Five Dispensations Americans Need from Pope Francis
Millions of Americans--Catholic and non-Catholic alike (myself included)--are eagerly awaiting next week's visit to the United States by Pope Francis. There's no mystery as to why. In word and in deed, the humble yet audacious Pontiff has reawakened Americans to the Church's teachings on social justice. But his challenge that "the excluded are still waiting" is not limited to the rich and the powerful. His influential encyclical Laudato Si (On Care for Our Common Home) demands the engagement of all people and their institutions as stewards of the earth, warning that "the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity" and reminding us that "our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God."
But when Francis becomes the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, author Paul Vallely predicts, "America's political leaders should expect some discomforting talk." Despite his warning to his American church not to be "obsessed" about abortion, gay marriage and contraception, social liberals should not expect the Pope to alter church doctrine on any of those topics. As for conservatives who have already denounced Francis' emphases on climate change, poverty and inequality as "kind of liberal," "pure Marxism," "neo-socialism" or "communist" and protested, "I don't get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope," Bergoglio's speech won't change many minds in the media, on Capitol Hill or on the campaign trail.
Pope Francis probably won't change any minds among the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (UCCSB), either. Increasingly out-of-touch both with their Pope and their own parishioners, the bishops nevertheless have an outsized influence not just on the nation's 68 million Catholics, but on all 320 million Americans. Their heavy hand weighs on public policies large and small, in ways seen and unseen. For our sake and arguably for his, Pope Francis needs to loosen their grasp.
Here are five areas where America and Americans need a dispensation from His Holiness.
1. Please Tell the Bishops to Stop Holding the Economy Hostage
In 2013, the Holy Father proclaimed, "The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person!" Yet that same year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops nearly created the next financial crisis by demanding that Congress shut down the federal government and trigger a global economic calamity by refusing to raise the debt ceiling "unless religious employers were given a special right to deny birth control coverage to their employees."
In their September 26th letter to House members, Archbishop of Baltimore William E. Lori and Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston added theirs to the GOP's ever-growing list of ransom demands. They opened their "Dear Representative" letter:
We are writing once again, as Chairmen of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities and Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, on an increasingly grave concern to our Church and many others: Preserving religious freedom and the right of conscience for all who take part in our health care system.
We have already urged you to enact the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940/S. 1204). As Congress considers a Continuing Resolution and debt ceiling bill in the days to come, we reaffirm the vital importance of incorporating the policy of this bill into such "must-pass" legislation.
The two were "writing once again" just in case members of Congress forgot their earlier blackmail threat. That March, Terence Jeffrey of CNS explained how the bishops' planned to extort the President of the United States:
If the Republican-controlled House were to agree to the request of the Catholic bishops and move this week to include H.R. 940 in the "must-pass" CR, the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama would have a choice to make. They could choose to preserve the administration's power to force Catholics and other Christians to act against their faith, reject the House-passed CR, and thus risk a shut down of the federal government...
If, instead, the Republican-controlled House fulfilled the Catholic bishops' request by including H.R. 940 in a bill to lift the debt limit, the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama would face a similar choice. In this case, it would be between preserving the administration's regulation forcing Catholics and other Christians to act against their faith and preserving the administration's authority to continue borrowing money to pay the expenses the government is now running in excess of its revenues.
Such a scenario would not only have been unprecedented, it would have been catastrophic. That warning wasn't issued by the Obama administration but came from House Speaker and noted Catholic John Boehner. As he put it just after picking up the Speaker's gavel:
"That would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy. Remember, the American people on Election Day said, 'we want to cut spending and we want to create jobs.' And you can't create jobs if you default on the federal debt."
"The Pope has the duty, in Christ's name," Pope Francis said, "to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them." He didn't say anything about creating more of them.
2. Please Urge Your Followers to Stop Blaming Victims of Clergy Sex Abuse
In December, the Pope lectured the top church bureaucrats in Rome, listing 15 "spiritual diseases" from which the Curia suffers, including self-importance, lust for power, and lack of empathy for others. Among those pathologies, Francis warned, was the "disease of closeness":
"This disease also begins from good intentions, but with the passing of time enslaves its members, becoming a cancer which threatens the harmony of the body and causes a lot of evil and scandal, especially towards our small brothers and sisters."
That disease impacting thousands of "our small brothers and sisters" in the United States, was the decades-long scandal of clergy sex abuse. But according to some of the Church's staunchest American defenders, the villains are the real victims.
Take, for example, former Pennsylvania Senator and two-time GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum. In a July 2002 guest op-ed for Catholic Online, Senator Santorum laid the blame for the clergy sex scandal not on the pedophiles and rapists so long protected by his Church, but on the broader permissive liberal culture:
The most obvious change must occur within American seminaries, many of which demonstrate the same brand of cultural liberalism plaguing our secular universities...It is startling that those in the media and academia appear most disturbed by this aberrant behavior, since they have zealously promoted moral relativism by sanctioning "private" moral matters such as alternative lifestyles. Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture. When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.
In 2009, Catholic League President Bill Donahue protested the media portrayal of the scandal in Ireland. The New York Times coverage of the 2,600 page report explained that "tens of thousands of Irish children were sexually, physically and emotionally abused by nuns, priests and others over 60 years in a network of church-run residential schools meant to care for the poor, the vulnerable and the unwanted." The report concluded that sexual abuse, particularly at the boys' schools, was "endemic." In its headline, Reuters simply reported, "Irish priests beat, raped children: report." All of that was too much for Donahue, who issued a press release titled, "Hysteria Over Irish Clergy Abuse":
Regarding sexual abuse, "kissing," and "non-contact including voyeurism" (e.g., what it labels as "inappropriate sexual talk") make the grade as constituting sexual abuse. Moreover, one-third of the cases involved "inappropriate fondling and contact." None of this is defensible, but none of it qualifies as rape. Rape, on the other hand, constituted 12 percent of the cases. As for the charge that "Irish Priests" were responsible, some of the abuse was carried out by lay persons, much of it was done by Brothers, and about 12 percent of the abusers were priests (most of whom were not rapists).
"By cheapening rape," Donohue protested, "the report demeans the big victims."
Just this week, many Catholics in the Syracuse, New York area were horrified to hear their bishop describe who was and wasn't a victim in cases of clergy sex abuse there:
Bishop Robert Cunningham testified in a 2011 deposition in response to a federal lawsuit filed by a man who said a priest in the Syracuse diocese sexually abused him as a child.
The man's lawyer asked Cunningham whether, in the eyes of the church, a child molested by a priest has committed a sin.
"The boy is culpable," Cunningham said Oct. 14, 2011, according to a transcript of the deposition.
Cunningham insisted in a letter to parishioners this week that "victims of abuse are never at fault!" That probably won't be sufficient to those like Joelle Casteix. An abuse victim and longtime victims' advocate, Casteix suggested a path to moral clarity for the Argentine Pope:
"Pope Francis could say that if you've ever abused a child, you're out. If you've ever covered up for child sexual abuse, you're out. Everyone reports to the civil authorities, no matter what."
3. Please Stop the Stonewalling on Victim Payouts and Perpetrator Disclosure
Earlier this month, Pope Francis urged Europe's 120,000 Catholic parishes to play a major role in helping care for the flood of Syrian refugees pouring into the Continent. "May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe host a family." That guidance is in keeping with his 2013 message to the Italian Church about the 100,000 structures it owns--holdings valued at $10 billion.
"Some religious orders say 'No, now that the convent is empty we are going to make a hotel and we can have guests, and support ourselves that way, or make money.' Well, if that is what you want to do, then pay taxes! A religious school is tax-exempt because it is religious, but if it is functioning as a hotel, then it should pay taxes just like its neighbor. Otherwise it is not fair business."
The bishops and cardinals here in the United States might want to take Francis' admonition to heart. As Dan Ogrodowski, sexually assaulted as a child by a priest while attending St. Augustine of Hippo in Milwaukee, pleaded this week:
"Pope Francis said these beautiful words about reparations and weeping for us. How could he watch us be pummeled for years?"
Despite his own pleas for forgiveness and acceptance of resignations from three bishops in the Diocese of Kansas City and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Francis will have to face American followers for whom that is still not enough. As the New York Times detailed this week:
Francis is likely to meet privately with victims of abuse during his visit, as Pope Benedict XVI did during his 2008 trip to the United States, according to church officials. But Mr. Ogrodowski and many other survivors of abuse say the church has yet to live up to its promise of reconciliation. They want Francis to stop the church from spending millions of dollars to fight sexual abuse lawsuits and keeping sealed the names of thousands of accused priests, as well as the outcomes of some disciplinary cases sent to the Vatican.
Instead of moving to compensate the estimated 100,000 victims of roughly 4,300 clergy members, Reuters reports, "Bishops' lobbying groups are fighting efforts to extend the statute of limitations in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Iowa." The Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the 12th to seek bankruptcy protection, reached a $21 million settlement with abuse victims, a dollar total apparently made lower by Cardinal Timothy Dolan's efforts to shield assets there prior to his elevation in New York. While the Church "has already been dealt a heavy financial blow by settlement payments and other costs totaling around $3 billion," Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York who studies statutes of limitations, explained that bite is no excuse for avoiding the reckoning justice requires:
"It is the bishops who have blocked any kind of meaningful reform. The bishops and the pope have a lot of explaining to do as to why it would be in their mission to keep all of these victims from seeking justice."
Barbara Blaine, the president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), is going to be hosting events in a dozen cities to make that point to the Holy Father during his American travels. "I think the time for lofty words has kind of passed," Blaine lamented, adding:
"He's going to be addressing the man-made problems that contribute to global warming and the destruction of the earth. What about the man-made problem of destroying the innocence and the lives of so many?"
4. Please Tell Catholic Hospitals to Find an Accommodation for Women's Health
In September 2013, Pope Francis compared the role of his Church to a military field hospital:
I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.
But in the United States, the Catholic Church runs actual hospitals--lots of them. And in them, there are lots of things you can't talk about, virtually all of them involving women's reproductive health. And as I documented in May 2013 in "Catholic Hospital Mergers Put Women's Health at Risk":
But it's not just Kansas, North Dakota, Mississippi and other reddest of the red states that are making a mockery of the very idea of the "health of the mother." Outside of the statehouses, governors' mansions and courtrooms, another disturbing trend is fast making access to abortion and other reproductive services a thing of the past across large swaths of the country. In Washington, Oregon, Illinois and other strongly pro-choice states, the rapid consolidation of smaller, rural and even teaching hospitals by expanding Catholic chains is putting women's reproductive health--and sometimes their lives--at risk. Thanks to these mergers, acquisitions and strategic partnerships, decisions about contraception, abortion, sterilization and live-saving care aren't being made by patients and their doctors, but by bishops.
For over a hundred years, Catholic hospitals have been one of the cornerstones of the U.S. health system, providing care to tens of millions of Americans of all faiths, races and ethnicities. In 2012, the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn explained just how big a role they play and the public support they enjoy in return:
Today, Catholic hospitals supply 15 percent of the nation's hospital beds, and Catholic hospital systems own 12 percent of the nation's community hospitals, which means, according to one popularly cited estimate, that about one in six Americans get treatment at a Catholic hospital at some point each year. We now depend upon Catholic hospitals to provide vital services--not just direct care of patients, but also the training of new doctors and assistance to the needy. In exchange, these institutions receive considerable public funding. In addition to the tax breaks to which all nonprofit institutions are entitled, Catholic hospitals also receive taxpayer dollars via public insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid, as well as myriad federal programs that provide extra subsidies for such things as indigent care and medical research. (Older institutions also benefited from the 1946 Hill-Burton Act, which financed hospital construction for several decades.)
A recent report jointly prepared by MergerWatch and the ACLU added up the taxpayer dollars now flowing into Catholic hospitals. Ten of the top 25 largest health care systems are now Catholic-affiliated, generating $213 billion in revenue in 2011. That year, federal Medicare and Medicaid programs provided $115 billion of "gross patient revenues" billed by the Church-affiliated institutions and $27 billion of "net patient revenue" actually received.
But increasingly, TNR's Cohn cautioned, "the dual mandates of these institutions--to heal the body and to nurture the spirit, to perform public functions but maintain private identities--are difficult to reconcile." For many communities, a Catholic facility is already the only choice; the federal government already identifies 30 Catholic hospitals as "sole community providers." And with the accelerating trend of hospital mergers and partnerships, policies forbidding contraception, abortion and sterilization are becoming the norm at formerly public hospitals. In cities around America, the result is growing confusion for physicians and greater risk for their patients.
For example, when Seton Healthcare Family in Texas, a unit of Ascension Health, began operating Austin's public Breckenridge hospital in 1995, it curbed reproductive health care services available to its patients:
In that case, Mr. [Charles] Barnett [of Ascension Health] says the system never agreed to provide services like elective abortions and sterilizations, and public officials and hospital administrators initially struggled to find a compromise. Although another system eventually offered sterilizations on a separate floor of the hospital, complete with a separate elevator, another hospital now provides those services.
Increasingly, the clashing requirements of the Catholic hospitals public mission and religious tenets are putting lives on the line. In 2007, physician Ramesh Raghavan wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association of his wife's experience. As Cohn explained the horrifying episode:
[Raghavan's wife], a woman, also pregnant with twins, whose pregnancy was failing, threatening infection that could jeopardize her ability to have future children and perhaps her life. Distraught, she and her husband decided to terminate the pregnancy--only to learn the Catholic hospital would not perform the procedure.
A few years later, New Hampshire waitress Kathleen Prieskorn went to her doctor's office after a miscarriage--her second--began while she was three months pregnant. She quickly learned that her emergency was not one for which treatment would be available from her hospital's new operators:
Physicians at the hospital, which had recently merged with a Catholic health care system, told her they could not end the miscarriage with a uterine evacuation--the standard procedure--because the fetus still had a heartbeat. She had no insurance and no way to get to another hospital, so a doctor gave her $400 and put her in a cab to the closest available hospital, about 80 miles away. "During that trip, which seemed endless, I was not only devastated but terrified," Prieskorn told Ms. "I knew that, if there were complications, I could lose my uterus--and maybe even my life."
Perhaps the most notorious case, as both the Times and the New Republic reported, involved Catholic Health West and one its hospitals in Phoenix. A 27-year old woman, 11 weeks pregnant and suffering from "right heart failure" came to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center. What happened next may be a frightening omen of things to come:
Physicians concluded that, if she continued with the pregnancy, her chances of mortality were "close to 100 percent." An administrator, Sister Margaret McBride, approved an abortion, citing a church directive allowing termination when the mother's life is at risk. Afterward, however, the local bishop, Thomas Olmsted, said the abortion had not been absolutely necessary. He excommunicated the nun and severed ties with the hospital, although the nun subsequently won reinstatement when she agreed to confess her sin to a priest.
And the list of health care sins is a long one. As Nina Martin documented for Pro Publica,
Those teachings -- along with the guidelines on mergers and partnerships --are laid out in a document called the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which governs every Catholic hospital, clinic, nursing home, and health-care business in the country. The 72 directives ban elective abortion, sterilization, and birth control. They also restrict fertility treatments, genetic testing, and end-of-life options.
In November, the UCCSB, which now oversees 1 out of 6 hospital beds nationally, voted by 213-2 to make those guidelines even more invasive to follow Vatican guidelines "to ensure that Catholic healthcare institutions neither cooperate immorally with the unacceptable procedures conducted in other healthcare entities with which they may be connected nor cause scandal as a result of their collaboration with such other entities."
Of course, the real scandals have already begun and show no signs of letting up. In August, Mercy Medical Center in Redding, California, backed down from its initial refusal to perform a tubal ligation on Rachel Miller following her final birth. That reversal came only after the ACLU threatened to sue the Dignity Health facility for sex discrimination under California law. While that victory meant that Miller would not have to travel 160 miles to Davis to have a second procedure performed and covered by insurance, 33 year-old Michigan resident Jessica Mann may not be so lucky. As the Washington Post reported last week, "because of a dangerous tumor in her brain, her doctor gently suggested that she take steps to make sure that she could not get pregnant again." When she asked to have her tubes tied (as 600,00 American women do each year), the Catholic Genesys Regional Medical Center said no on religious grounds.
Whether or not Jessica Mann is successful in her lawsuit, she and millions of other American women shouldn't expect any help from Pope Francis. Barbra Mann Wall, a nursing professor and historian of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said the bishops are feeling "emboldened" after their victory in the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby case. At Martin noted:
She says that Pope Francis' apparent openness on issues such as divorce and greater acceptance of gays and lesbians probably does not extend to the questions that the Vatican office and the bishops are grappling with. "These are basic issues of Catholic doctrine ... I don't think [Francis is] going to be more liberal on this."
5. Please Keep the Naked Political Partisanship to a Minimum
Speaking of liberals, President Barack Obama won't just host His Holiness at the White House, but will travel to Andrew Air Force Base to welcome Pope Francis after his journey to Cuba. By all indications, the leader of the free world and the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics have established a warm relationship.
But you'd never know that judging from the vitriol coming from some of the hardline American bishops and their amen corner in the conservative media. Despite winning the Catholic vote in both 2008 and 2012, Obama was assailed for a mythical "war on Catholics" from the moment he first took the oath of office. When the usual suspects on the right denounced Obama's 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame, the President exposed what Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire decried as the "religious vigilantism" of the "uber-guardians of a belief system we can hardly recognize." As liberal Catholic columnist E.J. Dionne summed it up:
By facing their arguments head-on and by demonstrating his attentiveness to Catholic concerns, Obama strengthened moderate and liberal forces inside the church itself. He also struck a forceful blow against those who would keep the nation mired in culture-war politics without end. Obama's opponents on the Catholic right placed a large bet on his Notre Dame visit. And they lost.
Four years later, Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley refused to attend the Boston College commencement address of Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. Kenny's offense? His support for legislation allowing Irish physicians to perform emergency abortion procedures only in those dire circumstances in which the life of the mother is in immediate jeopardy. (That bill arose after the 2012 case of Savita Halappanavar, who needlessly died in agony after doctors refused her pleas to terminate her already miscarried pregnancy.)
In a statement Friday, O'Malley said abortion is "a crime against humanity" and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked Catholic institutions not to honor officials who promote it. Kenny is set to receive an honorary degree from BC at the May 20 commencement.
O'Malley said that since Boston College hasn't withdrawn its invitation, and Kenny hasn't declined it, "I shall not attend the graduation."
As the picture above shows, O'Malley felt differently in 2006 when the pro-choice Republican Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to the BC graduates. (Ironically, Rice previously addressed Notre Dame's graduates as well.)
Now, no one expects Pope Francis to become a pro-choice, marriage equality supporting Vicar of Christ. But millions of Americans, among them Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, atheists and those of almost every faith tradition are ready to stand with Francis in helping "the least of these." All they ask is that the U.S. church might spend more time atoning for its sins, and stop distorting American politics and the economy over what it believes are ours. Cardinal Dolan might think the Supreme Court's ruling legalizing gay marriage was a "tragic error." Most Americans wouldn't be so kind in describing his role in Milwaukee. Judge not lest ye be judged. As for Cardinal O'Malley, the Holy Father should tell him to stop trying to sabotage the U.S. economy over birth control and Planned Parenthood.
They can talk about it on their way back from Cuba.