; the religious aspects are left up to them to square with their own aspirations. If they can’t abide by the Constitutional rules of health care entities, then they need to change what they are and stop taking Gov’t. money.

  8. Barbara A. Smith on said:

    The right in general, and Catholics in this case, make hypocrisy into a rarified art form, indeed. They would both be easily dismissable if they weren’t so powerful. Are these Catholic institutions taking government money? Then they need to be cut off if they won’t let their employees have birth control covered. Let’s see how “principled” they would remain then.

    At a scarier deeper level, though, is most, if not all, religions’ attempts to control women’s bodies and behavior. This isn’t real religion or spirituality; it’s pathology and needs to be seen as such.

  9. F. G. Sanford on said:

    As long as a church is a church, it can believe as it wishes. Once it enters into ‘fee for service’ activities, it should lose any excuses to subvert the law of the land based on religious freedom. Of course, sex between little boys and ‘celibate’ old perverts notwithstanding, the Catholic church has never been one to flout the law, has it?

  10. stan chaz on said:

    I’VE HAD ENOUGH! In this Holy War on Religion, of Religion, and by Religion. I SURRENDER! I’m a lover, not a fighter.  Instead… I’m gonna start my OWN religion, and get in on the good stuff: tax exemptions, and lots of taxpayer money to do what I want, in the name of religious liberty. Most definitely! Hey NEWT -wanna join? We’re gonna have open marriages and multiple wives and all SORTS of neat stuff that you’re just gonna love! But don’t you worry your little head Newt: we’ll have no -I repeat- NO nasty stoning of adulterers. None of that stuff. I Promise! As for SANTORUM, he just LOVES to tell other people how they should live. He’ll make us a REAL fine preacher-man. In fact, we’ll make him Saint Santorum. AND fix his Google search results! As for Mr. Obama,  obviously, we’ll need to (severely) demonize him, even further. And his dog Toto too. Last but not least: MITT and RON. Hmmm. Hey, I know. Just for you two guys: if you join we’ll insist on NO TAXES AT ALL for church members…AND human sacrifice of illegal aliens. Out with their hearts! Televised! Live! Whoooppee! WHAT A COUNTRY!  :-)
    By the way, please don’t mention the REASON that Mitt Romney’s dad was born in Mexico (i.e. The fact that Mitt’s Mormon grand-dad left the United States in the 1880’s. He went to Mexico BECAUSE laws against polygamy were passed in the U.S. ; Being a Mormon back then, Mitt’s grand-dad wanted to keep his multiple wives. Hey, who wouldn’t?) Bottom line: if we follow the “logic” of the people crying crocodile tears about a non-existent “war on religion”, then the U.S. should have allowed polygamy (and who knows what else) just because a particular religion claimed it as their cherished belief. GIVE ME A BREAK!
    Absolutely NO ONE is coming into our Churches or places of worship and trying to tell parishioners what to believe…..or forcing them to use contraception. BUT If the Bishops (and other denominations) want to continue running businesses that employ millions of people of varying faiths -or no “faith” at all- THEN they must play by the same rules and rights that other workers have and enjoy…especially if their businesses use our tax dollars (and skip paying taxes) in the process. This is not a “war on religion”. It’s a war on women and men who simply want to plan their families and control their future. Now that’s REAL religious liberty!
    p. s. I come from a religious background. I know that their are MANY good people out there, in various faiths (and outside of those faiths); many good people searching for answers, for community, for a way….in this all-too-harsh world. There’s only one thing I can say to you: think for yourself, be yourself, trust yourself. Don’t just accept something because it comes from a “voice of authority”. That’s why you have a conscience: to choose, not just to follow….