Ted Frier

Ted Frier
April 02
Ted Frier is an author and former political reporter turned speechwriter who at one time served as communications director for the Massachusetts Republican Party, helping Bill Weld become the first Bay State Republican in a generation to be elected Governor. He was Chief Speechwriter for Republican Governor Paul Cellucci and Lt. Governor Jane Swift. Ted is also the author of the hardly-read 1992 history "Time for a Change: The Return of the Republican Party in Massachusetts." So, why the current hostility to the Republican Party and what passes for conservatism today? The Republican Party was once a national governing party that looked out for the interests of the nation as a whole. Now it is the wholly-owned subsidiary of self interest. Conservatism once sought national unity to promote social peace and harmony. Now conservatism has devolved into a right wing mutation that uses divide and conquer tactics to promote the solidarity of certain social sub-groups united against the larger society while preserving the privileges of a few.


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MAY 24, 2012 1:16PM

Catholic on Catholic civil war brewing

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A house doesn't have to fall on my head to tell me a battle royal is brewing within the Catholic Church over the conservative hierarchy's heavy-handed efforts to clamp down on dissenting Catholic voices. Not when a prominent American nun comes "this close" to calling the present Church leadership a bunch of brown-frocked fascists. Or when a parish priest I know gives the sister a thumbs up and pastes her angry, anguished outcry to his Facebook page.

And now, according to the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, a group of progressive-leaning bishops who've so far held their tongues are starting to speak out against their reactionary colleagues who seem determined to yank the Church far to the right and make Catholicism little more than an auxiliary of the Republican Party in its campaign against President Obama.

Lawsuits brought this week by 43 Catholic organizations and 13 dioceses seeking to overturn the Obama administration's decision to mandate insurance coverage for contraception for employees at Catholic-run schools and hospitals were seen as provocative and premature by the vast majority of the nation's 195 diocese that did not want to go to court, according to Dionne.

The bishops in these dioceses, says Dionne, "are upset that the lawsuits were brought without a broader discussion among the entire membership of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops," many of whom object that the leadership is "aligning the institutional Church too closely with the political right."

Unilateral moves to the political right without the chance for discussion. Now there's a shock.

It's thuggish behavior like this that set off Sister Joan Chittister this week when she, in a remarkable column in the National Catholic Reporter, likened the bishop's power-grabbing authoritarianism to efforts by Pope Pius XII to impose "monarchical control" within the Church and to restore "quasi-imperial power" outside it during the precarious decades of the 1930s and 1940s when democracy was under siege everywhere.

These efforts, which included a Condorcet between the Catholic Church and Hitler's Germany that suppressed Germany's Catholic Centre Party and those Catholic social action groups strong enough to have resisted the rise of Nazism, created a legacy that continues to haunt Pius XII even to this day with accusations he was a Nazi sympathizer.

Chittister is the past president of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, the umbrella organization representing about 80% of America's 57,000 nuns that was recently issued a "spiritual cease and desist order" by the Vatican, as Washington Monthly editor John Gravois put it, for political activity that did not conform to the approved positions taken by the bishops.

Chittister's response to the Vatican's crack-down was roughly the same as that of Sister Jeannine Gramick of the New Ways Ministry when her group was told to cease writing or speaking about homosexuality or advocating on behalf of gays and lesbians in the Church: "I do not choose to collaborate in my own oppression."

Chittister has suggested the LCWR follow the example of Gramick's much smaller New Ways Ministry and simply disband in order to reconstitute itself as a non-canonical institution outside the Vatican's purview, reports Gravois.

And so the schism and civil war begins.  

It was bad enough when the Catholic leadership put the American nuns in "canonical receivership" for their "reputed lack of orthodoxy on sexual issues," says Chittister. Or when the Vatican went after Catholic Charities for not towing the party line. Or the Catholic Caritas charities before that. But when the Magisterium went after the Girl Scouts (!) Sister Joan had had enough.

"The question is," says Chittister, "where has all this energy for empirical destruction come from in a Church now projecting its own serious problems with sexual issues onto everything that moves?"

Sister Chittister is directly attacking the authoritarianism at the heart of the current political campaign by the Pope and US bishops to impose dogmatic conformity on American Catholics. She even goes so far as to excavate unflattering Church history in order to warn of the dangers of neo-fascist tendencies which inherently lurk within an institution that operates in secret and is led by an all-male hierarchy that occasionally claims it possesses powers of absolute infallibility.

Chittister concedes that it is not easy to run a "universal" church which must take account of so many different cultures. But the Vatican needs to try harder, she says.

The Catholic leadership must have sympathy and respect for the national cultures and traditions and values where it is attempting to evangelize, she says, and for the workings of the society itself. And for American bishops, says Chittister, that means appreciating that "The American tradition comes out of a commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of thought and democratic participation in the political process."

But this is exactly where the Church falls short, since it is America's democratic traditions which Chittister says "the Vatican has always suspected and indeed has never liked."

To ask American Catholics to embrace without question or complaint Papal pronouncements on obedience, Church governance and women's rights that are not only European, Eastern European, Asian or African in origin but medieval as well, is to expect more than any Church law can possibly command. It is of course easy to force obedience, says Chittister. "But it is impossible to force belief."

The Pope has said he wants a smaller and purer Church. He seems to be getting his wish, says Chittister, who notes that "The second-largest religious denomination in the United States, after Catholic, is now ex-Catholic."

The thuggery to which Chittister alludes is evident in the screeching manifestos about liberals who want to "strangle" the Church and its religious freedom which the bishops now pass out at mass, whose tone is more reminiscent of those political handbills you find nailed to trees than the measured communications you expect from doctors of the Church.

This brutality is also manifest in the way these bishops hold the poor and sick hostage - in the very same way Republicans last summer confronted the nation with default unless they got their way - threatening like adolescents to close hospitals, close schools, close shelters, close food pantries unless the president gives in to them on contraception.

It makes you wonder whether the reason bishops like little boys so much is that they behave so much like them.

The bishop's attempt to make this battle over birth control be one about religious freedom not power politics runs up against three inconvenient truths:

First, since 98% of Catholics use birth control how can it legitimately be said that this controversy is in any way about "religious worship?"

Second, a Catholic-owned school or hospital is not a "church."  It's a business - one that does good work, perhaps, but still a business that makes money, employs Catholics and non-Catholics alike and, more importantly, gets government subsidies for doing it. The Church hierarchy may define schools, hospitals and taco stands (if they had any) as being integral to the Church's "religious mission."  But that's only an assertion, what the bishops say, a matter of opinion. Governments responsible for the health and safety of Catholic and non-Catholic citizens alike are under no obligation to let bishops dictate the terms of workplace health and safety by wrapping themselves in the First Amendment. Especially not when American taxpayers are helping to foot the bill.

And finally, more than a century's worth of political activism by the Catholic hierarchy devoted to keeping contraceptives out of the hands of ALL Americans -- Catholic and non-Catholic alike, married couples as well as single, -- deprives the Catholic leadership of all credibility when it claims its efforts to restrict their availability now is one of "religious liberty" instead of an attempt to elbow aside the nation's democratically-elected leadership so that the Church leadership can tell Americans how to behave, and use the Church's government-subsidized Catholic social service network to do it.

Apologists for the bishops, like conservative Catholic Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Catholic fellow traveler Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, refuse to engage these objections directly, preferring instead to warn darkly of the political damnation that awaits any politician like president Obama foolhardy enough to risk alienating the monolithic "Catholic Vote" - a monolith which they make far more fearsome by attaching the qualifier "traditional" or "devout" in front of "Catholic" in order to excommunicate all those progressively-minded Catholics who've sided with the President after forgetting their catechism with its obligations to obey their bishops in all things.

Trouble is, as New York Times' Maureen Dowd cheerfully points out, the "Catholic Vote" isn't with the reactionary or "traditional" bishops at all.

As Dowd reports, Gallup tested the morality of 18 issues, and birth control came out on top as the most acceptable, edging out divorce which got 67% approval. Polygamy, human cloning and infidelity were deemed most morally offensive, which no doubt was hugely embarrassing to those bishops who welcomed into the Church with open arms the three-timing cheat, Newt Gingrich.

As for all those Church leaders who insist they are only sticking up for religious freedom, not attacking women or birth control at all, Dowd says: don't you believe them.

"Really, it's about birth control, and women's lower caste in the Church," says Dowd. "It's about conservative bishops targeting Democratic candidates who support contraception and abortion rights as a matter of public policy. And it's about a Church that is obsessed with sex in ways it shouldn't be, and not obsessed with sex in ways it should be."

The bishops want to put women in chastity belts, says Dowd, yet at the same time "they let unchaste priests run wild for decades, unconcerned about the generations of children who were violated and raped and passed around like communion wine."

Whereas progressive bishops favor a dialog with the Obama administration in a good faith effort to reach an accommodation that recognizes and respects the worthiness of each side's position, conservative bishops are itching for a fight -- as reactionaries always are -- while acting as if the President never made any concessions to them at all, says Dionne.

For far too long, says Dionne, the Catholic Church's stance on public issues has been defined by the outspokenness of its most conservative bishops and the reticence of moderate and progressive prelates to speak up themselves. Signs that other Catholic voices are finally being raised against the Catholic Right are encouraging, says Dionne, both for the Church and for American politics.

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You've become my source of information and reliable opinion on the matter.

The "exodus" from the Church in this country has been underway for 40ty years--when the religious orders were cut to a fraction of what they were in the fifties. The great winner, so to speak, have been the Evangelicals, which is a lot like going from the hotplate into the fire.

I was surprised by the piece by Dowd. It sure took long enough. Women especially have suffered under the restraints of the old regime. I still meet them, having believed they are only "god's vessles" all their life in an age when the majority accepts equality makes them appear foolish when they were simply coping in the only way they knew how.

It may take a "Catholic" or ex-Catholic to understand that. Yet I don't think the tipping point has been reached yet. Maybe it's time to stop the fighting and start over with a new church. I personally won't be joining. I found another religion that lets me live without being a hypocrite.
This is certainly an interesting time for the Catholic Church, historically speaking. A great summary and analysis, Ted.
We should despise despotism regardless of where it is found, viz., in the Obama Administration or in religious hierarchy.
It is a civil war long overdue...and I suspect one that will not end happily for the conservative element of the Church.

I cannot understand how the Church can possibly align itself with American conservatism...a political philosophy which is antithetical to everything Jesus taught.

The Bishops who are on that track out to be ashamed of themselves...but it appears they are without shame. Too bad for them; too bad for the Church.

Another great essay, Ted. I thank you for it.
If the church is really serious about wanting to not follow (a very intelligent) government rule, like providing reasonable health care for women, then they need to stop accepting government money.

This means Medicare and Medicaid at their hospitals, federal financial aid at their colleges and universities, and any and all tax-exempt statuses that they enjoy for being official charities.

Play by the rules, or don't. But don't attempt to change every rule to your religious liking.
A thorough and well written article on a very here and now reality.

Favorite line: "The second-largest religious denomination in the United States, after Catholic, is now ex-Catholic." So true. I belong to that denomination. In some circles, it's known as Episcopalian...she said, tongue in cheek.
I became a "runaway" (rather than "fallen away") Catholic back in 1969, when I was fifteen years old. These were the same issues that seemed so wrong-headed to me even then. My mother agreed with me, but kept attending Mass. When we were arguing about me refusing to do my "Easter Duty", I told her that as long as people kept showing up in church, and handing in their offerings, they were supporting the rules that were so oppressive. Soon after that, she quit going too.

I don't believe either one of us is going to Hell. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, regardless of whatever nonsense these "MEN" in medieval hats make up, to try to impose upon the human race.
As a victim of Catholic clerical sexual abuse, I have to tell you the power of the Church over the sex abuse crisis. SNAP the " oldest and largest" victims organization is a fraud. Constructed by the Church itself to become THE voice of victims. In other words the rapists becoming the voice of the raped. Please google Victims of Silence@bulletinboards.com and see the documents that prove my point. SNAP does in fact cry out against the hierarchy. But wouldn't a confidence game have to do that? In order to con the people who need to be conned? Yelling the truth about the hierarchs does nothing for victims. Once SNAP pulls it's little press events; how many hierarchs have resigned because of SNAP? None, exactly none. And what do victims get? Nothing no compensation no therapy Nada. So in your over view of reactionary Catholicism don't forget . The Church still controls the sex scandal. Why? because the Church controls the victims. Misdirection the ultimate goal.
Thanks everybody for your comments.

And especial thanks to you, Jim, for reaching out to tell your story. You raise painful truths. Healing and justice for the victims continues to divide the church at the highest levels, dividing even the hierarchy between those willing to continue speaking out for those the church has abused and those who will do anything to put the scandal behind them, even if it means sweeping it under the rug by the means you have mentioned, after having rationalized to themselves that the fate of civilization itself hinges on the Catholic hierarchy maintaining its credibility, influence and power.

I promise to look more deeply into the issues you raise. And since I notice you are new to Open Salon, you might consider reaching a larger audience than the one here by writing a post of your own. Take care. My thoughts and prayers are with you.
Thank you for an informative and interesting article. Being a long ex-Catholic myself, I have to admit that I barely recognize the church I left so long ago. Even though they were and remain hyper-focused on the evils of sex, now they have become the Anti-Abortion and Anti-Contraception Political Party that does a little preaching on the side.

The evangelicals are much the same, except that they preach anti-gay first and foremost with anti-abortion second. For so many Christians, it appears that Jesus has been thrown out with the bathwater so these churches can focus on the only two issues that seem to matter anymore.

I truly think the Catholic Church, with its rich tradition of intellectualism, theology, and education, has more to lose. Evangelicals, not so much; after all, their theology seems to be almost nonexistent.

I have come to believe that none of these groups will pay attention until people start voting with their feet. I do not want to hear complaints from Catholics anymore that people are being mean; their silence makes them part of the problem.

In one area I have to disagree with Sister Chittister. The Church cannot even compel obedience (evangelicals pay no attention to their sloppy marriage practices). I cannot be the only person who has wondered why the church officials don't lower the boom on their own parishioners first instead of demanding that everyone else follow church teachings. Honestly, if the only thing the Church believes in anymore is no contraception, what on earth are all these people doing still going to Mass?
Thank you Carol, and I agree with your point about Chittister and obedience, though I think she was employing a rhetorical device so she could emphasize that the Church should be trying to win hearts and minds and people with free will on the basis of the merits of their arguments as educators not trying to bully the faithful into submission.

And bullying authoritarianism is what I see so much of in the Church today as well. I had an online argument with a traditional Catholic on the Washington Post comment thread from the op ed by the President of Catholic U. It's still there if you want to check it out. She absolutely refused to engage in my arguments and confined herself to orthodoxy-enforcing ad hominems as right wing conservatives tend to do.