On the contraception mandate: Can the bishops speak credibly about a women’s health issue?

One thing that’s been bothering me about the contraception mandate controversy is simply that most of those objecting to this attack on Catholic “religious freedom” or “conscience protection”–however the issue it styled–are men, and most of them celibate. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago pointedly stated that “people of faith cannot be made second class citizens because of their religious beliefs.” Does that mean it’s OK to be made a second-class citizen on the basis of gender or your employer? There is a conflict of consciences here: We are talking about hundreds of thousands of women who work at Catholic social service agencies, colleges and universities, and hospitals.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston argued in a USCCB statement on the mandate: “Pregnancy is not a disease, and fertility is not a pathological condition to be suppressed by any means technically possible.” True enough as far as it goes, but most women I know–both married and single–want to become pregnant after some planning, and an unexpected pregnancy is a serious matter, especially in our rationed health care society. Pregnancy is not a disease, but it is a difficult, costly, and sometimes perilous medical event. Whether he meant it this way or not, DiNardo sounds callous to the health care needs (and worries) of women in their reproductive years.

The fact is, church teaching addresses women’s bodies and their health care in profoundly intimate and different ways than it does the bodies of men. (One wonders how the conversation would be different if we were talking about prostate exams or erectile dysfunction.) It does not help the bishops’ credibility that women have had no deliberative voice in the creation of church teaching on birth control, and since none of the bishops are married, they are not in the position to consider more than intellectually the economic, emotional, and psychological dimensions of an unplanned pregnancy.

The fact remains that half of pregnancies in this country are unplanned, and half of those end in abortion. The emotional, psychological, economic, and moral costs of these pregnancies (and abortions) fall most heavily on the women affected, and I think it incumbent upon Christians to consider these women and their children–born and unborn–as we examine this moral issue.

While the bishops are right to keep the issue of the constitutional right to free exercise on the front burner–and it seems that the USCCB intends to push for a complete rollback of the mandate–I do not see how preventing a woman from using a legal medical means to decide when or if she becomes pregnant impinges on my right to excercise my faith. Indeed, my hope that greater access to birth control would reduce the number of abortions more than makes up for any concerns I have about the legal complexities surrounding the mandate’s effect on Catholic employers.

Complete Article HERE!

Birth Control Debate: Why Catholic Bishops Have Lost Their Grip on U.S. Politics—and Their Flock


The Vatican’s timing was ironic. While Roman Catholic bishops in the U.S. were trying to revive their moral and political clout last week by battling President Obama over contraception coverage and religious liberty, a papally endorsed symposium was underway in Rome on how the Church has to change if it wants to prevent sexual abuse crises, the very tragedy that has shriveled the stature of Catholic prelates worldwide over the past decade, especially in the U.S. One monsignor at the Vatican gathering even suggested the hierarchy had been guilty of “omertà,” the Mafia code of silence, by protecting abusive priests.

The Roman forum was a reminder—and the birth control clash is turning out to be one as well — of just how much influence the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has lost in the 10 years since the abuse crisis erupted in America. It hopes that its protest of a new federal rule requiring religiously affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals and universities to provide no-cost contraception in their health insurance coverage, even if church doctrine forbids birth control, will help restore the bishops’ relevance. They did win a partial victory last Friday when Obama, acknowledging the uproar, said those institutions would no longer have to pay for the contraception coverage themselves. But the President did not fully genuflect: The compromise will still oblige religious-based employers to offer the coverage, while their insurance providers foot the bill.

Although major Catholic groups like Catholic Charities and Catholic Health Services accepted that revision, the bishops are holding out for more. But their crusade to be exempted from the mandate is likely to fall short of its grail. If so, it’s because Obama read the Catholic flock better than its shepherds did.

Granted, the bishops, led by New York Archbishop and Cardinal-elect Timothy Dolan, did get the White House to acknowledge how high-handedly and ham-handedly it had managed the contraception debate—confirming along the way the public’s wariness of the so-called liberal elite—and convinced it to craft a deal that should have been policy in the first place. Yet in his refusal to cave completely to the religious liberty campaign, Obama has illustrated the reality that the bishops no longer speak for most U.S. Catholics—the nation’s largest religious denomination and a critical swing-voter group—on a host of moral issues, according to polls.

Not on abortion or the death penalty (a majority of Catholics believe those should remain legal); on divorce or homosexuality (most say those are acceptable); on women being ordained as priests and priests getting married (ditto); or on masturbation and pre-marital sex (ditto again, Your Excellencies).

And especially not on contraception. Ever since Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s senseless ban on birth control in 1968, few doctrines have been as vilified, ridiculed and outright ignored by Catholics – evidenced by a recent study showing that 98% of American Catholic women have used some form of contraception. It’s hard to believe, as the bishops would have it, that those women simply succumbed to society’s pressure to do the secular thing. They’ve decided, in keeping with their faith’s precept of exercising personal conscience, that family planning is the moral and societally responsible thing to do—for example, preventing unwanted pregnancies and therefore abortions. And it explains why a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found most Catholics support the contraception coverage mandate even for Catholic-affiliated organizations. Presumably most endorse Friday’s compromise.

Far more Evangelical Protestants, according to the PRRI survey, back the bishops than Catholics do. But that hardly makes the bishops, when it comes to the more independent Catholic vote, the same force to be reckoned with that they were in the 20th century. That is, before 2002 and the horror stories of how prelates like Cardinal Bernard Law, then Boston’s archbishop, had serially shielded alleged pedophile priests. It’s true that some bishops, like Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, confronted rather than coddled accused priests. But when it became clear that so many of the men in miters cared more about safeguarding the clerical corporation than about protecting kids, episcopal “authority” vanished like so much incense smoke—and Catholics increasingly abandoned the 2,000-year-old notion that their church and their religion are the same thing.

That’s essentially what Catholics like me are asking for, especially from my colleagues in the media, during episodes like the contraception and religious liberty fracas: Stop equating what the bishops say with what we think, because we’re not the obedient, monolithic bloc that newspapers and cable news networks so tiresomely insist is in “jeopardy” for this or that party whenever they smell church-state friction. When a hardline U.S. bishop calls for withholding communion from a Catholic politician who supports legalized abortion, stop assuming all Catholics have the prelate’s back rather than the pol’s. When Catholic politicians draft legislation like the religious liberty bills popping up on Capitol Hill right now, stop accepting their assertion that the birth-control ban is “a major tenet” of Catholic faith, as Florida Senator Marco Rubio called it this month. For the vast majority of Catholics, it isn’t.

And for that matter, stop forgetting that in the 2008 election, 54% of Catholic voters ignored their bishops and backed a pro-choice presidential candidate like Obama. I certainly don’t point that out as some kind of endorsement of Obama in 2012. I’m simply noting that pundits and politicians need smarter criteria for gauging the Catholic vote—just as advisers in Obama’s White House shouldn’t have been so clueless about religious issues when they first decreed the contraception mandate. If the tragedy of the 2002 abuse crisis reminds us of anything, it’s that religion does matter in politics. Just ask the church leaders who are still paying a political price for their religious code of silence.

Complete Article HERE!

Have mercy on gays, says Church rebel

The head of a group of “disobedient” parish priests has called for mercy on homosexuals.

Helmut Schüller, who set up the Preachers’ Initiative last June, said at the weekend that showing mercy on same-sex couples was more important than clerical law and regulations. He called on Catholic Church leaders and members to show respect and charity to homosexuals. Schüller added that inner values mattered more than anything else.

It was the first time Schüller published another demand on Roman Catholic Church bishops and the Vatican since presenting a list of ideas last summer. At that time, Schüller – who heads the parish of Probstdorf in Lower Austria – said the Vatican should allow priests to give Holy Communion to people who married a second time at registry offices after getting divorced following church weddings. The Preachers’ Initiative also wants the Austrian Church to allow women to hold sermons. The group is in favour of getting rid of the celibate too to increase the declining number of young men interested in becoming Catholic priests.

Schüller, who once headed Caritas Austria – appealed to Austrian priests on Saturday to fight appeals by clerical leaders on them to take care of more than one parish community at the same time. Schüller claimed that pastoral care – “a key aspect of preachers’ duties” – would be continuously neglected this way.

The Probstdorf parish priest recently rejected claims that his initiative suffered a standstill. “We just need to stop and take a breath,” he told magazine profil. Schüller explained that his movement spent the past weeks on agreeing on a strategy and a path every member agreed with. The ex-Caritas chief said that the group currently consisted of around 400 priests. He pointed out that many preachers joined the movement in the past few weeks.

He said on Saturday that the group of Catholic preachers – who angered Viennese Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schönborn and other high-ranking representatives of the Austrian Church by declaring themselves “disobedient” – planned to cooperate with movements in several countries all over the world including Australia. Schüller stressed that the ideals of the Austrian Preachers’ Initiative were endorsed by many groups of Catholic priests abroad.

Schönborn said in several recent interviews he had no intention of denying the need for reforms in the Austrian Catholic Church. However, the head of the Austrian Church also criticised Schüller’s group for choosing the term “disobedience”. Schönborn and Schüller did not hold talks in the past weeks about a possible agreement after having met a few times last year when Schönborn tried to end the dispute before it garnered more public attention.

The archbishop of the Diocese of Vienna headed an Austrian delegation who gathered with Vatican representatives in Rome around two weeks ago. Reports have it that the clerics also spoke about Schüller’s movement and possible reactions to avoid a drifting apart of the Austrian Church. “I appreciate that the Worldwide Church starts thinking about our ideals. Maybe this was the start of something,” Schüller said when being informed by the press that such a meeting took place.

More people than ever since the end of World War Two (WWII) left the Austrian Church in 2010 when 58,603 cancellations of memberships were registered. The number declined by 32 per cent in 2011. A spokesman for the Conference of Austrian Bishops said that the Church appreciated this development – but also underlined that the decrease would not mean that everything was perfectly fine again in the Church.

Widespread refusal to carry out reforms and accept modern lifestyles but also an increasing number of reported cases of sexual abuse by clerics are main aspects for Austrians’ decision to leave the Church. Another reason seen as a key motivation is a fee colloquially known as Church tax. All members but unemployed people and needy pensioners are asked to transfer 1.1 per cent of their incomes to the Church. Critics of the tradition-rich rule point out that the Church benefited in many other ways as well such as low taxation of their properties and financial support by the state to renovate and restore monasteries and abbeys.

Complete Article HERE!

Music director’s marriage leads to his firing from St. Gabriel Catholic Church

The last five months have been eventful for Steav Bates-Congdon.

First he got married. Then he got fired.

The popular music director at St. Gabriel Catholic Church in south Charlotte lost his job last month for marrying his longtime partner in New York, one of seven states to recognize same-sex marriages.

Under a recent Supreme Court ruling, the firing appears legal.

North Carolina doesn’t recognize same-sex unions. Voters will decide in May whether to add a constitutional ban.

The Catholic Church considers homosexual behavior a sin, and Bishop Peter Jugis, who heads the Diocese of Charlotte and is the spiritual leader of Catholics in a 46-county area, has been a strong supporter of legally restricting marriage to a man and a woman.

With some 10,000 members, St. Gabriel is one of the largest Catholic congregations in the state. Bates-Congdon, 61, a former Methodist minister and now an Episcopalian, joined the staff in 2004. Parishioners say he’s been open about his sexual orientation since his first job interviews. Bill Bates-Congdon, his partner of 23 years, soon became a familiar figure around the music program and eventually joined the hand-bell choir.

On Oct. 15, with several St. Gabriel members on hand, the pair said vows at a state park on the shore of Lake Ontario in upstate New York. Then Steav Bates-Congdon returned to work.

On Jan. 19, just back from a honeymoon trip to Mexico, followed by an emergency stay at Carolinas Medical Center for a ruptured appendix, he checked out of the hospital and dropped by St. Gabriel. There, he was handed a note by the Rev. Frank O’Rourke, the pastor with whom he had closely worked for more than four years.

It read: “Employees of St. Gabriel … are expected to live within the moral tradition of the Church…Your civil marriage stands in direct opposition to the teaching of the Catholic Church, therefore ending your employment with us, effective today.”

Contacted to discuss the firing, O’Rourke referred all questions to diocesan spokesman David Hains.

Jugis was not available for comment. But in response to a list of Observer questions, Hains wrote:

“Mr. Congdon’s ‘civil union,’ is a public statement in direct opposition to the teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage as a lifelong, exclusive covenant between one man and one woman.”

Bates-Congdon, who has produced music for Catholic churches for some 30 years, says he told O’Rourke about his wedding plans within days of his June proposal to Bill “because I didn’t want him blindsided.”

He recalls O’Rourke’s response:

Congratulations, I’m very happy for you. But I can’t give you my blessing.

“I wouldn’t ask you to,” Bates-Congdon says he replied.

More than six months passed before he was fired.

Now, Bates-Congdon wonders why his boss and friend didn’t warn him of any problems, “why (he) didn’t pull me aside and say, ‘Dude, this is a really bad idea.’ ”

Had O’Rourke raised any concerns, Bates-Congdon says, “Bill and I would have pulled the plug and postponed it until some time when it wouldn’t have mattered, like in retirement.

“This was never about activism or forcing the church to make a stand – or even Bill and me making a stand. It was for the sheer joy of celebrating the fact that we could get married that we decided we would.”

Some St. Gabriel members, particularly those in the music program, have been left saddened and angered by the move.

Bates-Congdon, they say, expanded and significantly improved the music ministry, while never flaunting his sexual orientation or his relationship.

Bill Collins, a longtime choir member, says his family has left the parish over the firing and may go outside the diocese to find a new church.

“I need a community that’s compassionate beyond its rules,” he says. “I need a leadership with compassion, not a leadership that simply talks about it, then acts otherwise.”

Cate Stadelman, a church member and choir singer for almost 25 years, says she has been back to St. Gabe’s once since Bates-Congdon’s firing – to help him pack. She doesn’t know whether she’ll return.

“It’s the injustice of it,” says Stadelman, who was on the search committee that recommended Bates-Congdon and, with her husband Tom, was a member of his wedding party.

“The church doesn’t recognize this marriage. The state of North Carolina doesn’t recognize this marriage. What changed from Oct. 14 to Oct. 15?

“And then there’s the fact that this has absolutely no bearing on his ability to do a fabulous job.”

Brett Denton, a member of the parish council, calls Bates-Congdon’s departure regrettable, but says the decision by the religious leaders was made “carefully, thoughtfully and prayerfully.”

“It was something that was necessary because (the marriage) was opposite to the teachings of the church,” he says, “and that led to a parting of the ways.”

‘Public declaration’

Bates-Congdon’s departure closely followed a Jan. 11 ruling by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court that gives churches and their schools broad powers over ministerial employees.

Under the court’s decision, churches receive “a ministerial exception” that protects them from government say on whom they hire for their spiritual missions. A lower court ruling in 2000 involving a Catholic church in Raleigh said music directors are part of a church’s ministerial staff because music is an integral part of worship.

Hains says the timing between the ruling and the firing is coincidental.

He added that the decision also had nothing to do with Jugis’ support for the proposed marriage amendment. The bishop played a role in the personnel matter – just what is unclear.

Asked if Jugis had ordered the firing, Hains said: “Employment decisions for parish-based employees are made in the parishes.”

It’s not known if the diocese has made similar moves using the same grounds. In 2010, a lesbian who taught theology for 28 years at a Denver Catholic church was fired after she placed an ad on Match.com.

Hains says church employees here are not screened for sexual orientation, nor do churches delve into private relationships. Bates-Congdon’s case, he says, involved a “public declaration” contrary to church teachings.

In taking the job at St. Gabriel, Hains says, Bates-Congdon agreed to abide by the diocese’s “Principles of Ethics and Integrity.” It states that employees “must respect, appreciate, and uphold the teachings, principles, legislation, policies and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church in both word and example.”

Asked why so much time passed between the wedding and the firing, Hains said: “Decisions such as this one are not made in haste, and the parish wanted to take the time to consider what the appropriate action should be.”

John Gresham, a Charlotte attorney specializing in workplace issues, says state and federal laws do not offer Bates-Congdon protection.

“It is interesting that it was all right for him to ‘live in sin,’ ” he says. “But when he got married it became a firing offense.”

Spelled out

St. Gabriel will continue to pay his $60,000 salary and insurance premiums through June. Bates-Congdon, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 15 years ago, faces surgery for the problem that hospitalized him last month.

Then he hopes to find another job.

He proposed to Bill in June, moments after the New York legislature approved that state’s same-sex marriage law. He was watching the vote live on his computer, in the backyard of their Waxhaw home. He popped the question on Facebook. Bill, 47, asleep on the couch, didn’t respond. The next morning, Steav walked into the bathroom. There on the mirror was written the word, “Yes.” It’s still there today.

They decided to marry after all this time together because they wanted their relationship, Steav says, “tied up in a bundle that was both legal and sacred.”

He says O’Rourke was one of the best bosses he ever had, and while he still doesn’t understand the timing of his firing, he appreciates that the priest “told me why.”

“When you have years of sexual scandals in the Catholic clergy and nothing is addressed, everything is left to rumor and speculation. Father Frank, whether intentionally or not, spelled it out.”

Only once, he says, did his sexual orientation become a parish issue. It occurred in 2006, after Bates-Congdon started a youth choir, which was a goal of his job description. A parish member wrote to then-pastor Ed Sheridan expressing discomfort that Bates-Congdon was leading the youth group while also serving as artistic director of the city’s One Voice Chorus, made up of gay and lesbian vocalists.

Reached last week, the parishioner asked that his name not be used, and said he didn’t approve having the children under Bates-Congdon’s tutelage. He said he also felt the director’s role with the gay chorus put the church in an inappropriate position. He declined to speak about the firing.

In 2006, Sheridan wrote back that his music director had already arranged to have a female assistant present during all youth practices. The priest went on:

“Your note implies the concern of whether Steav is gay or not. As you know there is a question on this issue in the church, whether it impacts priests, lay people etc. I know that we do not judge individuals and we do not have adequate information to make any judgment.”

Afterward, however, the priest asked Bates-Congdon to end his affiliation with One Voice, which he did.

Collins, the choir member, says the director’s sexual orientation made some music program members uncomfortable. “Certainly, it didn’t bother them enough to not participate because they loved the music, and their appreciation of his leadership and talent overcame any discomfort.”

The uncertain future of the music program “has left this great hole,” says fellow choir member Stadelman. “I’m hearing other people say the same thing. They feel adrift.”

On Wednesday, O’Rourke sent an email to choir members inviting them to the church this Thursday night for “dinner and discussion.”

“I hope this ministry will continue to nourish our parish,” he wrote. He did not mention Bates-Congdon.

Friday afternoon, for the first time, St. Gabriel’s full congregation received fuller details about the firing of their music director and organist.

O’Rourke sent out another email, alerting parishioners to the Observer’s story. It included a memo by Hains, which detailed the reasons Bates-Congdon was let go.

“This may be a challenging time for our parish,” O’Rourke said. “As Catholics we are called to prayer in situations like this, prayer for all individuals involved, for ourselves and for our community. Join me in praying, ‘Lord, make us instruments of peace.’ ”

Complete Article HERE!

Catholic church stance on contraception policy speaks to subordination of women


The squabble over whether Catholic social service institutions, universities and hospitals must offer insurance covering contraception under the new health plan contains a subplot with roots deep in history.

It’s the relationship between women and organized religion — a relationship that, over the centuries, has been hostile to the aspirations of women for a larger role in the family, the world and religion itself.
A little history is needed here.

Women — as well as men — have, through the ages, experienced the same spiritual stirrings that give rise to faith and firm religious beliefs. But organized religion, with its churches, synagogues, mosques, feasts and rituals, has, from the beginning, been exclusively the creation of men.

Moreover, the bureaucracies that have grown up to run these religions — and to promulgate their codes of moral right and wrong — have, from the beginning, been the work of men. Women had little or no say in this overarching influence in their lives.

Here’s one conservative religious view of woman’s role as expressed by A.H. Strong, president of the Rochester Theological Seminary, in a mid-19th century essay: “She is subject to man,” he wrote. “She is to be helper, not principal. Man has preference in creation, woman is made of man and to supply the felt needs of man.” (How nice for man.)

Even in the modern world, women occupy a subordinate role. Some fundamentalist or ultra-orthodox sects even prohibit women from worshiping in the same room with men. In some Islamic lands, women can’t leave home unless accompanied by a male relative, a rule enforced by “religious police.”
Organized religion, in short, has been a clerical stag party.

It is against this historical background that the tussle between what religious conservatives see as a First Amendment right and many women see as a health issue will be played out over contraceptive coverage.

The marginalization of women is just one characteristic of most major religions. The other, in one degree or another, is authoritarianism. They are not democratic institutions.

Their leaders don’t care much for doctrinal dissent. And they have a point. Why should they give any heed to dissent if they believe they’re following the divine will, that they’re doing God’s work? How can they be wrong?

In centuries past, dissent was punished by imprisonment, torture, even death. The Gnostics, who broke from Catholicism in its early days, were persecuted for several heresies, including a belief that women were, in God’s great plan, the equal of men. (Whatever gave them that idea?)

Some extreme Islamic sects still stone women to death even today, especially for adultery. (Men get a pass on this one.) Similar punishments are meted out by some Hindu extreme fundamentalists.

Something about women having sex for the sheer joy of it seems to unhinge the ultrareligious mind, even here in the West where things are better for women but not exactly benign.

Which brings us to the dust-up over requiring religious organizations to pay for contraception despite their doctrinal objection.

Opposition to contraception in this scientific age seems medieval. Maybe so, but it’s a matter of religious freedom and belief, the Catholic bishops insist. It’s also a political issue for the church.

The Catholic church must oppose contraception if it’s to keep faith with its true believers, especially women who have lived by that rule for generations despite the hardship it often imposed. This is the church’s most devoted constituency — its base, so to speak.

Trouble is, even Catholic leaders know a majority of Catholic women today violate the contraception ban. They’ve seen the polls. And they must appreciate that widespread scorning of this rule can ultimately undermine clerical credibility on other religious matters, especially with the church’s younger, more questioning adherents. But the bishops are trapped in church history.

The Obama administration’s handling of the issue was incredibly clumsy and insensitive. Therefore, it owed bishops a way out, which it tried to do with an about-face Friday on its contraception insurance edict. For their part, the bishops, like conservative clergy in all religions, have got to get off the dime and begin bringing women into the dialogue about dogma.

This is a clash that never should have happened. Then again, considering how organized religion has historically ignored or marginalized women, maybe it had to happen.

Complete Article HERE!