The mood among many U.S. Roman Catholic bishops was captured in a recent speech by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. His talk, called "Catholics in the Next America," painted a bleak picture of a nation increasingly intolerant of Christianity.
"The America emerging in the next several decades is likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country's past," Chaput told students last week at Assumption College, an Augustinian school in Worcester, Mass. "It's not a question of when or if it might happen. It's happening today."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets Monday in Baltimore for its national meeting feeling under siege: from a broader culture moving toward accepting gay marriage; a White House they often condemn as hostile to Catholic teaching; and state legislatures that church leaders say are chipping away at religious liberty.
Many Catholic academics, activists and parishioners say the bishops are overreacting. John Gehring of Faith in Public Life, an advocacy network for more liberal religious voters, has argued that in a pluralistic society, government officials can choose policies that differ from church teaching without prejudice being a factor.
"Some perspective is needed here," Gehring, a Catholic, wrote on his organization's blog.
Still, the bishops see themselves as more and more on the losing side of these disagreements, and they are taking steps they hope will protect the church.
In September, the conference formed a new committee on religious liberty that will meet for the first time this week in Baltimore. Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the conference, will oversee that work, which will include hiring a lobbyist. Picarello had worked for seven years at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-interest law firm based in Washington, and also served on an advisory committee for President Barack Obama's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Among the bishops' top concerns are religious exemptions in states that legalize same-sex marriage. In Illinois, government officials stopped working with Catholic Charities on adoptions and foster-care placements after 40 years because the agency refused to recognize a new civil union law. Illinois bishops are suing the state. In New York, the bishops, along with Orthodox Jewish leaders and others, have complained that the religious exception in this year's law allowing gay marriage is too weak to be effective.
On health care, the bishops have been pressing the Health and Human Services Department during its public comment period for a broader religious exception to the provision in Obama's health care overhaul that mandates private insurers pay for contraception. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, which broke with the bishops to support the administration's health care plan, said a proposed exemption is so narrowly written it would only apply to "the parish housekeeper."
The conference is also battling the agency on another front: The Health and Human Services Department recently decided not to renew a contract held since 2006 by the bishops' refugee services office to help victims of human trafficking. The American Civil Liberties Union is currently suing to stop the agency from making grants to groups who "impose religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services" for human trafficking victims. The women are often raped and forced into prostitution by their captors.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the bishops, has called the decision discriminatory and a case of "ABC," meaning anyone but Catholics. Agency officials vehemently deny any bias and say the sole criteria for evaluating potential grantees was which group could best serve the victims. Administration officials note that the vast network of Catholic social service nonprofits, including the bishops' conference, receives hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding in amounts that have increased in the last couple of years.
Last week, Obama met with New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the bishops' conference, an administration official said. The independent National Catholic Reporter said the two men discussed issues that have created tension between the administration and the Catholic hierarchy.
The closer focus on religious liberty comes as bishops are becoming more outspoken on preserving the religious identity of Catholic colleges and other institutions, and publicly calling out Catholic politicians and voters who don't follow church teaching on abortion.
Scott Appleby, a prominent religious historian at the University of Notre Dame, says many church leaders have recently adopted "a more pugnacious style, much more of a kind of culture-wars attitude." At the same time, the bishops' have been stung by their loss of public influence from the sex abuse crisis and the years of bruising revelations that many dioceses moved guilty clergy among parishes without alerting parents or police.
"The church no longer receives deference or the hands-off attitude that it once had for many years. That's gone," Appleby said.
Critics of the bishops view the closer focus on religious liberty as another sign that church leaders are turning inward and away from promoting the church's teaching on social justice.
Steven Krueger, national director of Catholic Democrats, pointed to the agenda released ahead of this week's meeting, which included no public discussion of poverty despite the state of the economy. In the 1980s, the bishops issued an influential pastoral letter on Catholic principles and the economy, which church leaders reaffirmed in statements and education programs over the next decade.
"I think this certainly will represent to a vast majority of Catholics a tone-deafness on the part of many, many bishops," Krueger said.
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