Several months back, John Gehring, a blogger for Bold Faith Type – the blog of Faith in Public Life, which is a progressive strategy machine – asked an interesting question: “Who Speaks for the Catholic Church?”[i] Gehring is Faith in Public Life’s senior writer and Catholic Outreach Coordinator.
A Catholic, educated in Church teaching, would know the answer to Gehring’s question but Gehring apparently missed Catechism 101. His article was a staunch defense of Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, who – despite unambiguous denouncements from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) – endorsed a Health and Human Service (HHS) Mandate that would require religious institutions, including Catholic, to provide health care coverage that includes contraception. The Catholic Church has long, consistent teachings about the immorality of contraception so such a mandate would violate the Church are the core of its being by forcing it – or attempting to force it – into making provisions for an immoral activity. Therefore, Sister Keehan abused her authority as a religious and as the head of a Catholic institution by giving her approval to something that the Church cannot, by its very nature, approve. She is only speaking for Sister Keehan, not for the Church.
Gehring, a Catholic, wants to make the case that Sister Keehan, who “knows more about the real-world dimensions of health care than nearly anyone in the country and has spent more time in hospitals than any bishop” is a more authentic spokesperson for the Catholic Church than its bishops, at least in this case. And furthermore, Sister is in the company of other Catholics. “Catholic Charities USA, theologians, the Catholic Health Association, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious have all expressed initial support for the Obama administrations’ sensible revision,” Gehring writes.
Then, anticipating the retort that it doesn’t matter how many folks endorse the Mandate if the Mandate challenges the Church’s ability to exist, he tosses in a bit of ecclesiology-according-to-Gehring: “These leaders,” meaning those Catholics who endorse the Mandate, “ have ‘authority’ and can speak for the Church because they are the Church!”
Of course, the Catholic Church teaches something quite different about what the Church is and how authority operates, namely that authority is valid only in so far as it has been conferred by the Church and operates consistently to Church teaching. Not even the pope has the authority to teach or support what is immoral…such as the use of contraceptives. Conversely, even a lay person has the authority, never mind the duty, to defend Church teaching. (Read your Catechism and canon law, people!)
What is interesting about Gehring’s impassioned insistence on Sister’s Keehan’s authority to endorse immoral positions is that he has eschewed the Church’s moral principles in favor of political implications. In explaining this, he makes an extraordinarily ironic statement: “The Catholic right would prefer to purge the Church of Catholic justice leaders and experts like Sister Keehan who don’t fall in line with ideological interpretations of Catholicism that often sound like GOP talking points. It’s far easier to demonize and distort than work through differences in search of common ground. That makes for boring blogging and harder to send urgent fundraising e-mails that fire up the base. But it’s critical for the health of our Church and democracy.”
Gehring – who was at one point in the employ of the USCCB media office – is the one, however, who is proffering a foreign ideological interpretation of Catholicism when he pits a transitory good, such as a universal health care, against particular Catholic moral teachings. Catholic teaching isn’t divisible, so the one who tries to divide them is the ideologue.
He is the one who has interjected political analysis into adherence of those same, particular moral teachings when he describes the defense of such adherence – and, since it is meant to be demeaning, we might add “demonizing” it – as “right” wing or a “GOP talking point” or a pretext for more dynamic blogging and fundraising. Defending the right to hold one’s religious beliefs isn’t political…unless, of course, there is a political movement to strip those freedoms.
Gehring has told us more about himself than he has told us about his critics. At the very least, as Faith in Public Life’s Catholic Outreach Coordinator, he has betrayed a shocking misunderstanding of Catholicism.
Nuns on a Bus
Perhaps it’s the company he keeps. In the spring of 2012, the Vatican issued an assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an association of many of the Catholic women religious “leaders” in the United States. The Vatican assessment expressed concerns that some of LCWR’s activities were inconsistent with Catholic teaching.
It wasn’t any of a secular political organization’s business but Faith in Public Life became deeply involved in coordinating a media message about the assessment. Scores of news reports – including Gehring’s own commentary[ii] – were issued about the “injustice” of the assessment and collated and further disseminated through Faith in Public Life’s own media channels. In addition, Faith in Public Life helped the sisters craft a public relations stint – a bus trip across nine states to protest Representative Paul D. Ryan’s proposed federal budget.[iii] Casey Shoeneberger, Media Relations Assistant for Faith in Public Life, was the “Nuns on the Bus” spokesperson. [iv] Faith in Public Life - Missouri Communications Associate
Anticipating the 2012 Election
With the choice of Paul Ryan as vice-presidential running mate for the Republicans, the Nuns on the Bus tour turned out to have been an opportunity for honing arguments against what Gehring dubbed “Ryanomics.”[v] While the HHS Mandate strained relations between Catholics and the Democrat Party, “Ryanomics” is a ticket to talk about something else: “[T]he selection of Rep. Paul Ryan – an intellectual darling of the conservative movement who embraces Catholic teaching to defend his policies – has complicated the Catholic narrative during these final months heading into the election.”
Suddenly, Gehring is more than willing to have the USCCB speak for the Church as a number of bishops, from their USCCB offices, publically criticized Ryan’s GOP budget proposal for containing “unacceptable cuts.” “Bishop Stephen Blaire and Bishop Richard Pates, chairmen of the domestic justice and international justice and peace committees at the U.S bishops’ conference respectively, told Congress that ‘a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.’ The House budget proposal ‘fails to meet these moral criteria’.”
Of course, unlike the absolute moral evils of abortion and contraception, budgets have “negotiable” contents, better or worse from one perspective or another. “Three bishops, including the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have essentially defended Ryan in glowing terms.” The USCCB isn’t a political monolith nor should it be.
Gehring understands this very well. The voices within the USCCB that are useful to progressives aren’t those that are joined consistently to Church teaching but the ones that agree with Gehring, Faith in Public Life, and its allies. So Gehring devotes a good portion of his article to explaining why the bishops who defend Ryan aren’t worthy of consideration and what he writes next is extremely telling. In an effort to dismiss Bishop Morlino’s defense of Paul Ryan as an honorable Catholic man, Gehring observes that the bishop “throws in a favorite right-wing scare word – socialism! – to a list of “intrinsic evils” that voters must confront. Who besides the most reactionary of ideologues on the right consider socialism a grave threat to our nation today?.... One expects Rush Limbaugh to hyperventilate about the bogeyman of socialism, but Catholic bishops should not be wading into these paranoid waters.”
Again, Gehring has told us more about himself than he has told us about Ryan’s defenders. What must be distilled from these comments and from Gehring’s other activity and writing this past year is his assertion that coercive efforts by the State to “reform” a religious institution’s moral beliefs (as is common in socialist societies) is nothing about which to be concerned. This is the progressive position and anyone who opposes it is “partisan” – unlike the progressives.
What Gehring wants – for the Catholics to “prove” their non-partisanship – is a campaign “to amplify the bishops,’” – that is, the bishop’s who agree with Gehring – “documented concerns about Ryan’s plans to slash government programs that protect the most vulnerable” that equal to their campaign against the HHS Mandate, including a Fortnight of Prayer, special Masses, parish bulletin inserts, national postcard campaigns, and “great fanfare.”
Oh, the Church could be so useful, if only it could be made to behave.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block writes from New Mexico.
[i] John Gehring, “Who Speaks for the Catholic Church?” Bold Faith Type, 2-14-12: www.faithinpubliclife.org/blog/who-speaks-for-the-catholic-church. All Gehring quotes are from this post.
[ii] Tobias Winright and John Gehring, “Awaiting the Vatican,” St. Louis Dispatch, 8-8-12; John Gehring, “Catholic Sisters on Trial,” Bold Face Type, 5-1-12. Also from Faith in Public Life: Jennifer Butler, “Will Catholic Bishops Join Nuns on the Bus?” Bold Face Type, 6-12-12.
[iii] Dan Merica, “Nuns' group plans bus trip to protest the Ryan budget,” CNN, Belief Blog, 6-6-12.
[iv] Frank Schultz, “Nuns challenge Rep. Ryan with bus tour,” The Janesville Gazette, 6-14-12. See also “Soros-funded “Faith in Public Life” handling PR for “Nuns on the Bus:” www.laetificatmadison.com/2012/07/soros-funded-faith-in-public-life-handling-pr-for-nuns-on-the-bus
[v] John Gehring, “Catholic Bishops: Mixed Signals on ‘Ryanomics’?” Faith in Public Life Action blog, 8-24-12. Quotes from this point on will be taken from this article unless otherwise noted.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.