The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have launched their “Fortnight for Freedom,” a two-week campaign that will include prayer vigils, rallies, and media activity designed to send a message that religious freedom is under attack in the United States.
Support for marriage equality among many voters, states, and the federal government is cited as one of the reasons the bishops designed this project. According to an Associated Press article in The Washington Post:
“While the religious freedom campaign includes protests against state laws and policies, the bishops’ immediate target is the mandate President Barack Obama announced in January that most employers provide health insurance that covers birth control. Federal officials said the rule was critical to women’s health by helping them space out pregnancies.
“Critics have accused the bishops of organizing the campaign as a partisan assault on Obama in an election year. But church leaders insist they have no partisan agenda and blame the timing on when federal officials approved the rule.
“ ‘In only the past few years, we’ve experienced rampant disregard for religious beliefs in this country,’ wrote New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in an e-book released for the ‘Fortnight’ effort. Among the examples he cites are approval for embryonic stem cell research, legal justification for torturing prisoners and support for same-sex marriage.”
“The target audience is as much within the church as outside it, says political scientist and Jesuit priest Thomas Reese. Although bishops can call on every priest in every diocese to participate in Fortnight events, ‘those priests who agree and who don’t like Obama will preach on it every Sunday. And the ones who don’t agree will throw (the bishops’ materials) in the circular file.’ “
“Sister Pat McCann, blogging for the Sisters of Mercy, said, ‘Churches legitimately influence public debate and help to shape policy by raising a significant voice about moral implications of issues which beset us, but no church gets to establish policy one hundred per cent its own way.’ “
“Reese said Catholics are ‘voting with their cars’ by driving off to a church where they’re not ‘harangue’” on issues that make them uncomfortable.”
“Most Catholics (57 percent), like most Americans (68 percent), don’t buy the bishops’ case that the right of religious liberty is under threat, said a March survey of 1,007 adults by the Public Religion Research Institute.”
According to a Religion News Service article in The Houston Chronicle, the complex funding mechanism the U.S. bishops have used to pay for the “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign. Cited in the article, criticizing the bishops is Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington:
“ ‘The Knights of Columbus are clearly one of the major sources of funding (against the mandate), as well as other fraternal organizations,’ Schneck said.
“The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic charitable group based in New Haven, Conn., says it’s the world’s largest lay Catholic organization. Knights of Columbus life insurance sales neared $8 billion in 2010, and last year, it contributed $158 million to charity. In the last decade, the Knights have donated more than $1 billion to charity.
“The group’s 2010 tax forms show that the Knights gave more than $3 million to the Vatican that year, nearly $2 million to the U.S. bishops conference and $25,000 to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has guided much of the legal action against the contraception mandate.
“The group must disclose more recent donations in its 2011 tax forms. But Andrew Walther, a Knights of Columbus spokesman, said the group has asked for an extension in filing the documents, making them unavailable until the fall.
“In 2010, the Knights were also generous with their contributions to individual bishops, doling out nearly $350,000 for a variety of programs in various dioceses. Of that, $248,700, or 71 percent, went to Lori’s former Diocese of Bridgeport.
“Lori — who is the man most directly in charge of the Fortnight for Freedom campaign — has been the Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus since 2005.
“The Knights did not respond to requests for an interview about the organization’s involvement with the bishops’ campaign, but the organization has dedicated recent issues of its monthly magazine to the topic of religious liberty.
“John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group in Washington, said while the Knights’ charitable works was ‘commendable … its leadership has steered a fraternal organization into political waters in ways that should raise questions.’
“Asked by reporters in Atlanta last week if the Knights’ involvement in the religious liberty campaign introduces at least the perception of partisanship, Lori said no. Other groups have contributed to the campaign, he said, mentioning Our Sunday Visitor and the Order of Malta.
“ ‘Think of what the Knights of Columbus does for the Catholic Church and for many other humanitarian causes,’ he said. ‘To try to say that is in some way partisan is … an injustice.’ ”
National Public Radio interviewed some lay Catholics in the Washington, DC region and found a number of them opposed to the Fortnight for Freedom:
“Marion McCartney, who attends the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, D.C., opposes the bishops’ campaign. She’s part of a group, Blessed Sacrament Families United in Faith and Action, that wrote a letter to its pastor, saying the partisan nature of the campaign is ‘a step too far.’
” ‘Nobody’s religious freedom is at stake. That’s just ridiculous!’ McCartney says. Is ‘[Health and Human Services Secretary] Kathleen Sebelius going to come and close all the church doors? I mean, it’s just foolishness.’
A”nother member of that group is Jim Zogby, who has worked on human-rights issues overseas. He says the U.S. bishops were spoiling for a fight over social issues with the Obama administration.
” ‘They declared war on the administration, and we the faithful are paying the price for it,’ Zogby says. ‘Our religious freedom, our ability to simply go to church, worship, feel a community, feel safe in that community’ has been compromised
” ‘We’re now being put in the middle of a partisan fight, and that’s wrong.’
“His wife, Eileen, says Blessed Sacrament, with its mix of liberals and conservatives, has always put politics aside. Not now. At a recent parish meeting about religious freedom, people began attacking President Obama, she says, getting more and more heated.
” ‘Until finally one person leaned forward and he said, “Well, I have seen cars in our parking lot with Obama stickers on them, and they are complicit in all of this.” And I thought, “Well I guess I’m not welcome here, because I have an Obama sticker on my car.” ‘ “
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry