What were you willing to give up for lent? His Eminence, Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, wants it known that he was willing to give up the poor, the sick, the illiterate and millions more besides if that's what it took to show President Obama who was boss in the Catholic bishops' escalating confrontation with the administration over women's access to birth control.
Cardinal George says the Catholic Church has an impressive network of hospitals, universities and social service agencies "built up over several generations from small donations, often from immigrants, and through the services of religious women and men and others who wanted to be part of the Church's mission in healing and education."
And it would be a real shame, says the Cardinal, if the Church had to "give up" these important institutions -- shut them down -- because the government's mandate on providing birth control to female employees made it "impossible for Catholic institutions to follow their conscience."
These are cynical half-truths and the Cardinal knows it.
The idea of devoted immigrants piously dropping nickels and dimes into the collection plate at Sunday mass to build Notre Dame or St. Mary's Hospital may be a charming bedtime story but it bears little resemblance to the reality of the Catholic Church's social ministry.
Catholic Charities, as the New York Times reports, is one of the most extensive social service networks in the nation, serving more than 10 million poor adults and children of many faiths across the country.
Catholic Charities is made up of local affiliates that answer to local bishops and dioceses. But as the Times reports, much of its revenue comes from the government. In fact, Catholic Charities affiliates received a total of nearly $2.9 billion from the government in 2010, about 62% of its annual revenue of $4.67 billion, the paper says.
As the Times goes on to say, only 3% of Catholic Charities' revenues came from those tithing immigrants the Cardinal spoke so movingly about. The rest came from in-kind contributions, investments, program fees and community donations.
Even more important to the Church's charitable institutions, hospitals in particular, are government health programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
When the federal government marked the 35th anniversary of Medicare, for instance, the St. Louis-based Catholic Health Association of the United States, which represents more than 2,000 members of the Catholic health ministry, used the occasion to complain that the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 was projected to steadily reduce the amount of Medicare payments going to Catholic hospitals between 1998 to 2004.
"During its 35 years, Medicare has been highly successful as an essential building block of society, making affordable health coverage available to hundreds of millions of elderly and disabled Americans," said Rev. Michael D. Place, CHA's president and chief executive officer. "As we advocate accessible and affordable healthcare for all, we do not want to see erosion of the coverage gained for the elderly and disabled."
The CHA also noted that past efforts to solve Medicare's financial problems often led to substantial reductions in Medicare payments to Catholic providers.
Like the Tea Party Republicans who took the nation to the brink of insolvency last summer by refusing to raise the debt limit unless Obama capitulated to punitive cuts in programs for the poor, Cardinal George and other US bishops are trying to blackmail the President by insinuating it will be Obama's fault should the bishops close Catholic hospitals, schools and other social services as a matter of "principle" if the administration refuses to back down on birth control.
Asked by Newsweek's Peter J. Boyer how far he would carry the battle, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, head of the US Conference of Bishops, said that if the administration does not relax its rules for the Church and its affiliated institutions, he might resort to drastic action.
"I'm eager for some type of principled resolution," he said. "But if forced to give up our work, or get out of them" -- the running of Catholic schools, charities, and health facilities -- "or do civil disobedience and pay the fines, those might be options that I'd have to look at rather than doing something that I find morally abhorrent."
This is no idle threat.
When Illinois and Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, Catholic bishops in those states shut down their foster-care and adoption services rather than comply with conditions of state funding that the Catholic agencies treat same-sex couples as potential foster-care and adoptive parents, the Times reported. And in Illinois, said the Times, Catholic Charities had grown dependent on state foster-care contracts, with some of its foster-care programs receiving as much as 92% of revenues from the government.
Astonishingly, the bishops cited these new state funding requirements as examples of an escalating campaign by the government to "trample" on the Church's religious freedom. "In the name of tolerance, we're not being tolerated," said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Gay advocates and others rightly accuse Catholic Charities of using taxpayer money to discriminate against same-sex couples. Furthermore, as critics of the Church argue, no group has a constitutional right to a government contract, especially if that group refuses to provide the contracted services, notes the Times.
The American bishops say that Catholic hospitals, schools and universities form an important part of the Church's religious mission. But the speed with which the Catholic hierarchy seemed ready to throw millions of patients, students and others in need out on the street over "principle" shows the bishops also view these tax-subsidized non-profits as leverage they can use to enhance their own political power.
According to Boyer, to promote their power the Catholic bishops are gearing up for quite a political fight. Informational bulletins have already been distributed in churches -- which I can personally attest read far more like fevered political manifestos than the measured communication you'd expect to get from a prince of the Church. It's as if the bishops have suddenly become bloggers.
Parishes will also be encouraged to conduct voter-registration drives, says Boyer. And political operatives like those who helped Karl Rove and George W. Bush "corral the Catholic vote" in 2004 are already doing outreach in battleground states, Boyer reports.
Cardinal Dolan says that even though "thoughtful" Catholic voters will use "an array of issues informed by their faith" to elect or re-elect the next president, "there are some premiere ones that are non-negotiable."
It was an expert panel of physicians and health professionals assembled by the Institute of Medicine that first recommended including contraception among the long list of "preventative" services that all employer-based health insurance plans had to include under health reform.
So, here again was a case of conservatives demanding science take a back seat to theology or ideology. And in Cardinal George's words, what offends the American bishops is that in the interests of women's health the government would treat Catholics just like any other employer. In the bishop's view, the ability women who work for government-subsidized Catholic social service institutions - businesses mostly - to have affordable access to birth control is "a form of theft" that steals from the Catholic hierarchy its "institutional voice in public life."
Cardinal Dolan is aggrieved because in trying to get the Church hierarchy to meet it half-way "the White House seems to think we bishops simply do not know or understand Catholic teaching."
Adding insult to injury, says Dolan, the administration is also presuming to impose its own "definition of religious freedom" on the Church hierarchy by choosing "its own handpicked official Catholic teachers" -- by which Dolan means "unauthorized" Catholics such as Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, who thinks the President's compromise position on birth control is a fair one.
As Sister Keehan's reaction attests, the Catholic bishops have already lost this fight in the court of public opinion, and in the opinion of their own flock, on a whole litany of high profile social issues, such as gay marriage, birth control and even abortion. And so faced with humiliating defeat on the merits of these issues the Catholic hierarchy is retreating to the last redoubt favored by all ruling elites in similar circumstances - money.
Just as an all-Catholic Supreme Court majority empowered America's ruling economic plutocracy with its Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates of corporate cash in American elections, the bishops believe money ought to empower a similar theocratic plutocracy when they insist conservative Catholic social doctrine ought to hold sway wherever the Church - and now even devout and obedient Catholic employers -- have financial interests.
A major point of contention in the bishops' conflict with the administration over birth control, after all, concerns where to define the parameters of the Catholic Church's "religious" mission. As we see, this has practical public policy implications on matters of women's health. Yet, the bishops demand the unilateral authority to decide for themselves what is, and what is not, part of their mission. As Boyer reports in Newsweek, for example, the bishops deeply resent what they considered to be President Obama's "radical state intrusion, defining what constitutes an approved ministry."
But what we quickly learn from the bishops' own statements, and the political campaign starting to take shape, is that the bishops think an "approved" Catholic ministry is any hospital, school, university or now private business owned and operated by the Catholic Church or any church-going Catholic.
By equating the Church's business interests with the Church's traditional "social ministry" -- and by extension the Church's "religious liberties" -- the Catholic bishops are engaged in a power grab by which they hope to steal victory from defeat on those divisive social issues where they are clearly losing the PR war by recasting the Church as victims of government persecution instead of as aggressors who would use their political clout and vast business holdings to impose a pre-modern morality on both practicing Catholics and those touched by Catholicism in any way.
It cannot be easy for a church that once exercised unrivaled political power and is still governed by a paternalistic all-male hierarchy to adjust to the unsettling realities of democracy and popular sovereignty. And so there are times when under stress the Church bears its authoritarian fangs. This is one of those times.
As Cardinal George says, for example, there are "Catholic voices that disagree with the teaching of the Church and therefore with the bishops," just as "there have always been those whose personal faith is not adequate to the faith of the Church."
So, the Cardinal suggests, perhaps now is the time for those 98% of Catholic women who disagree with Cardinal George and the other bishops on birth control "to re-read the Acts of the Apostles" so as to reacquaint themselves with the Catholic doctrine that bishops, and only bishops, are permitted to "receive the authority to teach and govern that Christ bestowed upon the apostles."
People are of course free to disagree with the Catholic bishops, says Cardinal George. "But they deceive themselves and others in calling their organizations Catholic."
Cardinals Dolan and George are correct, of course. The Catholic Church is not a democracy.
But what, then, are we to make of a real democracy that would give tax breaks and taxpayer subsidies to a religious organization to run schools and hospitals whose leaders then threaten great harm to the millions served by those taxpayer-subsidized institutions unless the democratic state cravenly capitulates to church blackmail and allows these religious leaders to dictate the terms of public policy regarding the very issue that has always separated modern, secular societies from traditionalist and religiously-dominated ones: Sex. And women's sex in particular?