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Feeling Under Siege, Catholic Leadership Shifts Right

Protesters in Baltimore rally against the kickoff of Fortnight for Freedom, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops say the campaign is a response to government attacks on religious liberty, but critics say it's an attack on the Obama administration.
Patrick Semansky
Protesters in Baltimore rally against the kickoff of Fortnight for Freedom, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops say the campaign is a response to government attacks on religious liberty, but critics say it's an attack on the Obama administration.

The Catholic Church is drawing a line in the sand.

Perceiving its core beliefs to be under threat from popular culture, the White House and even Catholics themselves, the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are pushing back.

In recent months, the church leadership has been cracking down on liberal theologians, disciplining nuns and emphasizing a more orthodox theology.

The most recent example is the bishops' response to the new health care law. After the Obama administration announced that religious universities, hospitals and charities must offer insurance plans that cover birth control, the bishops swung into action.

The group sued in federal court. They warned religious organizations and believers that birth control is intrinsically evil. And the Conference launched the Fortnight for Freedom campaign, asking the faithful to pray, fast and attend special Masses about religious liberties in the two weeks leading up to July 4.

Enforcing Conservative Theology

Many Catholics view the controversial campaign as an anti-Obama move in an election year.

I just think we're in an era with secular culture where compromise can be fatal in a way that was not the case in the past. ... So we're seeing an attempt to find an equilibrium

"The Fortnight for Freedom is becoming a kind of marker of being a good Catholic," says David Gibson, a Religion News Service reporter who has written several books about the Catholic Church.

"It's an effort to kind of rally the troops to recreate this unified Catholic community that's really disappeared in the last 50 years," he says.

Gibson and others say, increasingly, the church appears to be enforcing a conservative theology. The Vatican has instituted a more traditional liturgy and has openly criticized or censured several liberal theologians in recent months.

And, Gibson notes, the Vatican made two significant announcements in a single week in April: First, that it wants to reconcile with the ultra-conservative Society of St. Pius the X, and secondly, that it will reorganize the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of Catholic sisters.

As justification for the reorganization, the Vatican accused the group of "radical feminism." It also accused the nuns of failing to emphasize sexual issues like birth control and same-sex marriage as much as their work on poverty and injustice.

Gibson says those two nearly simultaneous announcements are a telling coincidence.

"Rome is doing everything it can to bring a schismatic right-wing group that rejects the reforms of Vatican II back into the fold," Gibson says, "while at the same time, it's censuring nuns and theologians who are actually following the spirit of Vatican II."

Attempting 'To Find Equilibrium'

Fabian Bruskewitz, bishop of Lincoln, Neb., says the nuns are a "precious treasure," but that some of their leaders were promoting ideas about sexuality that were at odds with the Catholic Church.

When it comes to core doctrines, Bruskewitz says, the church is not a democracy.

"These are not open to votes," Bruskewitz says. "These are what God has revealed, and the custody of that revelation is of course in the possession of the church."

Bruskewitz says the church can't compromise its views just because the secular world doesn't like them.

"Some lady [asked] me a short time ago, 'Why don't you adopt what is socially acceptable — divorce, contraception and so on?' I said, 'Well that's not the criterion for morality.' "

"I just think we're in an era with secular culture where compromise can be fatal in a way that was not the case in the past," says Rusty Reno, editor of the conservative Catholic magazine First Things.

If anything, Reno says, the church became too liberal after Vatican II, as people interpreted reform as license to defy the church.

"So we're seeing an attempt to find an equilibrium," Reno says.

Father Thomas Reese, a fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, sees the changes within the church less as an attempt at equilibrium than a dramatic swing toward the right.

The shift began, Reese says, with Pope John Paul II. Alarmed by Vatican II, the pope set out to rein things in.

First, Reese says, the pope began cracking down on liberal theologians who dissented from the Vatican in an attempt to "control the message."

And second, he says, the pope appointed conservative bishops loyal to the Vatican — the men who are running the U.S. Catholic Church today.

On matters of sexuality and morality, he says, these bishops brook no dissent from the faithful.

"They see themselves as teachers," Reese says. "They teach what they consider the truth. If the students don't accept it, that's the students' problem, not theirs."

Reese says today's church leaders remind him of parents of teenage children.

"They realize they're losing control," he says, "and they think the solution is simply to shout louder, and to say, 'No, you can't do that,' or, 'Not in my house, you won't,' or, 'Because I said so!'

"That's simply not going to work with an educated laity," Reese says.

'Maybe Our Time Has Come'

Reese believes that top-down approach, combined with the bishops' handling of the sex abuse crisis, has alienated many of the faithful.

Polls show that one-third of people raised Catholic no longer attends church.

That may not be a bad thing, says Bill Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League and author of Why Catholicism Matters.

Donohue notes that Pope Benedict XVI has intimated that a smaller, more orthodox church might be better anyway. If people are so dissatisfied, Donohue says, why don't they just join a liberal denomination, like the Episcopalians?

"I think for a long time, what I would consider the base of Catholic Church — the ones who practice, who go to church regularly and who pay the bills, generally of a more conservative stripe — we feel like we've been neglected," Donohue says. "And now we feel like, 'Hey, maybe our time has come.' "

It certainly feels that way to John Gehring, a church-attending Catholic who works for the progressive advocacy group Faith in Public Life. Gehring says the Church he loves used to care as much about poverty and social justice as sexuality.

"I believe in a 'big tent' Catholicism, where liberals and moderates and conservatives can get along," Gehring says. "We share a faith, we share rituals, we break bread together. But this is as much my church as it is Bill Donohue's church."

And so Gehring plans to stay — and hopes that one day, the pendulum will swing back his way.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.