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Of the Catholic Church as a PAC

Forays into political realm raise questions for both parties as the campaign goes on

Worcester Bishop Robert McManus recently told Victoria Kennedy, the widow of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, that she was “disinvited” from delivering the commencement speech at Anna Maria College. In Illinois, Bishop Daniel Jenky, of Peoria, likened President Obama to Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, charging that the administration’s “radical pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda” was “a war against religion” and that the president plans to “shut down church buildings.” Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a regular on Fox News, and a vituperative critic of Mr. Obama, holds up a Pew Forum study and charges that the Democrats are “unfriendly to religion” and the Republicans are just the opposite. Interestingly, Donohue is silent when it comes to the American bishops’ and cardinals’ recent open letter in which they harangue Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposed budget as an attack on the poor.

Donohue did find the time to note that Democratic political operative Hillary Rosen was a “lesbian” when he assailed her remarks about Ann Romney’s decision to stay at home to raise her family, apparently another instance of him knowing that Rosen was parroting the Democrats’ “war” against the sanctity of stay-at-home-moms. Donohue’s talent for knowing why people act the way they do seems to wobble a bit when the discussion turns to matters like capital punishment. The Catholic Church takes an admirably consistent stand for “the sanctity of life” in its opposition to abortion and to capital punishment; but the record shows that a great many conservative Catholics are every bit as selective on capital punishment as they accuse liberal Catholics of being on abortion and contraception.

What all of the above and more in recent months leads to is the question of the ever-vexing matter of the separation of church and state. The clergy and the Catholic League have the same Constitutional right to free speech as everyone else, but “everyone else” does not, like the Catholic Church, enjoy a 501 C tax exemption from the government. While the church’s leaders are making a stand against the harsh cuts that Ryan’s budget would impose upon the poor, the elderly, the mentally challenged, and virtually every group without standing in the eyes of lobbyists and too many in Congress, Donohue and the Catholic League are broaching such canards as President Obama’s “war on religion” and the “evils of contraception,” and, Joe McCarthy-like, deriding anyone who disagrees with them.

For all that, is a tax-exempt status appropriate for the Catholic Church when its cardinals, bishops, clergy, and adherents enter the political arena and publicly align themselves with a Republican or Democratic cause? I do not believe that the church’s tax exemption should be revoked. The good works of countless nuns and many priests with the underprivileged across the globe is apolitical. Yet here in America, the church’s teachings and the federal government’s position on abortion and women’s rights are so dramatically mis-aligned that it’s hard, if not impossible, for well-intentioned people on both sides of the issues to find an inch of common ground. America’s bishops and cardinals should and do stand up for the church’s tenets, but when the manufactured fiction of a war on religion, no matter how large the divide on the issues, arises, everyone might be wise to quash such rhetoric. The church is never going to change its position on life and should not have to, but there is no one seeking to impose “secularism” upon religion or the nation. Ultimately, people are free to believe what they wish and practice their faith, or lack of it, as their consciences and the Constitution allow.

In these parts, Cardinal Sean O’Malley – undoubtedly a cleric with a true sense of mission to the poor – has sided with his fellow American cardinals and bishops in their criticisms of the president. And the rising star of the American Catholic church, the brilliant and outspoken Cardinal Timothy Dolan, of New York, is revered by conservatives for publicly assailing the Obama administration’s stance on contraception rights and its decision not to support a federal ban on gay marriage. He has every right to do so, but those who disagree are not waging a war on those who agree with the cardinal.

Now, from right-wing websites and publications such as “Newsmax, a conservative news media organization based in West Palm Beach, comes the news that “Roman Catholic leaders are calling for two weeks of public protests against President Barack Obama’s policies as they intensify their argument that the administration is engaged in a war on religion.” Writes Martin Gould: “The days between June 21 and July 4 have been set aside by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has sought to end the administration’s contraception mandate, among other policies.” On April 24, a leading lay Catholic told Newsmax that “the protests against the Obama administration’s policies could be ‘the game-changer’ in the presidential election. The protests, dubbed ‘A Fortnight for Freedom,’ will be an ‘unprecedented, aggressive attack’ against policies that church leaders see as an assault on religious freedom,” Catholic Advocate chairman Deal Hudson told Newsmax.

Excuse me, please. The ‘game-changer in the presidential election’ drawn up by the American Catholic Church? If the Catholic Church and its bishops were so aggressively plotting the defeat of a sitting Republican administration, that would be just as offensive to me, an American citizen and a Roman Catholic. I’m certain that Jesus never envisioned his Church setting up shop – as a political action committee.