Tag Archives: Catholic Church

Let Boys Be Boy Scouts

Some wag has said he didn’t see what the big deal is about the Boy Scouts allowing admittedly gay boys in their troops, since most pre-pubescent boys are gay already. That’s more a comment about preferences in companionship than sexual orientation.

I suspect the controversy about the role of gays in the Scouts is yet another case of adults making a fuss over something that kids don’t even give a second thought.  On the liberal side, in the ongoing crusade of nondiscrimination, the Scouts represented one more fortress to be stormed. On the conservative side, the Scouts represented an ideal of wholesomeness that would somehow be indelibly stained by allowing self-identified gays as Scouts or Scout leaders. In reality, the Boy Scouts are neither obstructionists nor saints. Like the military or the police or any civic organization, they include a wide range of people.

ThBoy Scoutse recent decision by the Boy Scout National Council, to allow gay boys to be Scouts but not gay adults to be Scout leaders, struck me as overly cautious, but it’s perhaps understandable for an organization that has had cases of sexual abuse in its ranks. Still, some corporations, such as FedEx and Caterpillar, have withdrawn their support from the Scouts because of the decision to exclude gay adults.

The story has been different among the religious organizations that sponsor Scout troops. They have stood by the Scouts. Although the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution yesterday at their annual meeting that disapproves of the new policy, it was softer than had been expected, and churches were not encouraged to drop the troops they sponsor. According to this story from Reuters, the largest sponsor of Scout troops is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons — and contrary to what you might expect, they have accepted the new policy. The same is true of the second-largest sponsoring group, the United Methodist Church, but that is not surprising since the Methodists are a pretty all-embracing bunch.

equalityThe story goes on to say the third-largest religious sponsor of Scout troops is the Catholic Church, and that will be a case to watch. The new policy goes into effect in January, and the Catholic leadership has made no decision yet about what to tell its parishes that sponsor troops. Of all religious denominations, the Catholics have exercised the most consistent (some would say intransigent) principles. Several years ago, Catholic Charities in Massachusetts gave up its adoption efforts because the state mandated that gay couples be considered on an equal basis as heterosexual couples. The church said it could not go along and terminated an otherwise positive social service. Say what you will about the Catholics, they can’t be accused of being wishy-washy. If that is any precedent, I would not be surprised if the church leadership declares that parishes may not sponsor troops rather than allow the possibility they might include openly gay Scouts.

As I say, I’m sure that all this is a non-issue for most of the boys in the Scouts. My own memories of my days in Scouting are rather fuzzy, but I mostly recall boys being boys. It was about learning skills and teamwork along with having fun. For the record, I was a pretty bad Scout. Made it Second Class and earned, I think, one merit badge.

The Boy Scouts do uphold certain ideals, ideals that are admirable but open to broad interpretation, which is natural for an organization as diverse as it is. Gay Scouts should be able to fit within those ideals with no trouble, if adults will let them do so.

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Public Money for Religious Schools? No.

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Several ill-advised proposals to amend the state constitution are on the ballot next week, and one of them would do away with Florida’s so-called Blaine Amendment that forbids state money from being used for “sectarian” purposes.

“Sectarian” refers among other things to religious matters, and this proposal, Amendment 8, taps into a complicated history.

In the late 1800s, Catholic immigrants protested the practices in public schools, which reflected the prevailing Protestant ethos of the country and frequently included prayers and exhortations that had an unabashed Protestant character.

So Catholics started their own school systems, and they complained that because the alternative was forcing their children to endure Protestant indoctrination paid for by tax dollars, Catholics were entitled to public money to pay for schools that supported their own faith.

In 1875, James G. Blaine, Speaker of the U.S. House, proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would have made it clear that no public money should ever be given to religious or religiously sponsored organizations. Blaine was not anti-Catholic himself, but there was strong sentiment against public funds going to Catholic schools.

Even though the amendment failed, states were quick to pick up the effort, and eventually 37 state constitutions, including Florida’s, had Blaine Amendments.

Supporters of Amendment 8 have tried to spin it different ways: that it eliminates a vestige of bigotry against Catholics; that because religious organizations cannot bid for state money they are being treated unfairly, and so on. They have also tried to say it has nothing to do with funding private religious education through vouchers, which is very hard to believe.

Times have changed, and today it is evangelicals complaining about their kids being indoctrinated with secular ideologies in public school. They’ve teamed up with Catholics, whose position has never changed, and they are salivating at the prospect of tapping state coffers to pay for students’ tuition at religious schools.

After all, private education is expensive and a voucher for the per-pupil amount the local public school would get makes St. Perpetua Catholic School or Triumph Christian Academy a lot more attractive to the parents of prospective students.

In theory, the U.S. Constitution forbids this under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that vouchers may be permissible under some circumstances. The ironclad language of the Blaine Amendment is standing in the way of Florida private school administrators, and Amendment 8 is their weapon to smash that barrier.

Contrary to the convictions of militant atheists and the ACLU, there are certain circumstances in which a partnership between the state and religious institutions is a good thing and ought to be encouraged. Where a denominational organization provides social services, they should be able to do so under contract with a modicum of guidelines about proselytizing.

But education is a very different kettle of fish. Religious groups have no rights to public money when it comes to funding private schools, precisely because religious indoctrination is part and parcel of the mission of those schools, and taxpayers should not have to pay for that.

Religious groups can complain all they want that they are being discriminated against, but one U.S. Supreme Court ruling to the contrary, there is a long legal and cultural tradition against mingling public monies with private religious education. What they call discrimination is in fact only being compelled to obey that tradition.

Some religious organizations that might otherwise legitimately be able to contract with the state are shut out under the Blaine Amendment, and that’s too bad. But if that’s the price to pay to keep religious schools’ hands out of the state till, so be it.

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Archbishop Dolan Prays without Partisanship

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

In his excellent new book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” Ross Douthat describes how the heresy of nationalism – idolizing the nation – has rendered American religious groups captive to partisan politics.

“If you don’t want to vote for George W. Bush because of the Iraq War then you’re playing into the hands of Christianity’s left-wing enemies. If you can’t vote for Barack Obama because of abortion, then you’re an accomplice to the shredding of the Constitution. You simply cannot be a social democrat and an orthodox Catholic, or a conservative Christian who’s also genuinely antiwar,” he writes.

This polarization became evident again when the Catholic Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, agreed to give the concluding benediction at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. On the left, Sarah Posner blogged at Salon.com that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Dolan is president, “has unequivocally attached itself at the hip to the Republican Party.” Republicans, trying to fan anti-Democratic flames among Catholics, were gleeful that such an outspoken Catholic leader would make an appearance.

Two problems became apparent with the complaints on the left and the rejoicing on the right. One was that Dolan proved to be an equal-opportunity man of prayer. No sooner had he agreed to pray at the Republican Convention than it was announced that he would pray at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week. Dolan will have the distinction of being the only person to immediately follow each party’s nominee – Mitt Romney and Barack Obama – after their acceptance speeches.

The second problem was that nobody had yet heard Dolan’s prayer. It was a model of civil religion, quoting the Declaration of Independence and “America the Beautiful” more than the Bible.

Here’s part of what he said: “(W)e ask your guidance for those who govern us, and on those who would govern us: the president, and vice-president, the Congress, the Supreme Court, and on all those who seek to serve the common good by seeking public office, especially Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan. Make them all worthy to serve you by serving our country.”

That’s a noble sentiment that neatly managed to pray for Obama and Romney in one sentence. It’s true that Dolan made brief references to two issues more aligned with Republicans – abortion and religious freedom – but he also twice asked blessings for immigrants, an issue more favorable to Democrats.

In short, Dolan pulled off what Catholics have been doing for centuries now, and which politically active conservative Protestants have not yet gotten the hang of. He spoke of truths that transcend the politics of the moment, which both sides need to hear.

To be sure, Dolan is not completely above suspicion of partisanship. The Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fight with the Obama Administration about contraceptive provisions in the Affordable Care Act under the guise of “religious liberty” seems disingenuous. And abortion remains the issue without parallel or compromise for Catholic leaders.

Still, as Douthat says, “One need not agree with the exact balance they’ve struck to admire the consistency with which the Catholic bishops have defied easy partisan categorization over the years…” He is correct that what we need is faith that addresses the work of governing, without being partisan.

Republicans and Democrats who seek to use Dolan for their own ends will be disappointed, and that is an entirely good thing.

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Same Crime, Different Outcries

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

It’s interesting to contrast reactions to two judgments handed down this week for nearly identical crimes. The reactions speak volumes about our priorities.

On Monday, the NCAA announced Penn State would be fined $60 million, lose football scholarships and be banned from bowl games for four years for the institution’s failure to report child sex abuse that officials – including head football coach Joe Paterno – knew was being committed by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

Some pronounced the punishment just, but in other quarters there was a huge outcry. The NCAA was too harsh, it was punishing innocent players, it was tarnishing the image of a coach who ran one of the cleanest programs in college football. Although Sandusky’s crimes against children were conceded as horrible, punishing the school for a cover-up by its leaders was somehow considered out-of-bounds.

Now consider the other judgment, handed down the very next day against Monsignor William Lynn of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Lynn, the staff member responsible for looking into charges of child sex abuse by priests, was sentenced to three to six years in prison for felony child endangerment. In the case of the Rev. Edward Avery, Lynn covered up credible evidence that the priest had molested a boy and then assigned that priest to a church where he assaulted an altar boy.

Lynn’s attorney and the archdiocese called the sentence unfair. Anybody else rush to his defense? Uh-uh.

Two institutions. A similar crime – covering up child sexual abuse to protect an institution. Committed around the same time and only 200 miles apart. Yet utterly different reactions.

Why? Simple: football. Crippling a powerful program that commands huge dollars and rabid loyalties was too much for its fans to bear. And let’s just say the Catholic Church doesn’t have quite the same effect on its faithful as the Nittany Lions do on theirs.

To be sure, there are differences between the two situations. While the Penn State scandal was unprecedented for a major college football program, the Catholic Church has been dealing with fallout from its scandals across the country for almost 20 years now, although this was the first time an official has been convicted of a crime for covering up child abuse.

But to push the comparison a step further, isn’t it true that Lynn’s counterparts at Penn State were President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, Vice President Gary Schultz and Paterno himself? Curley and Schultz face criminal charges, and Spanier is under a grand jury investigation. If Paterno had not died in January, might not he be facing indictment as well?

And why wouldn’t he, if he committed the same crime as Lynn? On what basis would those applauding Lynn’s sentence defend Paterno? Just because he was an extraordinarily successful and beloved football coach?

We in Florida should not be too smug. Given the way football rivalries dominate the university life of this state, it is fatuous to suppose that what happened in Pennsylvania couldn’t happen here. If a similar scandal had happened at Florida State, it’s easy to imagine that officials might have deferred to Bobby Bowden’s judgment as Curley did to Paterno’s.

What does it say about our society that we declare hanging is too good for a priest who covered up abuse, but a college football program that does the same is allowed to continue to take the field?

What it says is that our priorities – and our moral values – are very, very skewed.

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Obamacare Ruling: Political Parties at Prayer

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

It’s a measure of how confused our society is these days that the Affordable Care Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on unlikely grounds by an unlikely majority. Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, not Justice Anthony Kennedy, a centrist, sided with the liberal justices. And the law was valid not by virtue of the Constitution’s commerce clause, Roberts said in his opinion, but because penalties for not having insurance are really a tax, which falls within Congress’ powers.

I leave to others the ruling’s implications for the presidential campaign, the stock market and the price of hummus in Riyadh. But if the ruling itself was unpredictable, the reaction from the religious sector was entirely predictable.

Those within the conservative Protestant orbit were appalled. The liberal Protestant camp and Jewish groups were elated. And the Catholics, well, it’s complicated.

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was astonished that the court “did not see the bill for what it really is: a blatant violation of the personal freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and perhaps a mortal blow to the concept of federalism.” By Land’s account, Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature should just give up and go home, the Tenth Amendment having suffered a mortal blow.

On the liberal side, Kathryn M. Lohre of the National Council of Churches appealed to a higher power: “We as churches follow the bold example of Jesus, who healed the sick, sometimes breaking the religious law that governed society.” Jesus always trumps the Constitution.

As for the Catholics, it depends on who you ask and about what part of the law. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, was delighted at the decision because it will bring health care to more people. The bishops? Not so much.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has praised the law for taking a step in the direction of universal health care, but they continue to assert that as an employer they should not have to provide coverage for contraception, even if employees pay for that coverage themselves. The bishops say it’s an infringement on their religious liberty, a view that is difficult for many non-Catholic observers to accept.

After the ruling, the bishops said they do not favor repeal. “The decision of the Supreme Court neither diminishes the moral imperative to ensure decent health care for all, nor eliminates the need to correct the fundamental flaws” in the law, they said.

The Affordable Care Act is a good illustration of the partisanship that has infected the nation’s religious scene. Conservative Protestants claim, correctly, that they have joined the political fray late, following the mainline Protestant church that for decades had played a genteel political game and the Catholic Church that has been intertwined in politics since the days of Emperor Constantine.

But it’s more than a little disheartening to see entrenched political ideologies reflexively given a theological rationale. Even the more nuanced position of the Catholic bishops has overtones of a conservative political agenda.

Religious groups should be able to make judgments about laws and the political process based on their values, but when those groups become rigidly partisan, they lose their credibility as organizations beholden to no earthly power. Some of these groups — on both liberal and conservative sides — have long since lost their identity as anything other than a political party at prayer.

Reaction to the health care ruling simply offers one more example of that.

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Easy to Criticize Cardinal Ortega from Miami

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The ferocity of Cuban exiles leaves one amazed at times. They have not mellowed with age. Any hint of collaboration with the brothers Castro will earn their wrath, no matter who the offender is or how difficult his situation may be.

A recent article from the Associated Press described how Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leader of the Catholic Church in Cuba, is being criticized for being too chummy with the Cuban government. Ortega is 75 and will likely retire soon, but there have been calls for his immediate resignation.

There’s been grumbling about Ortega before, but the latest criticism came in the wake of Pope Benedict’s visit to Havana in March. The chief accusation is that he failed to speak up on behalf of dissidents before and after the pope’s visit and in exchange, the government did not embarrass Benedict.

In one incident that outraged anti-Castro observers, Ortega called the police to collect some protesters who were demanding an audience with the pope. Ortega called them “former delinquents.” Carlos Garcia-Perez of Radio and TV Marti called Ortega a “lackey.”

In another incident, Cuban dissidents were released from prison as a goodwill gesture in advance of Benedict’s visit, then promptly exiled to Spain. The cardinal drew fire for not speaking on their behalf, which is ironic since Ortega has often pleaded for the release of dissidents.

Ortega has defenders inside and outside Cuba. The most prominent in Florida is Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who has to ride herd on the Cuban exiles in his archdiocese.

“To suggest that somehow he is a lackey of the regime is ludicrous,” Wenski told the AP. “Some of the cardinal’s harshest critics here are looking for a scenario that is easy to advocate outside of Cuba.”

Wenski is a conservative who isn’t going to be mistaken for a communist sympathizer. He also spoke a word of truth – it’s a lot more difficult to be a proponent for freedom in Havana than in Miami’s Little Havana. Like many religious leaders in Cuba, Ortega has had to negotiate a delicate balance between maintaining the church’s principles on human rights and keeping Castro’s boot off its throat.

It is not only the Catholics who have had to deal with this. The bishop of the Methodist Church in Cuba, Ricardo Pereira, studiously avoids discussing politics on his occasional visits to Florida. His church has flourished since the Cuban government relaxed its rules on religious practices around 1990, and you could say he is trying to keep the revival going.

Or you could say he has a lot to lose. His predecessor, Bishop Armando Rodriguez, spent many years in prison. A pastor from Cuba who emigrated here once complained bitterly to me that Pereira was in the pocket of the Cuban Minister of Religious Affairs.

It’s true that, as Jesus said, you can gain the world and lose your soul. Submission in the interest of survival would empty any religious group of its identity and self-respect.

But that’s an awfully easy argument to make from the outside. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew better than anyone, once remarked that martyrdom is a gift that is not given to everyone.

Cuban exiles who demand that religious leaders martyr themselves should test their own nerves by moving back to Cuba and speaking out. Courage is a lot easier to find in the land of the free.

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Birth Control is the Bogeyman

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

So it is about contraception, after all.

In fighting insurance coverage for contraceptives under the new healthcare law, Catholic bishops and some Republican politicians repeatedly said they objected to a government mandate because it infringed on religious liberty.

A proposed federal rule to require religiously affiliated nonprofits to provide contraceptive coverage violates the Catholic belief that contraception is immoral, the bishops protested.  Although use of contraceptives is almost universal, even among Catholics, the bishops appealed to the public on the grounds the rule was about violating religious freedom, not contraception.

“When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental to the life of our nation, one shudders to think what lies ahead,” Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

It worked. Even moderate Democrats and liberal Catholics urged Obama to accommodate the bishops’ objections.

And so last week, the Obama Administration announced the rule would be changed. While religious nonprofits must still provide health insurance, coverage of contraceptives would be offered only to employees who ask for it. However, the charities would not have to pay for it. Instead, insurance companies would pick up the tab since contraceptives are cheap, while pregnancy is expensive.

So the bishops’ concerns about religious freedom were placated, right? Guess again.

In an internal memo from five senior bishops, and later in a statement issued by the U.S. Conference, they still objected. A chief complaint is the government’s distinction between the church as a religious organization, which is exempt from the rule, and the church’s charities, which employ non-Catholic workers and serve the public.

The bishops argue, correctly, that the church’s charities are extensions of itself, undertaken out of religious convictions, so there should be no distinction. But now that the church’s charities are also exempt from the rule, why continue the fight?

The answer is that the rule might raise religious liberty issues for others, too. “Our concern remains strong that the government is creating its own definitions of who is ‘religious enough’ for full protection,” the bishops wrote.

And so was drawn a new battle line: business owners who are devout Catholics and object to the rule would not be exempt from it. “Secular employers must provide coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion inducing drugs,” they wrote with disapproval.

In other words, it’s no longer about the church. Religious liberty is window dressing for the bishops’ real objection, birth control.

It’s worth noting that Catholic charities do a lot of good for the public, and they do so out of sincere Christian faith. It’s also true that some on the left have nothing but contempt for the Catholic Church and would just as soon force-feed birth-control pills to Catholic schoolgirls.

That said, the Obama administration has addressed the most important religious liberty concerns about contraception coverage.

A Public Religion Research Institute poll showed that 55 percent of Americans, and 52 percent of Catholics, supported the federal rule, even before it was softened. Bishops who insist the accommodation does not satisfy all their objections will be seen as the worst kind of religious extremists and play into the hands of those eager to portray them that way.

Republicans who used the bishops’ complaints for their own partisan purposes may continue to rail about Obama’s “war on religious liberty,” but it’s unlikely we will see them standing beside the bishops as they complain about contraception.

Because contraception is what this fight is now about.

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