Catholics caught between bishops, Obama’s birth control mandate

Mommy and daddy are fighting, and the anguished children don’t know where to turn.

This is the state of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States today. A small group of very conservative bishops has hijacked the church, or at least the public voice of the church. The bishops are playing the role of the authoritarian father. In case after case, their message to the faithful is “Do it because I say so.”

Last week, in an orchestrated political maneuver, 43 Catholic entities — including the Archdiocese of Washington — filed a dozen lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, saying that any mandate requiring religious organizations to provide contraceptive coverage to employees was a violation of religious liberty.

So, even though 82 percent of American Catholics believe that birth control is morally acceptable, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the lawsuits “a compelling display of the unity of the church in defense of religious liberty.” (The USCCB is not a party to the suits.)

A much larger group of more moderate bishops has stayed mostly silent, fearful that to take a stand against the brethren would be to lay bare intramural fissures. They play the role of the silent and frustrated mother.

The lawsuits are, in fact, very far from a “compelling display of unity.” There are 194 dioceses in the country; only about a dozen joined the suits. There are more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, and only a handful joined the suits. Notably missing from this so-called display of unity are the dioceses of Chicago and Los Angeles, both of which have prominent leadership and robust, vibrant Catholic communities. Also missing from the list of plaintiffs are some of the country’s most prominent Catholic educational institutions, notably Boston College and Georgetown University.

Only one brave bishop has so far explained his refusal to sign on with the authoritarian minority. Like a parent who prefers to work on marital disagreements in private, rather than expose the kids to disharmony and force them to choose sides, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., told America magazine Tuesday that he wanted the bishops to do more consensus building. If religious liberty is indeed the goal, then high-impact lawsuits with news releases aren’t the best way to achieve it.

“I think there are different groups that are trying to co-opt this and make it into a political issue, and that’s why we need to have a deeper discussion as bishops,” Blaire said.

In the middle, of course, are the kids, who love their parents and want them to get along — and hate, no matter where they stand on issues of sexual morality and religious liberty — to see their relatives in the headlines day after day. Some, like Hilary Mantel, the British author of “Wolf Hall” and, more lately, “Bring Up the Bodies,” simply leave the family and refuse to come back. “Nowadays,” she told the Telegraph, “the church is not an institution for respectable people.”

Others continue, in their anguish, to attend Mass on Sundays, holding out the hope that future family happiness is somehow possible, and comforting themselves, in the meantime, with the thought that even happy families fight. An editor at America, the Rev. James Martin, says, “The church has been a contentious place since the time of Peter and Paul.”

As in all families, the roots of the dysfunction are deep. Some trace this particular argument back to Vatican 2, which many in the conservative camp believe went too far in liberalizing the church. But its latest eruption really goes back to the sex scandals of the early 2000s, when the faithful children beheld their parents doing something terribly wrong and began to doubt their claims to moral authority.

The conservative fathers — whose motto is “Do what I say” — grew ever more enraged at the doubters and ever more punitive. They directed their ire at any and all rule-breakers: pro-choice Catholics who wanted to take Communion; nuns;Girl Scouts; and, finally, the president. The moderate mothers, meanwhile, continue to try to soothe their children into complacence.

But this dynamic is untenable, as any good family therapist will tell you. The real solution is, as Blaire suggests, for mommy and daddy to talk to each other and work it out. Or the kids will find a happier home someplace else.