Catholics outraged, media unimpressed (UPDATED)

This weekend, Catholics all over the country heard from their bishops. Why? Well, it hasn’t been major news in the secular media (although it certainly has been news), but the bishops of the Catholic Church told congregants that the church’s teachings and practice are under serious threat from the Obama Administration’s Health and Human Services Department. At Masses throughout the country, bishops’ words were read to congregants warning them about the threat. The American Papist has been keeping track of which bishops have spoken out and which have had their statements read at Masses. The list keeps growing but as I write this, it’s at 93 of 195 dioceses.

What I find most interesting about this is how little I heard about this from reporters on Sunday and Monday itself. Sure, we did hear from GetReligion readers and I had Catholic contacts from throughout the country emailing me to tell me about these vociferous letters that were read to the gathered.

But I only actually read one story about the matter on Sunday. That came from Michael Brendan Dougherty at Business Insider, headlined “Here Is The Anti-Obama Administration Letter That Was Read To Almost Every Catholic Sitting In Church On Sunday.”

On NPR’s Morning Edition on Monday, Cokie Roberts dropped what sounded like some personal knowledge about the bishops’ campaign into a piece about national politics:

But also the administration is creating problems of their own. The health care law is, as you know, already unpopular in the polls, and the administration has issued regulations that now – that say that Catholic or religious institutions that hire and serve people outside of their own religion have to cover contraceptive services and sterilizations in the health care bill.

It’s got the Catholic bishops furious. There was a letter in church yesterday, calling this an attack on religious liberty, and that’s a problem for the president’s allies – the social justice Catholics – and it could be a problem with Catholic voters. And that becomes a huge issue if the president really starts to lose Catholic voters, because he can’t win without them.

But considering that so many Catholics who went to Mass last weekend got an extremely rare earful from their bishops, the news was surprisingly undercovered on Sunday and Monday. These new rules could not have been more discussed on Catholic and conservative and religious liberty outlets or in opinion pieces at mainstream sites. And it’s not just pro-lifers or politically conservative Catholics. It’s possible that the politically liberal Catholics and secularists feel even more betrayed by this action from the Obama administration. Here’s E.J. Dionne, Michael Sean Winters, Jonathan Chait, etc. It is huge news in many places except for the news pages, basically. The mainstream media has been very reserved in its coverage ever since earlier this month when some religious people were given one year to figure out how they’d violate their consciences.

Pope Benedict XVI has weighed in. And not in vague ways that require some spelunking to dramatize what he’s said. He’s called these regulations and other threats to religious liberty a “grave threat.” Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has called the regulations “literally unconscionable.” (Full text here.) And it’s not just the Dolan-types. Here’s Los Angeles Archbishop Emeritus Roger Mahony, “the most prominent carrier of the social justice tradition of Cardinal Bernardin” telling Catholics to practice civil disobedience in response. Another wrote “The callous disregard for long held personal and ecclesial beliefs augurs a chilling moment for believing and practicing Catholics in these United States.” One bishop directed that the Prayer to St. Michael be read at services within his diocese:

Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle;
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray:
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.

One blogger notes the significance of this prayer. It was last included in regular services between 1930 and 1965 for the benefit of believers trapped behind the Iron Curtain. “This isn’t just opposition; this is a declaration of war.”

Are you getting a sense of how big a deal this is?

But the American media are mostly writing it up as a sort of horse race thing, covering what politicians have to say about the matter. Here’s Newt Gingrich, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Yawn. Here’s ABC News downplaying what’s going on:

The Catholic Church had lobbied against the new requirement, which will go into effect January 2013.

The wording in the letters, penned by individual clergy, varied widely but the theme was distinctly anti-Washington.

Don’t mind me. I’m just banging my head against the desk right now.

It’s OK to cover this story from a political or legal angle, as the Los Angeles Times did in their piece on the HHS directive. The substance of the piece was about legal challenges to HHS but even they noted how “fiercely” Catholics reacted to the rules.

And to end on a higher note, there are exceptions the dismal coverage of this weekend’s events in the Catholic Church. CNN’s Eric Marrapodi had a great piece rounding up some of the commentary from bishops and other Catholic leaders and his piece accurately conveyed the seriousness with which they spoke. Headline, “Catholic Clergy Come Out Swinging Against HHS Regulation.” There’s also the video embedded above of a local CNN affiliate that hits the issue from a local news angle. And here’s an Atlanta broadcast outlet that also accurately characterized church outrage at the mandate this morning. Sample quote:

“The Church is going to fight this regulation with all the available resources we have,” he said. “We have to.”

Obviously there are people in the Obama administration and elsewhere who believe in birth control, sterilization and abortifacient insurance coverage mandates and, further, that religious exemptions to these mandates are wrong. That’s an important part of the story and one that has been fairy well covered. But underplaying how seriously the Catholic Church, its leaders and other religious groups are taking this is a disservice to readers of all persuasions.

UPDATE: There are many things I miss when I try to take a quick survey on any topic, and this is not exception. At least one area I missed was how USA Today covered the situation between HHS and the bishops. The editorial pages ran an op-ed by cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, New York City archbishop and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, headlined “HHS contraception mandate ‘un-American’.” The paper also ran a reported piece on the letters read in parishes, which began:

NEW ORLEANS – From Maine to Phoenix to southern Louisiana, Catholic churches across the USA this weekend echoed with scorn for a new federal rule requiring faith-based employers to include birth control and other reproductive services in their health care coverage.

Dozens of priests took the rare step of reading letters from the pulpit urging parishioners to reach out to Washington and oppose the rule, enacted this month.

Of course, I think it’s the fact that the services being mandated are in opposition to reproduction that’s the problem in the eyes of the Catholic Church. And I’m not sure “dozens” is the best word choice to accurately convey the widespread effort to combat these rules. But the very fact of this story is important and that it ran is important to note.

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  • Dave

    Reported as straight news on PBS.

  • Martha

    “It’s possible that the politically liberal Catholics and secularists feel even more betrayed by this action from the Obama administration.”

    Amen, Mollie :-)

    I was very surprised (pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless) to read the Michael Sean Winters article online as quoted by various blogs; I would have expected the “National Catholic Reporter” line to be that the bishops have to get with the times and stop repressing women, and this treating it seriously as a matter of conscience was – dare I say it? – good journalism.

  • Stan

    I am not sure what you want. The news media has reported this. Do you want them to take sides? I haven’t actually seen many Catholics getting apoplectic over this. Despite the actions of the hierarchy, lots of Catholics support contraception.

  • J

    Perhaps it’s being “underplayed” because insurance coverage for birth control is popular with the laity, 63% according to a poll reported here:

  • Allie

    @Stan – Maybe it’s the circles I’ve run in, but many Catholic blogs I follow have had numerous write-ups concerning this over the past few days. Not to mention all the interesting debates I’ve heard amongst my face to face peers. One of my Catholic friends has gone so far to write an email detailing the issue and emailing it to all of his friends – Catholic and non-Catholics alike. So, I would say some people are incensed.

    As for what more the media could do without taking sides? Provide some context. Mollie brought up some great points, but there are so many other areas to explore.

    Something I’ve seen several blogs do that would behoove the papers is to look at this in the context of Notre Dame – more bishops have already spoken out against the HHS mandate than that scenario (currently at 111 vs low 90s I believe). It would’ve also been great to get some commentary from the Catholics who backed Obama previously and are now outraged. As Mollie noted in her write-up, Michael Sean Winters in particular has issued some very sharp articles against the HHS/administration from exactly this point of view. Additionally, the context of the recent Supreme Court case of the Lutheran minister who was removed from her post would make an interesting juxtaposition for the future of this mandate with regards to the First Amendment.

    So, no need to take sides. But I think looking at any one of these scenarios would illuminate how big of a deal this is to the bishops/Church. I mean, how often is it that so many bishops loosely coordinate to have letters read in every church in their diocese?

  • Dave G.

    Focusing on how many Catholics do or don’t support contraception doesn’t seem to be the issue. What is at issue, what seems to have struck a nerve, and what has caused some to pause who otherwise are sympathetic to the contraceptive policies of the administration, is the heavy handed ‘thou shalt not disobey’ of the mandate. This is the Federal Government essentially saying it doesn’t care what your religious beliefs are. I know there are times when the government has said you can’t do something because of your religion (such as sacrifice virgins on altars or anything), but the number of times the Federal Government has actually stepped in and said ‘it doesn’t matter your religious beliefs, you will compromise them or else’ isn’t coming to mind. That seems to be the issue of concern, and certainly a point that ought to be focused on, rather than just Catholics’ views about birth control. At least IMHO.

  • Mollie

    Allie asks:

    I mean, how often is it that so many bishops loosely coordinate to have letters read in every church in their diocese?

    That’s a great question, the answer to which is so key to understanding. I am sort of under the impression that while letters from bishops delivered at Mass aren’t unheard of, the idea that so many would be delivered at the exact same moment on the exact same topic is quite rare.

    Am I right? I’m not Catholic but my Catholic contacts led me to believe that — were they right? This shouldn’t be that hard to nail down in a story and to help outsiders get a sense for what’s going on.

  • ns

    Actually, no, this is not a religious liberty issue, this is labor rights issue–do employers have the right to restrict their employees medical coverage. Catholics are not obligated to, literally, hand over birth control pills. They are not even obligated to provide health insurance. But health insurance companies are not allowed to discriminate against birth control.

    What the Catholic leadership is trying to do here is equivalent to putting conditions on how an employee spends their paycheck. To the extent there is a religious freedom issue here, the issue is that of employees of businesses that are, for all reasonable intents and purposes, secular (e.g. hospitals) being able to avoid having their employer’s faith forced upon them.

    If we are going to enshrine this “I never have to pay for anything that violates my religion” principle enshrined as law, I for one would like to stop paying for wars.

  • Allie


    I’ve only been attending Mass for 3 years, but in that time, I have *never* heard a letter read from my bishop, regardless of what diocese I was in.

  • Dan

    It is rare, and underscores the importance that the bishops are placing on the issue.

  • Stan

    The government is not requiring people to use contraceptives. From reading your account of the controversy, one would think that the government is forcing Catholics to use contraceptives. Not so.

  • Allie


    It’s not about forcing people to use them, it’s about how – as the employer – these religious entities will be aiding and enabling their employers in doing some that they do not hold in good conscience. If Catholic hospitals don’t (or at least, shouldn’t) distribute contraception to their patients, they should most certainly not be giving it to their employees either.

  • Riana P
  • tmatt


    The last time I checked, Catholic schools and hospitals were voluntary associations.

    Liberal or conservative, the gov’t has to stay out of the biz of telling religious organizations what the can or cannot do, what DOCTRINES they can or cannot practice or refuse to support.

    For this blog, however, the key is whether this is being covered as a political issue or as a religious AND political issue.

  • ns

    If I sell you a car, and you use that car to rob a bank, I’m not aiding and enabling bank robbery.

    You’re providing a product–insurance. You aren’t responsible for how people use that product. Insisting that you ARE responsible is just an excuse to control other people’s behavior.

    You’ll probably get your way on this, because you’re whining loudest. But it’s a terrible precedent. Some church will find an objection to something really expensive–say, organ donation–and insist on being able to offer insurance that refuses to cover it.

  • ns

    tmatt: This isn’t about volunteers, it’s about the restrictions those associations put on their paid employees.

  • Dave G.

    What would be an interesting story? I would like to see someone do the work and see the last time the federal government got involved and told religious institutions that it didn’t matter, they are going to have to do this or that, whether or not it is against their fundamental religious beliefs. Not what they can’t do. We all know there are restrictions there. But telling them they must do something against their religious conscience. I think that would set it up better: is this something that’s happened before, and folks now are just getting tied in a knot, or is it really something that is new on the horizon? File that under ‘stories that unpack the history of a particular topic.’

    FWIW, I haven’t read every story on it (or seen that many for that matter), but perhaps this has already been examined.

  • Rick

    ns wrote: Actually, no, this is not a religious liberty issue, this is labor rights issue—do employers have the right to restrict their employees medical coverage.

    The employer is paying the insurance premium (my employer pays 75% of my family’s insurance premium). The real issue here is whether the Catholic Church should have to pay for something that they think is intrinsically evil.

  • sari

    The last time I checked, Catholic schools and hospitals were voluntary associations.

  • sari

    The last time I checked, Catholic schools and hospitals were voluntary associations.

    True on the first; less true on the second. In many areas (and at least one that I lived in), Catholic-owned hospitals are the only game in town. Doctors and nurses can choose to work elsewhere, I suppose, but the former will not have privileges and patients (again, myself included) become subject to Catholic dictates that contradict their own. These same hospitals also receive a fair amount of federal compensation for the indigents they treat. This is definitely a situation where non-Catholics, employee and patient, lose their rights to treatment consistent with their own faiths simply by virtue of geography.

    Apologies for the previous non-post. Slipped finger

  • Stan

    I am a man, but I am pretty sure that my group insurance covers the delivery of babies and gynecological services. Do I have standing to object that my insurance covers services that I will never use? It seems to me that the Catholic Church’s stance goes even further than that. They don’t want to pay for insurance that gives options to their employees. Seems that they are the ones who are being coercive, not the government, which is not requiring that anyone has to use any particular medical procedure.

  • Stan

    But my journalistic objection is to the way you are framing this story. Yes, the Catholic hierarchy is objecting to the requirement that health insurance include contraception. But there is no evidence that Catholics generally are outraged over this. Some are. Some aren’t. Inasmuch as most Catholics use contraception, I suspect that they want to make sure that these services are included in the insurance available to them.

  • Maureen

    Oh, let me get this straight. Catholics choose to start a Catholic hospital. (Usually as charity for God and neighbor, sometimes as business.) Nobody else chooses to start a secular hospital. This is Catholics’ fault. Bad, bad Catholics.

    Catholic hospitals choose to follow the Catholic beliefs they were founded for. Other people have different beliefs, but they don’t go so far as to hire a doctor to follow their beliefs and help him get a practice in town. This is also Catholics’ fault. Bad, bad Catholics.

    Even though there is such a thing as a mail order prescription, the non-Catholics don’t get one of those. And that, too, is the Catholics’ fault. Bad, bad Catholics. No biscuit.

  • james

    No, the Govt is not forcing people to use contraceptions, abortaficients or have an abortion. They are forcing a privately owned religious facility to make these “options” available to all of their employees, in spite of the Institutions’ deeply held religious convictions that will violate their conscience and militate against their very purpose for being in existance. “Give unto Ceasar the things that are ceasar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Abortion is the killing of an innocent human and the Church cannot be an accomplice of this crime without losing their identity. Period, end of story!

  • Jeff

    “Abortion is the killing of an innocent human and the Church cannot be an accomplice of this crime without losing their identity. Period, end of story!”

    Destroying the Church’s identity is exactly, precisely what Obama’s HHS is aiming for. Period, end of story — well, end of story till the Church fights back, a battle in which it can count on the help of millions of non-Roman-Catholic Christians and others of integrity and decency.

  • Nancy Reyes MD

    Siri states “In many areas (and at least one that I lived in), Catholic-owned hospitals are the only game in town”.
    Yeah, those hardworking nuns and Catholic sacrifices to build the hospital are the reason.

    If people in towns with only Catholic hospitals object to the morality of these institutions, they are free to garner funds and build their own hospitals, or travel a couple miles to the next town.

    In the rural midwest, one often travels 40 miles to go to Walmart to shop to save a few dollars, so it is a bit ingenuous to say you don’t want to travel 40 miles to get your free tubal ligation or abortion.

    And since the “conscience rule” protections have been removed by President Obama, people of faith are in danger of losing their jobs in secular institutions.

  • R9

    The real issue here is whether the Catholic Church should have to pay for something that they think is intrinsically evil

    Or to look at it another way, should religious organisations get special exemptions from employment laws?

  • Mollie

    R9 writes:

    Or to look at it another way, should religious organisations get special exemptions from employment laws?

    I highlighted the Los Angeles Times story above that sort of approaches from this angle — although it also did not give short shrift to the religious objections — and they point out that SCOTUS just decided 9-0 in favor of one such exemption and that this regulation may not fare well in front of that court.

  • sari

    Actually, Dr. Reyes, I was denied a therapeutic abortion when I miscarried and failed to go into labor. At four and a half months along and after ten days of every other day ultrasounds, it was very clear that I was carrying a non-viable fetus. My OB, Jewish btw, performed the procedure in his office; my insurance, which did not and does not cover voluntary terminations, paid for it as medically necessary.

    I happen to agree that the federal government cannot and should not dictate how people practice their faiths. The Bishops were absolutely right in this regard and their letters to their congregations should have been covered by the press. What’s more fuzzy is the question of who should subsidize religious practice, the church or the church and the federal government. These are legitimate questions that should also be asked.

    Btw, my name is Sari, not Siri. Pet peeve.

  • asshur

    30 comments but not even an approach to the million dollar questions ¿Why are most LSM -lamestream media ;-) - missing the story ?

  • Mike O.

    ns correctly wrote:

    Actually, no, this is not a religious liberty issue, this is labor rights issue—do employers have the right to restrict their employees medical coverage.

    All employers, whether religious or not, can have a set of ideals and principles. They may be in line with, unrelated to, or against prevailing religious norms. It would be foolish to think only religious groups can feel that labor laws may be in line with or against their morals.

    These labor laws have always been a struggle between allowing employers to choose what plan(s) they wish to offer their employees and what minimums the legislature feels is an appropriate minimum required. It’s similar to how companies will offer different salaries and incentives to employees but they are also bound by law to give a minimum salary as well as not exceed certain weekly work limits.

    This is an ongoing labor issue and the religious organizations are just a portion of that. To suggest that this is a religious issue and only such organizations should be allowed exemptions is to ignore the big picture and fixate on a small portion of a much larger debate.

  • asshur

    Re myself

    Might be they’re only late:

    Wasn’t the WaPo one of those dreaded “liberal obamadulic” media?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    So far, the media’s coverage of Catholic anger on this issue is muted–to say the least. Of course, we know what the spin will be against the Catholic position. It’s already started in some places using polls and anecdotal interviews to attack the Church on what they will claim are health or bedroom issues.
    But this is a giant Church-State issue with the power of the state being used to coerce those who do not want to participate in its diktats.
    I wonder how many reporters have enough history background to compare the struggle going on now in the U.S. with the “Kulturkamph” assault on the Catholic Church by the government of Otto von Bismarck in late 19th Century Germany.

  • asshur

    @Deacon Bresnahan
    If the WaPo piece is a signal this time it does not look “catholic bashing business as usual” …
    As has titled its news flash “Will Obama Find out The Answer to Stalin’s Query: “How Many Divisions Does the Pope Have?”

  • Bill

    Lurking behind this is the phrase by the administration has used quite a few times: “freedom of worship.” Very different from freedom of religion.

    The deacon is right (#33.) A major battle has begun.

  • Bill P.

    There’s lots going on in this debate, perhaps more than reporters (and most readers) have the time to fathom. Look through the articles on the subject in the website Catholic Moral Theology. Fascinating reads — and commentary by readers. There’s some great resources there for journalists to add to their contact lists.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Bill is right. In fact,the phrase “freedom of worship” was the phrase Communist soviets used when challenged on their lack of freedom of religion. Religion was to the atheistic Communists only worship and something that should be imprisoned inside church walls. I wonder how many in the media know the history of this phrase.
    I just watched Gingrich and Romney on TV state emphatically that they would protect freedom of religion –and Gingrich also referred to Obama’s “war against the Catholic Church and religion.”
    After their speeches I channel hopped vigorously across the 3 major news channels and caught not a single commentator mentioning the candidates’ defense of freedom of religion against Obama Admin assaults.”
    Yet, considering that Obama got 54% of the vote of Catholics for president–mostly in “battleground” states– one can only wonder how the commentators could miss talking about an issue that could be so potentially damaging to Obama.
    Or is the liberal media still fronting for Obama by making sure issues that could be losers for him don’t get discussed? I’ll be interested to see how some news blogs and the newspapers mention the Republican candidates vigorous defense of the First Amendment–if they do so.

  • Julia

    Today’s editorial cartoon by Glenn McCoy in our MacClatchy newspaper portrays Catholics who voted for Obama as betrayed. He is nationally syndicated and will indubitably get some reaction from readers – and he might get cancelled by some newspapers. No written editorials yet on the subject, but I expect the letters to the editor will overflow the mailbox.

  • John

    Regarding the comments above about how the issue doesn’t matter because so many Catholics use contraceptives anyway…

    There is a world of difference between personally disagreeing with specific teachings of one’s faith and not caring when the state claims the aurhotity to tell that faith what it is allowed to practice and believe. Speaking as a Catholic who disagrees with the Church’s teachings on birth control, I find the prospect of this kind of gov’t interference alarming.

    Think of this this way: some Jews disagree with Judaism’s dietary ruled. Does this mean the state can require Hebrew schools to serve pork in their cafeterias. Some Muslims ignore Islam’s prohibition on the consumption of alcohol. Does this mean mosques cannot refuse to sell whiskey and beer?

    Food for thought.

  • sari

    Think of this this way: some Jews disagree with Judaism’s dietary ruled. Does this mean the state can require Hebrew schools to serve pork in their cafeterias. Some Muslims ignore Islam’s prohibition on the consumption of alcohol. Does this mean mosques cannot refuse to sell whiskey and beer?

    And yet government showed little sympathy for the rights of either group until very recently. I grew up in the era of closed communities and closed country/golf clubs, of blue laws that effectively made it impossible for Sabbath-observant Jews to shop on the weekend, of workplace bias and college quotas. Iow, government privileged and validated one religion’s worldview at the expense of all others.

    I think Dave G #17 had the right idea. The history of government intervention in America’s religious life should be researched. I would add that the researcher should look at government’s active (Obama) and passive (ignoring clear violations of civil rights) actions -and- the social antecedents that led to so much negative sentiment towards organized religion. Over and over, people here and elsewhere say that religion is under attack. Nothing happens in a vacuum; rather than call names or complain, an astute reporter would want to know why

  • Jim

    Mollie, on January 31 you posted that the bishop’s letter was big news except in the news media.

    Implying that the media were ignoring this big news.

    Now we have a bishop calling for violent resistance to this War on the Catholic Church.

  • Mollie


    What are you talking about? For the third time in about three minutes (on other posts), I’m going to ask you to explain what in the heck you’re talking about.

    Please provide links.

    Please focus on discussing media coverage rather than your personal views on churches, bishops, etc.

    And I’ll go ahead and put you in moderation until you can figure out how this works.