The Episcopal Church used to be described as the Republican Party at prayer. Today's GOP has moved far right, and suddenly the Catholic bishops are now the Republican Party in the pulpit.
For many Catholics — and I intermittently try to be part of the church I was raised in — this is a betrayal of their beliefs about the place of faith in public life. For Republicans, the turn toward social issues, manifest in their misalliance with the bishops in a war on birth control, further radicalizes their presidential primary process and their congressional politics — and further weakens their prospects in November.
The bishops could have welcomed President Obama's compromise on insurance coverage for contraception — that religiously affiliated institutions don't have to provide or pay for it, but insurance companies do. Insurers will finance the coverage but save money in the long run, since the cost of birth control is far less than the bills for unwanted pregnancies. Instead, the bishops reinforced their anathema, announcing that they were not "focus[ing] exclusively on the question of religious liberty" — the very cause that sparked the opposition to the original regulation, which required religiously affiliated organizations to provide employees with copay-free coverage for birth control. The bishops essentially revealed that their original cause was also a cover for opposing "the nationwide mandate of sterilization and contraception, including some abortifacients" — the morning after pill — which for them "remains a grave moral concern."
The unholy alliance of the bishops and the GOP threatens the party's ultimate presidential candidate and its House majority — and diminishes its chances of taking the Senate.
Let's translate this ecclesiastical speak: Bishops believe that birth control services should be denied to non-Catholics and Catholics alike. The bishops can't persuade their own flock — among whom contraception is a norm, not an exception — so they attempt to enforce their doctrine through public policy. They even huffed that they "were not consulted in advance" about the president's revised policy — and then demanded a law that would entitle institutions and employers to forbid coverage for any health service to which they had a moral objection — even if they weren't paying for it. (Should an employer who is a Jehovah's Witness be allowed to delete any insurance for blood transfusions — which Witnesses regard as biblically prohibited?)
In other words, in this pluralistic society, the prelates of one denomination are attempting to impose their strictures on everyone of every faith and none. This echoes the failed efforts of the Catholic hierarchy to prevent the legalization of divorce in Italy — and worldwide, their graceless enmity toward civil marriage for same-sex couples. It's hard to escape the sense that if they could get away with it, they would remake America in their own dogmatic image and likeness. Where logically do you draw the line? If the remarriage of those who are divorced is morally wrong — a lapse into "living in sin" — why not outlaw it?
The hierarchy has moved perilously close to the caricature of the church that was invoked to oppose the election of the first Catholic president in 1960. To allay the fears, and answer the bigots, in a speech written with the help of the great Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray — imagine if his role had been known at the time — John Kennedy affirmed his belief in an America "where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote." How far we have strayed from that ideal when the bishops are issuing instructions to a president who isn't Catholic.
Fifty years ago, Kennedy set out a standard and even applied it to the question that now exercises the hierarchy: "Whatever issue may come before me as president, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject, I will make my decision … without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates."
Of course, the Catholic Church has every right and the duty to defend its own liberty, but not to infringe on the liberty of others. In opposing birth control, the bishops are shepherds without a flock — and they have no right to misuse the state as an instrument of sectarian purpose.
A number of Catholic commentators and leaders applauded the Obama compromise. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious — who presumably count less to the patriarchy because they are women — called the decision "a fair and helpful way to move forward." Similar reactions came from the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities, and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. Georgetown University and other Jesuit institutions already offer the option of insurance coverage for birth control. Perhaps the bishops will try to bring them to heel. But it is the bishops, tripping over their own silken robes, who are not only out of bounds in this democracy, but out of step with their own congregations. In a survey from Public Policy Polling, Catholics favored the Obama compromise 57 percent to 29 percent.
Similarly, a Fox News Poll reported that 61 percent of Americans agree with the president, and only 34 percent are on the other side. Herein lies the political danger for the Republicans, who never seem to miss an opportunity to be opportunistic in satisfying their increasingly right-wing base.
In Congress, Republican leaders propose to do the bishops' bidding by attaching the dubiously named Respect for Religious Conscience Act to, of all things, a transportation and highway bill. Instead of working on jobs, they're laboring to restrict birth control. This is the very portrait of a Republican-dominated Congress that has thoroughly earned its 10 percent approval rating. On the campaign trail, Rick Santorum, who said earlier that contraception is "not okay because it is a license to do things in the sexual realm," now insists that insurance companies shouldn't cover it at all: In short, the bishops' position, but in plain, unadulterated language. And in his stump speech, Romney now regularly chimes in with off-key hymns about "religious freedom." As governor of Massachusetts, never did we hear a discouraging word from Mitt about the state's requirement for birth control coverage.
Romney has no choice now; as best he can, he has to channel Santorum because this controversy, along with an improving economy, has pushed the Republican primaries toward social issues. That is the right wing's preferred arena. And the beneficiary is Santorum, who currently leads in a series of polls in Michigan, where he has the dual advantage of seeming to care about manufacturing and sounding the hardest of hard lines to appeal to the religious right. In Ohio, which votes in early March, a new Rasmussen Survey shows Santorum annihilating Romney 42 percent to 24 percent, with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul far behind.
Outside Gingrich's South, and soon maybe even there, the contest is becoming a two-man race on a changing landscape where ultra-conservatives are moving to one of their own. Simultaneously, Romney's electability argument is rapidly fading. In the New York Times/CBS poll, there's only a two-point difference in how Mitt and Rick stack up against Obama. Moreover, as I've already suggested, Romney's reliance on a tidal wave of negative ads may not work this time — both because he's doing it one too many times, and because for conservatives, Santorum just isn't Gingrich.
The struggle could upend Romney and result in a Santorum nomination — for me as a Democrat, a consummation devoutly to be wished. No matter that in the polls now Santorum is now apparently competitive; he's too extreme — and unlike Romney, we know he means it — to survive the broad mainstream of the American electorate. Or the struggle could end in chaos, with calls for an open convention and a desperate search for another choice, who, Harry Potter-like, would disapperate from non-candidacy onto the convention floor. Romney could battle through in Michigan or slog through the months ahead — all the while being forced to double-down on social issues, driving down his already upside-down ratings with independents and general election voters.
In any case, the unholy alliance of the bishops and the GOP threatens the party's ultimate presidential candidate and its House majority — and diminishes its chances of taking the Senate. The spectacle of 60-year-old men running around campaigning against birth control will cost Republicans the suburban women and moderates without whom they have no chance of winning. The GOP primaries — and the House GOP caucus — may be medieval; but we do not live in a medieval America.
The bishops might wish we did. As they transgress the boundaries that properly separate church and state, they sound the very cries of alarm that Pope John XXIII denounced at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The pope who sought to bring the church to the 20th century reproved the ecclesiastical conservatives of his day: "We must beware of those who burn with zeal, but are not endowed with much sense.. we must disagree with the prophets of doom, who are always forecasting disaster..."
This generation of Catholic bishops faces its own disaster in the form of a vast child abuse scandal. On contraception, they may burn with zeal, but lack the sense to see that their greatest moral imperative is to clean their own house, not to spurn a compromise that preserves their religious liberty so they can fight to fasten their religious doctrine on others by legal fiat.
As for the other half of this misalliance — the Republicans and their candidates for president — they may find that the blessing of the hierarchy has damned them in 2012.