What Ecumenical Neighbors and Friends are Asking

What Ecumenical Neighbors and Friends are Asking: Are Roman Catholic Bishops Killing Their Church?

John Shelby “Jack” Spong (born June 16, 1931) is a retired American Episcopalian bishop. He was formerly the Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. He is a contemporary, historical-critical theologian. A few days ago, on 23 February, Bishop Spong offered his reflections about his Roman Catholic brother bishops. I cite a few of his key observations.

His full reflection can be found here: http://johnshelbyspong.com/2012/02/23/the-roman-catholic-bishops-are-they-killing-their-church/

Bishop Spong: “I never thought I would live long enough to see birth control become a major political issue. Nor did I think I would ever hear the desire to provide women with safe and effective contraception be referred to as ‘a war on religion on the part of the Obama administration’….

“First, if the national polls are to be believed, about 98% of the American population uses contraception at some point in the course of their lives. That statistic appears to be true whether the users are Protestants, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, non-believers or atheists!

“….The Roman Catholic Church’s leadership, however, still acts as if it has the power to dictate what public policy is or what it should be on this issue. Unable to gain the loyalty of those they call ‘the faithful’ they have now apparently decided that they will seek to impose their practices on the entirety of the nation’s citizenry. It is not working…. The idea that once emancipated from biological necessity women can now be coerced to return to the practices of yesterday is not just unrealistic, it is an act of violence!

“….In American politics, the Roman Catholic bishops have become increasingly aggressive on public issues over the last fifty years. When John F. Kennedy was seeking to become America’s first Catholic president in 1960, he assured a gathering of clergy in Houston that he would not seek to impose his religious rules upon this religiously pluralistic nation. That answer seemed quite satisfactory to Catholic bishops at that time. By 1984, however, when a Catholic woman, Geraldine Ferraro, was a candidate for the vice presidency, her position of separating her personal code from what was legally possible in the public arena was ruled by the Catholic bishops as no longer a satisfactory position for a Catholic to hold. John Kerry, as a practicing Roman Catholic, was told in his bid for the presidency in 2004 that he was forbidden to receive Communion because of his position of not repudiating the law that gave women the legal right to make their own abortion decisions.

“Now this Church’s bishops have taken that battle to what seems to be both a political and a religious absurdity. Though already given a ‘conscience’ exemption of not being required to provide contraceptive coverage in the health care offered to employees of Catholic churches, they are now demanding the right to impose that teaching on employees of their Catholic universities, hospitals and charitable institutions. Those institutions, while Catholic sponsored, serve a diverse population and receive public state and federal money to carry out their work. They have many non-Catholic employees and many Catholic employees who do not want Catholic teaching imposed upon their own health care decisions. The bishops have gone on to argue that any business run by a Roman Catholic CEO should also have the right to opt out of the requirement to provide contraceptive care to their employees.

“….The Roman Catholic Church’s recent history with the laws of this nation in regard to the criminal behavior of both abusing children and of protecting abusive priests had them asking for and receiving great leniency. Subpoenas of church records relating to the transfer of known child molesters have not been aggressively pursued. Cardinal Bernard Law, perhaps the guiltiest prelate in America of protecting abusers was allowed to move to the Vatican rather than have to answer his accusers or their attorneys under oath. Cardinal Law probably should be in jail today not in a respected post in the Vatican. This Church has a history of putting its own well-being ahead of its victims. Now they want to dictate the kind of health care available to women who are in their employ. I shake with rage at that suggestion and at that kind of self-serving duplicity.

“This Church has also carried out a destructive public campaign against justice and equality for gay and lesbian people over the last fifty years. They have used their money to defeat initiatives that would have provided equality before the law and end all forms of discrimination against homosexual people. They have done this based on Church teaching that defines homosexuality as deviant, a point of view regularly articulated by Pope Benedict XVI, despite the fact that this definition is almost universally dismissed as little more than dated ignorance in scientific and medical circles. How long do we tolerate religious ignorance that diminishes American citizens?

“….I never want to go back to the time when participation by Roman Catholics in public life was opposed because of their religion. I recall when one seat on the Supreme Court was designated ‘the Catholic seat.’ Today a literal majority of five of our Supreme Court justices (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and Alito) are Roman Catholics. If, however, the leaders of that church are going to use the political process to impose Catholic teaching on this entire nation then that attitude will surely compromise their ability to fulfill their oath of office. I had hoped that such a day had long gone from American life. The behavior of the Catholic bishops is surely reviving it. I am not willing to sacrifice the health of women or the constitutional rights of homosexual people to accommodate the dated attitudes of present Catholic leaders.

“….The vast majority of American Roman Catholics also seem to recognize that the leadership of their Church is simply badly out of date. I grieve that the present all-male leadership of the Catholic Church is bringing that Church into disrepute in a way that hurts the witness of the Christian faith, a faith that I too represent and treasure.


Once Upon a Time : There was a Vatican

Today’s First and Second Readings:

“For those who’ve seen the place in better days, the Vatican looks deeply troubled. In the absence of strong leadership, internal tensions seem to be bursting into view. Even at the height of his powers, the pope took scant interest in governance. As he ages and becomes more limited, a sense of drift is mounting — a conviction that hard choices must await a new day, and probably a new pontiff.” (John Allen noting in a 24 February NCR aticle that the observation first made in 2004 is especially apt today.)

” ‘No one puts new wine into old wineskins,’ warns the gospel. ‘Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins.’ The ‘new wine’ that came forth from the Second Vatican Council – the rediscovery of episcopal collegiality and shared governance between the Pope and the bishops, the aware- ness of the Church being a communio of all the baptised, the full participation of the laity in the liturgy and the mission of the Church – risks being lost because the post-conciliar Church has not been able to provide ‘new wineskins’ or new structures to sustain such a kind of Church. The skins have not yet burst, but there are signs of them springing leaks, which the men in Rome are struggling to plug.” (Robert Mickens reporting in The Tablet on 25 February)


The Homily:

As Robert Mickens from TheTablet, John Allen from NCR, and others have observed the institutional tectonic plates beneath the Vatican are shifting in a major historic way. Some observers speak of meltdown or an institutional implosion with tremendous international aftershocks….

Massimo Franco, Italian political writer for Corriere della Sera, has a new book which analyzes it all: C’era Una Volta Un Vaticano —- Once Upon a Time, There was a Vatican.

Franco, some may recall, wrote another best seller 2005 that analyzed relations between the Holy See and the United States. (Perhaps, after the 2012 US presidential elections, he can on a sequel on relations between the USCCB and the White House.) Anyway, back to the Vatican.

C’era Una Volta Un Vaticano sketches a kind of fin du régime life and spiit at the Vatican. (My sense too watching the recent consistory: everyone wrapped up in fancy party dress but not much of a party spirit.) Franco quotes Holy See diplomats who see themselves like the very last ambassadors to the Republic of Venice just before it collapsed in 1797.

Franco sees the Vatican meltdowns of the last five years as symptoms of a much deeper crisis. There are, John Allen observes, “signs of the end of an epoch, in which the Vatican represented the religious and moral sentiments of Western civilization, and the dawn of a new era in which Catholicism has become a minority subculture. Neither the Vatican nor the hierarchy more generally has figured out how to respond to this new world.”

I think my friend Robert Mickens says it best of all: “What no senior Vatican official seems willing to admit or able to grasp is that there may be something more serious going on. Certainly, there have been other moments of governing crises and lapses in the last few decades – and each time they were overcome. Each time also, as calls arose for change, the Pope would state that true church reform could only come about by ‘spiritual renewal’ and ‘internal conversion’….While Popes Paul VI and John Paul II made modest ‘reforms’ to the Roman Curia, they failed to address the lingering and deeper crisis. Quite simply, the crisis is this: the structures of the Catholic Church are no longer adequate for life in the modern world or responsive to the developments of the Church’s own ecclesiology and self-understanding.”

An implosion and a seismic shift for sure. On both sides of the Atlantic. And it is still rumbling deeply. When the air clears, perhaps we will see these days as days of grace when our institutional leaders rediscovered the church as a community of faith.


The Catholic Church and Public Morality (Some brief Reflections)

The Catholic Church and Public Morality
(Some brief Reflections)

“The usages of society are to be the usages of freedom in their full range. These require that the freedom of the human person be respected as far as possible and curtailed only when and insofar as necessary.” (Vatican II, Declaration on Religious Freedom, paragraph 7.)

“The morality proper to the life and action of society and the state is not univocally the morality of personal life, or even of familial life. Therefore the effort to bring the organized action of politics and the practical art of statecraft directly under the control of the Christian values that govern personal and familial life is inherently fallacious. It makes wreckage not only of public policy but also of morality itself. (John Courtney Murray, S.J., We Hold These Truths, page 286)


The continuing “debate” between the USCCB and the Obama administration raises once again some old questions. When should the state interfere with religious freedom or any personal freedom? The immediate answer has always been: When the public order calls for it. But what then is the public order?

According to the Catholic understanding expressed in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, the public order involves a three-fold reality of justice, public peace, and public morality (not just private morality). So, for example, while in the United States we greatly respect religious freedom we also restrict religious freedom by prohibiting human sacrifice in religious observances (justice). We also prohibit churches from ringing loud bells for a long time early in the morning (public peace). And of course (as Mr. Romney would apparently also agree) we prohibit Mormons from practicing polygamy (public morality).

The Catholic (Vatican II) understanding therefore can easily justify the legalization of gay and lesbian unions even if one accepts the official hierarchical teaching on homosexual relations. One begins with the freedom of homosexuals to live together. Today in fact most people in our society agree that permanent gay and lesbian unions are much better for society than promiscuous relationships. The state can support such permanent unions by granting rights such as health insurance and Social Security benefits. As a matter of fact, the legalization of permanent gay unions does not necessarily go against the importance of the family as a basic unit of society.

The Catholic Church therefore, for example, cannot call for laws to stop the sale of artificial contraceptives or to close sperm banks.

Yes….Catholic bishops have the right to hold the position that same-sex genital behavior, artificial contraception, and masturbation are all “intrinsically evil.”

Catholic teaching would insist, however, that when it comes to public morality in the United States (or anywhere) there is no moral obligation to prohibit an act simply because Catholic hierarchical authority considers it immoral.

Rather, there is a moral obligation to prohibit an act only if:

1) The act poses a real and serious threat to society, or
2) Prohibition of the act doesn’t result in greater harm to society

Now I must get into a proper Ash Wednesday frame of mind……..Another good Catholic practice!



The American Catholic exodus is speeding up…Currently four people leave the American Catholic Church for every one who joins it. No other other religious group in the United States has a similar ratio. Baptists, for example, also have more people leaving than joining, but their ratio of 2-1……much better than Catholics.

Roughly 10% of all Americans are now former Catholics. Among these former U.S. Catholics, 65 percent say they just stopped believing their religion’s teachings … 58 percent say they are unhappy with church teaching on issues like abortion and homosexuality, and 48 percent are unhappy with their bishops’ teaching on birth control. Even more say they simply lost interest in the church and gradually drifted away.

In American Grace their study of American religious polarization and pluralism, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell quote a member of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Acton, Massachusetts, where it is estimated that former Catholics make up nearly half the congregation. “If it weren’t for people leaving the Catholic Church,” he said, “the Episcopal Church would have died a long time ago in America.”

American Catholic customer service is slipping and customers are increasingly unhappy. There is a great hunger for more effective worship, better responses to spiritual needs, and greater pastoral creativity.

American Catholics are looking for bread and their bishops are handing them ornately decorated old stones.

If I were to write a consumers’ report for the USCCB, I would underline these issues: The shortage of priests. The fatigue and pessimism of older priests. The arrogant and oldfashioned Catholicism of far too many younger priests. Celibacy. The role of women in the church and their ordination. Transparency and consultation in church governance at every level, from the parish to the Vatican. Continuing revelations of sexual abuse and its coverup by more than a few bishops. The strong arm role of the hierarchy in Catholic higher education and health care. Monitoring of Catholic theology. Abortion, same-sex relations, and now once again birth control…. and the even more combustible demand that Catholic citizens and civic leaders be answerable to episcopal judgments about laws regarding these matters.

With a new red hat and fancy shoes and robes, Cardinal Timothy Dolan will soon return to his USCCB presidential desk. Perhaps one of the first things the Cardinal Archbishop should do, when he gets back to America, is talk to a few Catholic Martha Stewarts and learn how to make Catholic bread.


USCCB Memory Problems : How Could They Forget Cardinal Cushing

When the Massachusetts legislature voted in 1966 to end the last all-out ban on contraceptives in the United States, it was with the approval and assistance of the Boston Archdiocese

On February 15, 1963, Boston’s Cardinal Richard James Cushing (1895–1970) was the guest on “Conversation Piece,” an afternoon talk show on local radio station WEEI….Cushing addressed public concerns about the role of the Catholic Church in politics.

As President Kennedy himself had done, Cushing offered the assurance that Catholics did not believe religious viewpoints should control political decision making in the democratic arena.

The leader of 1.8 million Catholics in the Boston Archdiocese, Cushing told the radio audience that he had no desire to impose the Church’s moral judgments, by using his considerable influence over Massachusetts legislation, on people of other faiths.

This memory refresher comes from Seth Meehan a Ph.D. student in history at Boston College. His article titled “From Patriotism to Pluralism: How Catholics Initiated the Repeal of Birth Control Restrictions in Massachusetts,” apeared in the Catholic Historical Review in July 2010. His article earned Meehan the Peter Guilday Prize from the American Catholic Historical Association


Bishop-Speak: Same-Sex Marriage and Sexual Exploitation

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on February 7th that a 2008 California referendum banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. The appeals court, upholding an earlier district court decision, ruled that the voter-approved ban, known as Proposition 8, violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. For now, same-sex couples who desire to marry in California may still not be able to do so, since the decision is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, joins the bishops of California in denouncing the February 7th decision: “Today’s court ruling is a grave injustice, ignoring the reality that marriage is the union of one man and one woman,” Dolan said.

Meanwhile, the new Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, D.C., has endorsed the legislative campaign now underway to legalize same sex marriage in Maryland. Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, wrote on the Washington Post website that gay marriage opponents should not be so certain the Bible is on their side. According to her the Bible is silent on the subject of same-gender monogamous relationships; but clearly condemns exploitative sexual activity that is the antithesis of loving, committed relationships.

I would like to hear ALL bishops speaking out about “exploitative sexual activity that is the antithesis of loving, committed relationships.”

The President of the USCCB has every right to express his position about same-sex marriage. Increasingly, however, American Catholics don’t agree with him.

According to the latest report from the Pew Research Center, American Catholic supporters for same-sex marriage now outnumber opponents (52% vs. 37%). In 2010, U.S. Catholics were more evenly divided on the issue, with 46% favoring same-sex marriage and 42% expressing opposition. A majority of white Catholics (57%) now express support for same-sex marriage, while Hispanic Catholics continue to be closely divided (42% favor same-sex marriage, 42% are opposed).

AND thinking about “exploitative sexual activity that is the antithesis of loving, committed relationships,” Soon-to-be Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s predecessor in New York, retired Cardinal Edward Egan has taken back his earlier apology for clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of New York.

In March 2002, Cardinal Egan, then Archbishop of New York, issued a pastoral letter to be read at all week end liturgies. In it, he offered an apology about the church’s handling of sex-abuse cases in New York and in Bridgeport, Conn., where he was previously bishop.

Back then…..Egan wrote: “It is clear that today we have a much better understanding of this problem….If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry.”

Now, 10 years later and in retirement, Cardinal Egan has taken back his apology.

In the February 2012 issue of Connecticut Magazine, Egan says: “I never should have said that….I don’t think we did anything wrong.”

Wouldn’t it be fun to put Cardinal Edward, Bishop Mariann, and Cardinal DesignateTimothy in a locked room for a week: a special episcopal retreat.


Clarity, Consience and Catholic Confusion

(My Final Observations About Games Some Bishops Play)

Clarity from the White House:

Health Reform, Preventive Services, and Religious Institutions

Cecilia Muñoz
February 01, 2012

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, most health insurance plans will cover women’s preventive services, including contraception, without charging a co-pay or deductible beginning in August, 2012. This new law will save money for millions of Americans. But more importantly, it will ensure Americans nationwide get the high-quality care they need to stay healthy. Under this policy, women who want contraception will have access to it through their insurance without paying a co-pay or deductible. But no one will be forced to buy or use contraception.

On January 20th, Secretary Sebelius announced that certain religious organizations including churches would be exempt from paying their insurers to cover contraception.

Other religious organizations, including those that employ people of different faiths, can qualify for a one-year transition period as they prepare to comply with the new law.

In recent days, there has been some confusion about how this policy affects religious institutions. We want to make sure you have the facts:

Churches are exempt from the new rules: Churches and other houses of worship will be exempt from the requirement to offer insurance that covers contraception.

No individual health care provider will be forced to prescribe contraception:
The President and this Administration have previously and continue to express strong support for existing conscience protections. For example, no Catholic doctor is forced to write a prescription for contraception.

No individual will be forced to buy or use contraception: This rule only applies to what insurance companies cover. Under this policy, women who want contraception will have access to it through their insurance without paying a co-pay or deductible. But no one will be forced to buy or use contraception.

Drugs that cause abortion are not covered by this policy: Drugs like RU486 are not covered by this policy, and nothing about this policy changes the President’s firm commitment to maintaining strict limitations on Federal funding for abortions. No Federal tax dollars are used for elective abortions.

Over half of Americans already live in the 28 States that require insurance companies cover contraception: Several of these States like North Carolina, New York, and California have identical religious employer exemptions. Some States like Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin have no exemption at all.

Contraception is used by most women: According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, most women, including 98 percent of Catholic women, have used contraception.

Contraception coverage reduces costs: While the monthly cost of contraception for women ranges from $30 to $50, insurers and experts agree that savings more than offset the cost. The National Business Group on Health estimated that it would cost employers 15 to 17 percent more not to provide contraceptive coverage than to provide such coverage, after accounting for both the direct medical costs of potentially unintended and unhealthy pregnancy and indirect costs such as employee absence and reduced productivity.

The Obama Administration is committed to both respecting religious beliefs and increasing access to important preventive services. And as we move forward, our strong partnerships with religious organizations will continue. The Administration has provided substantial resources to Catholic organizations over the past three years, in addition to numerous non-financial partnerships to promote healthy communities and serve the common good. This work includes partnerships with Catholic social service agencies on local responsible fatherhood programs and international anti-hunger/food assistance programs. We look forward to continuing this important work.

(Cecilia Muñoz is the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council) Emphasis in the above is mine. JWG

Conscience and Conscience Formation:

“If the U.S. bishops and the conservative Catholic and Christian media are going to appeal to “conscience,” then they better allow for the well-informed consciences of Catholics and non-Catholics who work at Catholic institutions to make their own decisions.

“No one is forcing Catholics to use contraception. It is merely stating that they should have access to contraception. Many Catholic theologians have argued that it is a fair and just decision that respects the ability of Catholic and other women to follow their own consciences and make decisions as responsible adults about their own health care and that of their families.

“And they also must respect the well-informed consciences of professors at academic universities whose job is the pursuit of knowledge and truth, and for some, the pursuit of justice as well. This includes Catholic theologians who are trying to give advice on improving the church. Since the bishops and others have introduced this into the public arena, they need to respect the consciences and expertise of those voices without the threat of job loss or excommunication.”

(Keith Soko is associate professor of moral theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa)

Catholic Confusion:

Now go back and re-read what Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan and about 100 other bishops said and wrote a few days ago…….



As reported by Aanda Terkel in the Huffington Post, President Obama’s pro-choice birth control decision has drawn enthusiatic praise from Amercan other-than-USCCB religious leaders.

On Monday, 30 January, religious leaders from the Jewish, Unitarian, Baptist and other faiths addressed a letter to Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. All are members of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which includes more than 40 denominations.

They did not condemn but thanked President Obama: “We believe that all women deserve access to affordable birth control, regardless of their employer, and we hope that, in the future, HHS will expand the same preventive coverage to women across the board.”

The letter continued…..”As clergy, we are committed to upholding the important goals of reproductive justice and health, empowering women and men to make decisions about whether and when to have and bear children within their own moral and religious tradition, and assuring them the means and ability to raise their children in a safe and healthy environment. Access to reproductive health services recognizes a moral value embraced across the religious spectrum. We thank you for your decision supporting the fundamental value of reproductive health to women and families.”

Rev. Matthew Westfox said the letter was intended to thank the Obama administration for its decision, and to provide an alternative religious voice, since so much attention had been put on opposition to the rule by some Roman Catholic leaders.

“What a lot of the press has been reporting is that all religious groups are opposed to this — which is just categorically untrue,” Westfox said.

Westfox continued…..”We really wanted to make clear that on behalf of ourselves and thousands of people of faith and clergy and religious organizations across the country, that we stood in support of this decision. We think it’s really important to know that many people of faith are supportive of this and have been supportive of access to birth control and individual people being able to access their conscience in support of health care.”

As pointed out here a few days ago, the loudest voice opposing the Obama administration’s decision has been the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.