Catholic Church

In an interview given to the editor of the Italian Jesuit publication “La Civilta Cattolica,” and released September 19, Pope Francis said that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay rights and contraception. The church should not be “distracted” into promulgating a multitude of doctrines “insistently”. He said of complaints reaching him about “lack of orthodoxy” that they “are better dealt with locally.” Otherwise Vatican offices will risk becoming “institutions of censorship.” In coming out against insistence on orthodoxy on sexual matters the Pope used the metaphor of treating the wounded on a battlefield “you don’t ask a seriously injured person if he has high levels of cholesterol.” He says that God looks on the gay person as an individual.

Here in America, one gasps at the importance of the Pope’s message in the light of the very recent impact of Catholic dogmatism on American politics and culture. It is not so long ago that we had a prominent Republican candidate for the Presidency, Rick Santorum, a Catholic, make the banning of contraception a core campaign plank, or that in the last Iowa presidential primary season all of the Republican candidates, except for Mitt Romney, took a pledge to appoint only anti abortion officials to key justice and health departments. And who could forget the appointment of a Vatican “inquisitor” to put the nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in their place, not for violating Catholic dogma on abortion, but for not speaking out against it in their work.

Pope Francis thus has repudiated much of his predecessor’s authoritarian mischief on religion and public policy. In the debate over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act absolutists in the Catholic Conference of Bishops opposed even non-religiously affiliated organization from paying for insurance for their employees that covered abortion. No individuals were forced to participate against their choice in health insurance decisions that went against their personal beliefs on issues such as abortion. Nevertheless the ACA was supposed to be forcing the institution, seen as a person, to go against “his/her” beliefs.

The negative impact of deference to dogmas went even deeper. To argue against a national health program, Santorum and a number of legislators made clear that having a health care plan in Massachusetts was different from having the same health plan at the federal level because government health care at the federal level violated the principle of “subsidiarity”, meaning that what is ok at a lower – subsidiary – level is not ok at a general level. Government health care programs were only ok if they were at the right, i.e. lower level. Needless to say, whatever he really thought, Mitt Romney bought into this dogma, which he could say saved him from the “stigma” of Obamacare. Romney, after all, had introduced comprehensive health care in Massachusetts during his governorship.

It is clear that Pope Francis rejects all of this. Beyond specific doctrines he thinks the church is obsessed with, he is attacking the authoritarianism the Republican Party is wallowing in. Republicans do not want to compromise. They want to enforce their will and doctrinal purity on all matters. One can only hope the sound of the Pope’s message carries far over the land.


Richard Mourdock is the Republican candidate for Senate in Indiana, following his defeat of veteran Senator Richard Lugar in the Republican primary. He is a man whose avowed mantra is never to compromise, meet in the middle, practice bi-partisanship but rather, as he said of his approach to office holding, “the highlight of politics is to inflict my opinion on someone else.” These are the words of a man with an authoritarian mindset. Mourdock is not alone. This is a clear propensity towards authoritarianism that characterizes today’s Republican party. It imbues every aspect of Republican culture and understanding of power, and it is playing out in battlegrounds of the 2012 election campaign through issues surrounding the role of Super PACS, the role of the church in politics and the role of business as a model for political leadership.

One way to look at the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited political donations by corporations, defined as “persons” with rights of free speech, is to see it as a license for corporations to “inflict” their views on others. Freedom of speech as defined in the Republican lexicon is the freedom to win and then inflict an absence of freedom on others. When Republicans use the word “freedom” think of them as saying “freedom to inflict.” Certainly that is a fair read on what another powerful institution, the current Catholic Bishops hierarchy wants to do to Obama’s Health Care Act. Its position is that religiously-affiliated hospitals or universities are legal persons whose religious freedom would be denied if they were forced to offer contraception in their health care plans. The Bishops continued their war against Obama (and women) even when Obama, seeking a principled compromise, shifted the mandate for contraception coverage to insurance companies. If the hierarchy eventually wins against Obama its “institution as person” can effectively “inflict” its views on non-Catholics, denying them contraception coverage.

In the Citizens United view of corporate personhood Catholic-affiliated hospitals and universities are defined as persons whose freedom to insist on adherence to doctrinal purity must be guaranteed, whether or not they serve non-Catholics. In the debate over contraception coverage, no real individual Catholic is being denied any freedom of choice or speech. An editorial in the New York Times (5/27/12) says it best: “The First Amendment is not a license for religious entities to impose their dogma on society through the law… The First Amendment also does not exempt religious entities or individuals claiming a sincere religious objection from neutral laws of general applicability, a category the new contraception rule plainly fits… This is a clear partisan play. The real threat to religious liberty comes from the effort to impose one church’s doctrine on everyone.”