Cardinal Mistake: Bishops’ Conference President Hectors Church Members To Go Political

The Catholic bishops are attempting to impose a policy on all Americans that they haven’t even been able to persuade their own members to adopt.

It’s still hard for me to believe that in light of the sluggish economic recovery, ongoing worries over jobs and mounting home foreclosures that most Americans are interested in a protracted discussion over access to contraceptives.

Yet here we are. The issue simply will not go away, chiefly because some misguided clergy won’t let it die.

Over the weekend, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City fired yet another salvo. Speaking at a church meeting focused on public policy on Saturday, Dolan said, “We are called to be very active, very informed and very involved in politics.”

The New York Times reported that Dolan blasted American culture because it “seems to discover new rights every day.” He even denied there is any right to marriage and added, “Now we hear there’s a right to sterilization, abortion and chemical contraceptives. I suppose there might be a doctor who would say to a man who’s suffering some type of sexual dysfunction, ‘You ought to visit a prostitute to help you.’”

Over-the-top rhetoric like this isn’t helping the cardinal’s case. And since he doesn’t get what type of “rights” we're talking about, let me explain it one more time: It’s the right to live our lives as we see fit, without personal decisions like health care, sexuality and family size being subjected to control by heavy-handed clerics wielding repressive theology like a club.

It’s true the Constitution says nothing about artificial birth control. This is not surprising, since it didn’t exist when that document was written. That’s not the point. The point is that the Constitution does grant us the right to live our lives and make our own decisions free from government-imposed theology.

Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, went on to urge Catholic laypeople to speak out politically. He said church members make more effective advocates and added, “In the public square, I hate to tell you, the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over.”

But this is obvious bluster. I suppose it makes for a good P.R. line, but Dolan knows it’s not true. Indeed, the bishops just formed a new lobbying unit in Washington to focus mainly on social issues, and it’s clear that plenty of bishops – fat, bald, Irish and otherwise – will be trolling the halls of Congress and state legislatures trying to get their way.

Dolan and his band of bishops know better than to leave this issue to a church laity that doesn’t even agree with them. Statistics shows that 98 percent of Catholic women will use an artificial form of birth control at some point in their lives, and a recent poll showed that 63 percent of Americans – including a majority of Catholics and evangelicals -- agree that insurers should offer birth control to those employees who want it.

One of the great ironies about this entire debate has been that the bishops are attempting to impose a policy on all Americans that they haven’t even been able to persuade their own members to adopt. They have gone so far as to back a bill that would allow any private employer in this country to refuse to pay for any religious practice that offends his or her personal beliefs. If adopted, this policy would subject the health care of millions of workers to whatever theology the boss in the corner office or some nameless CEO happened to adopt.

That’s the church hierarchy’s definition of “religious freedom” – their freedom to use government policies to impose their dogma on you.

One more thought about this: Every time the issue of churches jumping into politics comes up, we at Americans United are forced to remind pastors about the federal tax law that bars houses of worship (and other tax-exempt entities) from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Discussion of issues is permitted, but telling congregants that they can or cannot vote for specific candidates is not.

The legal arm of the Catholic Church, to its credit, has been pretty careful on this issue over the years and has issued documents reminding local priests and dioceses that they can’t tell people whom to vote for or against.

Most Catholic clergy respect the law. For those who don’t we have a message: Americans United is watching.