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Bishops, the White House and Sweeping Charges of Anti-Catholicism

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The Washington Post featured a lengthy front page story yesterday about the Obama administration's ongoing tension with U.S. Catholic bishops. The heart of the current dispute is over the Department of Health and Human Services' recent decision to end funding to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for its work against human trafficking. Since 2006, the bishops' Migration and Refugee Services office had provided services to victims, but a new grant was denied in late September. According to WaPo:

The bishops organization, in line with the church's teachings, had refused to refer trafficking victims for contraceptives or abortion. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, and HHS officials said they made a policy decision to award the grants to agencies that would refer women for those services. The bishops conference is threatening legal action and accusing the administration of anti-Catholic bias, which HHS officials deny. The fight further sours an already difficult relationship between the government and some Catholics over several issues.

The bishops fiercely oppose the administration's decision in February to no longer defend the federal law barring the recognition of same-sex marriage. Dozens of Catholic groups also have objected in recent weeks to a proposed HHS mandate -- issued under the health-care law -- that would require private insurers to provide women with contraceptive coverage without charge. On the trafficking contract, senior political appointees at HHS awarded the new grants to the bishops' competitors despite a recommendation from career staffers that the bishops be funded based on scores by an independent review board, according to federal officials and internal HHS documents.

As Michael Sean Winters points out in the National Catholic Reporter, this is a complicated story that warrants careful thinking rather than sweeping generalizations. By most accounts, HHS at the very least handled the process for denying this particular grant in a clumsy manner. When political appointees at HHS disregard the judgment of career staffers and an independent review board, that's going to cause legitimate angst among Catholics, including those who have largely supported this administration's policy efforts and extensive outreach to faith-based and community organizations. But it's hyperbolic and wrong to throw around the charge "anti-Catholic," as Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, media director for the U.S. bishops, has done. Walsh skewered the administration in a recent blog post, accusing HHS of having an "Anybody But Catholic" bias.

Some perspective is needed here. You can argue Catholic bishops have a legitimate beef with HHS on this grant, but the Obama administration has not exactly put the freeze on Catholic groups or turned its back on engaging Catholic organizations. As my contacts in the Obama administration have noted, other grants from HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement to the USCCB increased from $27 million in fiscal year 2010 to some $32 million in fiscal year 2011. Funding to Catholic Relief Services increased from some $69 million in 2008 to $109 million in 2011. Catholic Charities USA received an increase of approximately $120 million in federal funds from 2009 to 2010. Last month, The White House welcomed 150 leaders from Catholic Charities USA to discuss innovative partnerships to reduce poverty.

Surely, one can't deny the fundamental disagreements between this administration and Catholic bishops, but the Obama administration is not going out of its way to poke Catholics in the eye. As Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite of the Chicago Theological Seminary points out at WaPo On Faith, this issue highlights a genuine difference, both in policy terms and in worldview, over how to best serve exploited women who in many cases have faced cruel sexual violence, including rape.

While Catholic bishops strive to float above the partisan fray that clouds Washington, they are not without a political agenda either. Even retired bishops such as Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco and prominent Catholics such as Nicholas Cafardi, a former chair of the bishops' National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, have cautioned the bishops for appearing too cozy with the Republican Party. Just weeks after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Catholic bishops gathered for their annual national meeting and spoke in near apocalyptic terms about the supposed threat posed by Freedom of Choice Act. Bishops sponsored a national postcard campaign to lobby Congress and the White House against this bill that was never even introduced. After weeks of frenzied lobbying and action alerts, even the bishops' own Catholic News Service felt the need to tamp down worst-case scenarios of Catholic hospitals being forced to perform abortions as unsubstantiated rumors. Many Catholic bishops blasted the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to give the 2009 commencement address, more than a few echoing the strident talking points of Catholic Republicans such as Deal Hudson. And the bishops' long advocacy for universal health care stalled last year when they opposed historic health care reform over a misguided belief that it would provide taxpayer funding of abortion, a flawed policy analysis according to the Catholic Health Association and independent experts. Even President Obama's executive order banning federal funding of abortion did not mollify bishops' concerns, some of whom went on to publicly chastise Catholic sisters and lay Catholic organizations that supported health care reform.

The bishops' Migration and Refugee Services office is one of the Church's great treasures, helping to resettle over 20,000 refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Burma and other ravaged countries in 2010 alone. This vital ministry, as in most of the Church's global outreach, does not simply benefit Catholics in need but also provides help for any vulnerable person. We should support, not undermine, partnerships between the federal government, church institutions, non-profits and other civil society groups that provide this kind of noble work.

But in a pluralistic democracy it's also inevitable that there will be times when the particular moral beliefs of a religious organization clash with a government agency tasked with providing public funding drawn from taxpayers who don't share those views. The effort to navigate that complex legal and ethical maze is difficult and not always done well. But it's a real disservice to the essential task of both church and state when we reduce those clashes to shouting matches and ugly charges of bigotry.

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