Pope's Butler Distracted US From Our Own Religion Battle

Monday, 18 Jun 2012 04:17 PM

By Gregory R. Erlandson

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Gregory R. Erlandson's Perspective: It’s true. The butler did it.

Not that anyone really knows whether or not the butler to Pope Benedict XVI purloined Vatican documents on behalf of some cardinal conspiracy, but that juicy bit of Italianate gossip certainly helped drown out the news of an unprecedented series of lawsuits filed May 21 by 43 Catholic organizations in 11 venues challenging regulations issued by the federal Department of Health and Human Services forcing Catholic organizations to provide abortifacients, contraceptives, and sterilization for their employees.

catholicprotestmarch2012.jpg
Flags and signs are held during a rally for religious freedom organized in part by the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia in front of Independence Hall in March.
(AP Photo)
You’d think that such a challenge on constitutional grounds involving the First Amendment would be worth more than passing mention on network news shows and other media reports, but who can worry about constitutional matters when one could be reporting on a Jeeves gone rogue?

In truth, the first day and even second day lawsuit stories were pretty sorry news specimens, but there has been a trickle of debate and discussion in the blogosphere and even in print.

What is unfortunate is that most of the coverage has not engaged the actual legal filings themselves. (Full disclosure: My company, Our Sunday Visitor, is one of the Catholic organizations that has participated in the lawsuits. You can read our filing here. Also worth reading is the lawsuit filed by Notre Dame University.

The host of arguments in those filings — both constitutional and administrative — have been ignored, while the story lines have remained consistent with earlier coverage of the HHS regulations:

It is all really about contraception. While this argument crops up regularly, perhaps the most egregious example — because the Grey Lady should have known better — is The New York Times May 28 editorial on the topic: “Under the Constitution, churches and other religious organizations have total freedom to preach that contraception is sinful and rail against Mr. Obama for making it more readily available. But the First Amendment is not a license for religious entities to impose their dogma on society through the law. The vast majority of Americans do not agree with the Roman Catholic Church’s anti-contraception stance, including most American Catholic women.”

There is so much wrong here that it is hard to know where to begin: Nothing in these lawsuits is about imposing Catholic dogma on society.

Hardly anyone is expending much energy on worrying about contraception being “more readily available” because it is now the received wisdom that virtually everyone with an XX chromosome in the United States already uses contraception.

And whether most Americans agree or don’t agree with a Church teaching is a nonissue unless majorities get to determine Muslim, Buddhist, Quaker, and Jewish beliefs as well.

It’s about Obama, stupid. Catholics get nervous whenever the Church veers toward politics — our inner immigrant doesn’t want to make a fuss — so this line of argumentation is the favored explanation of some progressive Catholics seeking to roil the pews: The religious liberty issue is really about taking down the president. The bishops are simply trying to fire up the troops for November when the Catholic hordes can bring a Mormon to the White House.

In fact, the bishops are pretty hard to categorize. They’ve been protective of the poor and the disenfranchised, the undocumented and a host of others that are not found in the GOP tent, and if anything they seem to be increasingly unhappy with both parties. That Obama has mishandled relations with the bishops is undeniable — as some of Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s comments have suggested — and some bishops may have made mistakes in this relationship as well.

But all of this is beside the point. These lawsuits are not a political maneuver. In fact, by going to the courts and not Congress, the lawsuits are removing the conflict from the political realm. And let’s not forget that this election-year fight was not started by the Church.

Bottom line: This is a legitimate constitutional conflict. The government wants to apply a fourfold test to determine if a Catholic organization — be it a hospital, university or publishing house — is sufficiently religious to merit exemption from regulations that would violate Church teaching.

The government will determine if the purpose of an organization is to inculcate religious values, if the organization primarily employs and serves Catholics, and if it is an appropriately recognized not for profit.

This is, Catholic leaders would argue, an unprecedented and worrisome overreach, and establishing such a precedent would have far-reaching implications.

In short, this is a constitutional matter, and unless the Supreme Court’s imminent ruling on the constitutionality of the healthcare law somehow makes the Catholic lawsuits moot, it will be in the courts where this issue is most likely to be resolved.

Gregory R. Erlandson is the president of the Publishing Division for Our Sunday Visitor (osv.com), one of the largest Catholic publishing companies in the United States. Erlandson is also president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, an advisor on the U.S. Bishops’ Communications Committee, and has been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

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