U.S. Catholic bishops mull wider focus in birth control/religious freedom fight
Facing small but clear signs of discontent within their own ranks, U.S. Catholic bishops may be poised to rethink their aggressive tactics for fighting a federal mandate that health insurance plans cover contraception, according to sources close to influential bishops.
There are no indications that the bishops will drop their fight against the federal mandate. But dozens of bishops, meeting this week in Washington, are likely to discuss concerns that their battle against the Obama administration over birth control risks being viewed by the public as narrow and partisan and thus diminishes the church’s moral authority, the sources said.
“They’re going to have to look at not just what their moral theology tells them they should do, but at what political reality tells them,” said Thomas Reese, a Catholic priest and Georgetown University scholar who has written extensively about the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “These are strategic and tactical questions.”
One sign of a coming recalibration: A sweeping statement on religious liberty, now circulating in draft form, that aims to broaden the bishops’ focus far beyond the contraception mandate.
The draft statement, slated to be released soon to a burst of publicity, condemns an array of local, state and federal policies as violations of religious freedom, said Martin Nussbaum, a private attorney who has consulted with the bishops.
The draft cites, for instance, a Republican-backed law in Alabama that makes it a crime to harbor, transport or rent property to illegal immigrants. The bishops have joined liberals in opposing that law, arguing that would make it a crime to minister to people in need.
By broadening their religious freedom campaign, the bishops hope to rally support from Catholics and the public at large — even from those who may disagree with them on contraception. The bishops see a need “to remind all their audiences that religious liberty isn’t just about in an election year,” said Richard Garnett, a University of Notre Dame law professor who works with the bishops. “We cannot let it be dismissed as merely having to do with one particular question.”