Archbishop Lori and his enemies

I can’t recall which television program I watched recently that had an interview with Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, but I remember thinking that I’d like to see more local coverage of this man who is so prominent among the Catholic bishops and their religious freedom focus.

The Washington Post covered him, in an interview piece that includes some interesting background on the man. We’re told about his “anger” in the first paragraph of the piece. In the second, changes in law that would force the Catholic Church to violate its teachings or stop some of its social work is portrayed as the church not “serving” same-sex couples. And then:

As the leader of the church’s largest — and perhaps most controversial — effort in a generation or more, the archbishop’s task is to convince Catholics that religious freedom is under attack in the United States and that religious traditionalists, in particular, are victims of something akin to racism and xenophobia. The campaign’s main rallying cry has been an Obama administration mandate requiring most faith-based employers to make contraception available to employees.

“Aren’t we 40 percent of the population?” Lori asked during an interview this week at a retreat center in rural Maryland. “Don’t we provide more health care, more social services, than any other non-governmental organization? Why are we always in the crosshairs? Let us alone. Let us do our job. Let us be Catholics. Let us make our contribution to the common good according to our own likes. That’s what America is about.”

I like to look at the contrast between what we’re told Lori is saying and then his actual quote, which sounds like it could have been set up rather differently.

Also, the mandate isn’t just about requiring everyone to make contraception “available” to employees, as this article states. It’s about forcing employers to purchase insurance that provides contraception, abortion drugs and sterilization free of charge. (Side note: I still love that the same media that tried to convince us that 98% of all women are popping contraception all the time or whatever — debunking of that stat here — are also trying to say that this mandate would be about making contraception “available.” Pick one!)

Moving on:

A lot is at stake for the bishops, who have seen their authority severely eroded in recent decades amid the clergy sexual abuse crises and Catholics publicly ignoring church teaching on contraception, among other things.

Polls show many Catholics are unconvinced of the idea that religious liberty is under assault. Even some supportive bishops have worried publicly about the appearance of partisanship in an election-season movement that has encouraged priests each Sunday to sermonize against President Obama’s policies.

A lot is at stake for the bishops? Not religious freedom. Not Catholic social work. Just the bishops because, it’s really about those partisan bishops who just praised Obama last week for his immigration decision. (At this point, I might suggest you read the actual words of the bishops — such as this speech by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput — for a countervailing view of what the bishops actually think is at stake. )

Perhaps the next paragraph is an attempt to substantiate it. But it doesn’t work out so well. Who are these unnamed bishops (plural) who are so worried? And check out that language! Sermonizing! Mercy me! Does this language accurately convey why the response to the action from the federal government is happening now? Suggesting it’s being done as part of the election — rather than in response to when the Obama administration decided to force religious groups to fund insurance policies they oppose on doctrinal grounds — is … interesting.

And guess where that link under “Polls show many” goes to. It goes to a Public Religion Research Institute poll. Alana Goodman at Commentary critiqued the poll when it first got a ton of media attention (attention that typically failed to mention that the outfit that produced the poll isn’t exactly neutral) a few months ago. She mentions that PRRI leadership has various ties to President Obama and adds:

Here are three problems that immediately jump out:

1.)   No breakdown of the number of Catholic respondents.

The poll was taken from a random sample of 1,009 American adults aged 18 or older. But it doesn’t include the percentage of the sample that’s Catholic, making it impossible to figure out how meaningful the data from this group is.

2.)   Strange sample weighting.

In a poll on religious opinions, you’d expect the pollster to weigh the sample to account for accurate representation of religious affiliation. But the sample in this poll was only weighted to the following five parameters: age, sex, geographic region, education and telephone usage. The last two – education and telephone usage – seem to be far less consequential to the poll than religion, and it’s hard to see why they’d be included when religious affiliation was not. Occasionally, weighting can be used to manipulate polling data.

3.)   An odd disclaimer.

Polls typically include a margin of error. In this case, the margin is +/- 3.5 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. But they don’t usually include disclaimers like this: “In addition to sampling error, surveys may also be subject to error or bias due to question wording, context and order effects.”

Those are all controllable errors that professional pollsters are expected to avoid.

Is that really the poll we should be linking to? Or if we’re going to link to polls from interested parties, why not mention that a group opposed to the mandate just released a poll and it included a section on religious liberty? They report, for what it’s worth:

Religious Freedom: When asked as whether the federal government has the right to force morally objectionable coverage on religious institutions, 57 percent of voters said no. Those numbers remained high for women, with 54 percent of women under 45, and 58 percent of women 45 and older, disagreeing. This finding is nearly identical to that in a recent New York Times survey, which found a 57-36 margin favored allowing religious institutions to opt out of coverage.

Regarding the possibility that religious service providers may close down due to fines for refusing to comply with the mandate on conscience grounds, 65 percent of Catholics and 57 percent of women said they would question the wisdom of the mandate. Interestingly, those numbers were even higher for women under 45, with 63 percent responding that such closures would cause them to question the mandate.

When asked whether it is fair to suggest that Obama is creating divisions and conflicts in America, women were evenly split 48 to 48 percent, and Catholics agreed by 58 percent as compared with 41 percent who disagreed.

Also interesting was the strong and consistent support for the bishops’ response, with large majorities of self-described Catholics, Active Catholics (those polled who regularly attend Mass), and non-Catholics agreeing it was appropriate for the bishops to address the issue. Half of all Active Catholics actually heard a letter from their bishop opposing the mandate read to them at Mass.

Since these results are in line with the New York Times/CBS poll (and others) from a few months ago, I’m not entirely sure the “Polls show many Catholics are unconvinced” line holds up. I mean it may be true, but “polls show even more Catholics are convinced” would also be true, right?

And then we get a quote from an historian at Notre Dame who says that the bishops’ credibility has taken a hit. R. Scott Appleby is identified in the story simply as a historian. But he’s the kind of historian who thought the Nobel Prize committee chose “brilliantly” when it picked President Barack Obama for an award (you have to read the last quote) and is a vigorous defender of President Obama, as you can hear in this interview where he defends Notre Dame University’s decision to award President Obama an honorary doctorate.

The story does something few others do — notes that Lori’s focus on religious freedom began prior to the Obama administration instituting the mandate.

Then we get a quote from someone who says that Lori, among other less negative things, is “confrontational.”  Stephen Schneck, is identified simply as the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University. Readers are not told, however, that he’s a vigorous opponent of the fight against the mandate and actively involved in defense of the mandate. And you might remember him from yesterday’s story I highlighted, where he was going after the funding of the religious liberty campaign.

Anyway, there are informative and good parts of the story, too. And despite learning some stuff about this angry and confrontational guy who has no support from Catholic laypeople, the piece ends in this way:

Just before the interview, Lori launched a Mass service at the retreat center in Sparks with a prayer from the Book of Matthew.

“You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he said, standing in front of a huge wall of windows.

That’s a heck of a kicker. But maybe next time quote a few people who aren’t quite so political.

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  • AuthenticBioethics

    I’m sure the bishop knows the answer and is asking rhetorically:

    Why are we always in the crosshairs?

    But for those who don’t, the answer is because we are seen as the competition.

  • sari

    Regardless of Archbishop Lori’s and his colleagues’ motivations, political and/or religious, they stepped into the political arena when they publicly opposed a government mandate. We should be careful not to assume anyone’s personal rationale; that’s between each of them and G-d.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    One feels a bit gobsmacked when one reads a statement that the Catholic bishops shouldn’t complain about the treatment they receive because “they stepped into the political arena when they publicly opposed a government mandate.” I recall that other Christians were also treated badly by the civil leadership when they did precisely the same thing by refusing to burn a tiny little pinch of incense in front of a bust of Caesar…

  • Thinkling

    —> stepped into the political arena when they publicly opposed a government mandate

    Not quite. Their responsibility is moral, and if a government action is intrinsically immoral, it is their duty to say so.

    Conversely if avoiding a certain government action is intrinsically immoral, they should point out their insistence in performing the action.

    It would only be political if there were no issue of intrinsic morality. Ostensibly speaking out about (say) the Ryan budget falls into this category. Cardinal Dolan has argued there is nothing intrinsically immoral about his plan. But there can be alternate plans which also are similarly morally acceptable. The Cardinal basically said, ‘this is acceptable’, but he didn’t (and shouldn’t, in this case) say, ‘you must do this’. The process of choosing among morally acceptable choices is what we call politics.

    Morals =!= politics. Morals is right and wrong. Politics is about discerning how to accomplish a morally acceptable outcome in a morally acceptable way. When the ends (or the means) become intrinsically immoral, it is no longer politics but rather an abuse of power.

    So Bishop Lori’s comments about this mandate are not political. But one can argue (and some have) some bishops’ statements about the Ryan plan were.


    I read the coverage pointed out here and said here we go again, reporting at a level I would be fired for if I did my job as poorly. But then I wondered about the recent piece about the PR and funding for the HHS support, and thought maybe they were just lazy and parroting convenient talking points handed to them. Perhaps there is not much difference though, I could be terminated for laziness too.

  • JC

    Agreed, Deacon. There is no substance to the charges of partisanship; they are nothing more than a handy stick for the press to hit us with.

  • CarlH


    I agree entirely with everything you post except your summation of what politics is about.l Unfortunately, IMO, it is way too optimistic, even if it might be a wonderful aspirational goal. We would all be better off if politics, politicians and political discussions were tethered to a sense of seeking “morally acceptable outcomes in morally acceptable ways.” But too much of politics (and modern life, for that matter) attempts to ignore the moral dimension–and thus becomes only an exercise in gaining and wielding power (abusively or otherwise).

    What seems clear from the way in which much of the most influential American media has misunderstood–and then willfully mischaracterized–the stance of the Catholic Bishops on the HHS mandate (and so many other things related to the Catholic Church) is that the media itself has taken sides in the debate. Those “journalists” do not want to be bothered with having to acknowledge the other position does in fact have a moral dimension–and one that traditionally would have been seen as protected by the U.S. constitutional system–because it gets in the way of wielding governmental power to accomplish the objectives of their chosen side.

  • Thinkling

    CarlH, I actually agree with you calling out my optimism and your subsequent analysis.

    But politics is still politics; if politicians call it something different, or call moral witness by that name, that is a different story. Indeed it is standard operating procedure to propose or support intrinsic immorality and then claim your critics are merely being political, or worse yet, partisan. Don’t get me wrong either, it happens on both sides of the aisle.

    The whole issue of media taking sides is a sad one but one which is difficult to discuss without getting quite heated, at least for me. The folks here are quick to point out that there does exist great reporting out there. And there is. But so much of the high ratings stuff isn’t. It would be one thing if all the worst stuff were fringe. But it is not.

    Some of this is clearly folks abusing their position and this should be condemned on no uncertain terms. But I wonder how much is not simply because of a journalistic subculture which has evolved an ideological consistency which, frankly, does not reflect its audience. I heard on Freakonomics about a researcher who studied the ideological makeups of the (what I call) high rated newsrooms and came to an astonishing discovery. There was almost no municipality/town/villages or even ZIP codes with the same ideological makeup as the vast majority of such newsrooms. And the only exceptions to this rule were actually in the other direction, a couple of villages in Wyoming (IIRC) which were as far one way as the newsrooms were the other. The researcher asked, perhaps not totally fairly but tantalizingly nonetheless, if you would want to have tens of millions of people getting your news from an organization staffed with only folks from this town X in Wyoming.

    I have historically been more optimistic than many about this, figuring simply ratings is a bigger part of the equation than many think. The noted doctor Paul Offit (no stranger to press controversy himself) once said the press likes stories which have a victim, a villain, and (if lucky) a hero, and will go to great pains (he says) to make stories fit this template. But of course sometimes this is simply Square Peg meets Round Hole.

    Even the often journalistic mishandling of something as serious as the priest abuse scandal can more easily be understood in this light when one realizes that US culture has a deep and old archetype of the nefarious cleric (think The Scarlet Letter or Thomas Nast; h/t to Philip Jenkins here).

    But I will opine here that the issue of intentional advocacy masquarading as journalism has gotten dramatically worse just recently. And I propose we can point to a watershed event which almost single handedly ushers in this unfortunate change: Sarah Palin.

  • Martha

    “Just before the interview, Lori launched a Mass service at the retreat center in Sparks with a prayer from the Book of Matthew.”

    I think that paragraph there, short as it is, tells us all we need to know about the level of understanding about Catholicism. “Launched”? I thought ships, rockets and campaigns were launched, not religious services. And it’s “Mass” on its own, not a Mass service. We do have services but they’re not the same things as Mass. And “Book of Matthew”? I’m guessing that’s the Gospel of Matthew, unless there’s also a Book of Matthew in the Old Testament I don’t know about (hey, it’s possible; I grew up Catholic during the 70s and you know the level of Biblical knowledge that generation has!)

    Now, as to whether or not “religious liberty” really is under attack, or if this is all just a conspiracy ginned up by the bishops because they, er, um, hate Obama and this is an election year – I saw a link to a story in The New York Post about a lesbian couple, married under New York law, taking a case against St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers and its insurance administrator, Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield. The woman employed by St. Joseph’s applied to add her spouse to her medical-benefits coverage but the request was denied by because hospital policy excludes same-sex spouses.

    The result of this case is going to be interesting, to say the least. Will the court find that the medical centre is a civil employer and not a religious institution? What about if the court finds it is a religious institution but the HHS says (in regards to the mandate) that it’s a civil employer?

  • Stephen Schneck


    You err. As has been reported in several places, I favor the Church’s position on defending ALL our institutions from the contraception mandate. See Moreover, I support the lawsuits and am a signer to the Democrats for Life comment to the HHS rule demanding exemption for all religious organizations and demanding the Ella be excluded from the mandate.

    The only thing I’m a critic of is the overblown rhetoric of some who also seek broader exemptions. I don’t see this as “religious persecution” and I truly do wonder who’s funding the rhetorical excesses around this.

    Steve Schneck

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “But maybe next time quote a few people who aren’t quite so political.” But Mollie, everything in life is politics. You should know that by now. No red-blooded American journo believes that people, especially leaders of a huge group like Catholics, really can act without a self-preserving and self-advancing interest. That’s why “A lot is at stake for the bishops, who have seen their authority severely eroded in recent decades…” and not religious liberty or any other good principle. You see, they’ve lost their authority and now they have to get it back and, damn it, they’re going to get it back even if it costs Obama the election.

    Or better yet, “The bishops have not been able to convince Catholic women to not take birth control,” therefore, they are “demanding that the government step in and use the force and power and police power of the state to prevent women from taking birth control because the bishops have failed.” Thus spake NOW President Terry O’Neill in March.

    So yes, it is all about politics, power and control. And this is going to work, you know. They’re going to spend these next two weeks getting back control of people’s lives and doncha know that soon enough, there’s going to be a priest in every bedroom making sure there are no condoms and no pills in the house or used in The Act. And they’re going to make sure every Catholic who does The Act is married to the person they do it with. And they’re going to make sure no Catholic women ever have another abortion. Just like they did in the old days.

    OK, you can laugh now.

  • sari

    —-> stepped into the political arena when they publicly opposed a government mandate

    Not quite. Their responsibility is moral, and if a government action is intrinsically immoral, it is their duty to say so.

    What both the media and commentators on the media miss is that all sides may be adhering to their definition of moral responsibility. That the R.C.C. or any other religious entity feels that X is immoral should be balanced against the side which disagrees with that morality, as do those who believe that overpopulating the planet or failing to care for unwanted children is immoral. I’m not saying one is right and the other wrong, but while the media has leaned fa-a-a-r in one direction, to the point of being horizontal, the same can be said for any religious entity which seeks to impose its morality on members of other or no religion. By concentrating on the political, the media avoids the question of morality altogether.

    As to what’s political and what’s moral, the political aspects cannot be ignored, regardless of anyone’s stated motivation. I’d also be very careful about the use of descriptives like persecution. Few of us can fathom what real persecution is like.

  • Julia

    I have a question.

    What would be the bishops political motivation?

    Seeing as how they have almost always supported the progressive political agenda in other matters.

  • Martha

    “use the force and power and police power of the state to prevent women from taking birth control because the bishops have failed”

    Okay, I’m confused here. If 98% of women – without the mandate – are already using some form of birth control, how does the bishops’ campaign not to be forced to pay for this under insurance mean that women will be prevented from using the birth control they really use?

    Unless the lady knows something the rest of us don’t, and the Swiss Guard are on stand-by to invade the U.S.A. and start kicking in doors and raiding medicine cabinets, how will women be forced not to use contraception if they are already using it?

    Unless the 98% figure is a load of cobblers and the real numbers of women paying for or otherwise accessing contraceptive services is much lower than normally stated, so that it really would mean that unless paid for by employer insurance, they have no other means of getting contraception (sterilisation is a different matter, because that’s a medical operation that has to be carried out in a hospital and that is a definite large expense).

    But surely that much-quoted figure can’t be mistaken, can it? Because otherwise, the argument – that nearly all women and that includes Catholics are already using contraception – would be undercut by its own proponents.

    Someone help me out here?

  • Thinkling

    Sari, I can mostly see where you are coming from there, although I was lost when you brought up overpopulation and caring for unwanted children: the only coherent interpretation I could parse amounted to a glaring false dichotomy, so I gather this could be clarified.

    Otherwise, your description jives much with what I said earlier: the focus on the catfight and conflict, without grounding in the more fundamental issues. Even issues where there is no fundamental threat of something immoral from anyone, the coverage is often still the same. For example, think of coverage of school budget debates. (Then again, don’t :)

    A note a perspective may be in order here. I do sympathize with the idea that ‘persecution’ can be overused, and that doing such may have unintended drawbacks. But a far greater threat thorough misuse of language is in the overuse of ‘impose its morality’ or its derivatives. If you understand ‘morality’ as you expressed, one can see such an action occurs in every single legal action the state takes, at any level. There are laws proscribing murder, theft, larceny, etc. In fact, that is what it is supposed to do. The difficulty arises when someone mistakes morality to be what they like rather than what is right. So while strictly true, that expression is nearly tautological, and thus tends to get burdened with nasty connotations as semantics abhors a vacuum.

  • sari

    There are laws proscribing murder, theft, larceny, etc. In fact, that is what it is supposed to do. The difficulty arises when someone mistakes morality to be what they like rather than what is right.

    The problem here is that we have more than one side claiming the moral high ground. The Church declares its moral teachings to be absolute. Are they? Should they be applicable to those whose belief systems dictate a different morality (like allowances for both birth control and abortion by the the rabbinic authorities who dictate the halakhah). Or, from a strictly impartial viewpoint, does the Church offer one of the many different and often conflicting systems of morality present in America today?

    I brought up overpopulation and the problem of unwanted children, because other groups, some religious and some not, feel that human beings have a moral obligation to limit the number of offspring rather than drive humanity to extinction or to raise children in horrific environments (e.g., without emotional attachment or access to even the most basic necessities, like food, clothing, and shelter). Again, not commenting on who is right or wrong, only that more than one moral perspective exists. However, contrasting these beliefs with those professed by Catholic clerics would be reasonable.

    The press’ job seems like it should be to make each of these positions known without comment, not to ignore one side or to privilege one at the expense of the other. In these respects it has failed miserably, first by taking sides and second by ignoring the issue of morality altogether. Instead, we have two sides, neither of which cares to hear what the other has to say: one assumes that all things religious are bad (or at least anachronistic and irrelevant to modern life) and the other, which completely ignores history and pretends that the Church, in its long history, never suppressed religious freedom, persecuted those with whom it disagreed, or entered the political arena.

    Shades of grey portrayed by both sides as black and white. There’s so much to this story that simply isn’t being acknowledged or told. But to say that the political aspects are irrelevant and that this is simply an issue of morality–no.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Julia, I think you’re going to have to get over this thing about the bishops and the progressive political agenda. Way too many people believe “the bishops” to be a static reality, but they are not; they change over the years. Over the last ~20 years, most of those bishops appointed under the infamous apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Jean Jadot, have either died or retired. I think the only one remaining is Hubbard in Albany. And many of those appointed in the earlier years of John Paul II are also dead or retired.

    You should find it interesting that Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., was challenged by his brother bishops over his claim that the Ryan budget is immoral. Though this was not covered extensively, some of his brethren (I believe it was Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan.) pointed out that accumulating the national debt at the rate we’re doing it isn’t right to do. That’s not something that would have happened even five years ago.

  • Mary Ann Wenske

    Archbishop Lori rocks. So many of us JPII Catholics are SO incredibly pleased that we have bishops that LEAD instead of running for cover. As a bishop he is called, if necessary to lay down his life for the flock.

    Archbishop Lori, we need more bishops and people like you in the Church- willing to stand up for the truth and take the consequences, even if it means jail time or fines.

    God bless America and Viva el Papa!
    Mary Ann Wenske

  • AuthenticBioethics

    Regarding Catholic bishops and political agendas, whatever the bishops as a group support in the political world, it’s not the “progressive agenda.” There are two things to consider:

    One is the distinction between goals and means. The bishops may, for instance, support economic justice, care for the poor and elderly, immigration reform, and all that. First of all, that the bishops as a group might speak to these issues does not mean that they support the specific programs that the politicians devise. (I personally think, for instance, that our country should take good care of the elderly, but I also wonder about Social Security as a way of doing that.)

    Second is the fact that the “progressive agenda” embraces many issues that the bishops do not and cannot support.

    As a whole, the bishops (as a group) do not support the “progressive agenda” at all. There might be overlap on some goals and even some means on some small set of issues, but that’s all.

    I just wish the darn media would stop throwing tantrums and politicizing the fact that the bishops (as a group) disagree with the left as often as they disagree with the right.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    It’s actually very simple:

    My views are “prophetic”, your are “partisan politics”.

    This fully explains the apparent inconsistencies in coverage of the Catholic bishops:

    Immigration Reform
    Universal Health Care


    Insurance paid contraception/abortion/sterilization
    Same-sex marriage

    Partisan Politics

    There. That explains it all.

  • Julia

    My impression of the bishops’ leaning has been highly influenced by the many years of position papers coming out of the USCCB office in DC. And the agenda of the Campaign for Human Development which funded ACORN among other leftist organizations.

    I understand that changes are occurring at the USCCB and perhaps the staff that has been churning out these papers has or will be cut. Among other things, I think the social justice office has been merged with the pro-life office.

  • Matt

    Sari – I have to disgree with your thread. The idea of understanding and presenting both sides of an issue is worthwhile of course, but you veer from that to a statement about the Church claiming the moral high ground, that its’ morality is “absolute”. If you are claiming that the Church believes it is correct – that is true and irrelevant. Why shouldn’t the church feel it is correct? If you are claiming the Church is claiming that its’ view should be accepted and imposed, it has not done so at all. The Church is not imposing at all in this particular case (and historical arguments are not relevant to the question of this particular case). The Church is not trying to limit anyone’s use or access to contraceptives. It is just stating that it will not be involved in the purchase of abortifacents or elective sterilization. The stance is completely non-aggressive… specifically the Church is being timid because it does not want to damage the universal health care that it has been fighting for all this time.