The Catholic Church Started the Culture Wars -- Now Can They End Them?

While the culture wars are usually attributed to the Christian right, the U.S. Catholic bishops are in many ways responsible for starting the culture wars that have polarized society and paralyzed our political process. Today, the Catholic bishops have a chance to back down from the culture wars they started. The question is: will they?
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This week, the U.S. Catholic bishops are gathering in Baltimore for their semi-annual meeting. It's the first gathering of the U.S. prelates since the Catholic Church's rocky Extraordinary Synod on the Family and a chance for the bishops to demonstrate that they have heard Pope Francis' calls for a more inclusive church that's more concerned with the pastoral than with the rulebook.

Francis has acknowledged that the church's leaders became "obsessed" with imposing strict rules "related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods" on the faithful to the detriment of the church. But the impact of the hierarchy's obsessions go beyond the church and affect us all. In fact, while the culture wars are usually attributed to the Christian right, the U.S. Catholic bishops are in many ways responsible for starting the culture wars that have polarized society and paralyzed our political process.

It was, after all, the Catholic bishops who created the "right-to-life" movement in the first place, back when most American weren't even paying attention to the abortion issue, as I detail in my book Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. In the mid-1960s, abortion wasn't a major political issue. It was regulated by the states, most of which banned it except to save a woman's life. But public health officials, doctors and some legislators began pushing to make abortion more widely available because some 1 million illegal procedures were being performed every year. The gynecological wards of many city's hospitals were filled with women suffering from botched procedures -- some 10,000 in New York City alone in 1967 -- and only women who were rich or well-connected could get legal abortions, even in cases of rape or fetal deformity.

But the Catholic bishops, who considered sexual morality their special purview, decided to make preventing any liberalization of abortion law the main cause of their newly formed National Conference of Catholic Bishops. When California considered a bill to liberalize abortion access, the Dioceses of Los Angeles hired the same political consulting firm that got Ronald Reagan elected governor of California to beat back the bill. The bishops' consulting firm created the first grassroots "right-to-life" group to lobby against the bill.

After that, the NCCB hired a political consultant to create right-to-life groups around the country. The bishops provided the financial and administrative support to get some of the earliest and most influential anti-abortion groups, including those in New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan, off the ground to obscure their involvement in the campaign against abortion, which they feared would reawaken old fears of the Vatican trying to impose its doctrine on American society. They created and funded the National Right to Life Committee, which would go on to be the most influential anti-abortion organization for 30 years, to coordinate the activities of the local anti-abortion groups.

Most of these early groups were heavily Catholic. But as more Evangelical Christians became interested in the issue, they became concerned that the bishops' control of the NRLC would dilute the effectiveness of the pro-life movement because it would be seen as tool of the Catholic Church. At a heated board meeting just before the Roe v. Wade decision, they wrested control of the organization from the bishops' conference, obscuring the Catholic roots of the organization and the anti-abortion movement.

Having lost their grassroots lobby just when they needed it most, the bishops tried another tack. In 1975, they released the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, which said abortion was the number one issue for Catholics, and laid out a plan to organize Catholics politically to support candidates who backed a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. The move politicized the issue in a presidential election cycle in which both Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford thought they needed the Catholic vote to win. Both candidates went to the bishops seeking their blessing as the press watched breathlessly. Not surprisingly, the bishops gave what was widely viewed as their endorsement to Ford because of his support of an anti-abortion amendment.

So by the mid-1970s, the bishops had created the anti-abortion movement out of whole cloth and become the first to politicize the issue in a presidential election (even though they failed to throw the election to their preferred candidate). Four years later, when Republican strategist Paul Weyrich was looking for an issue to unite socially conservative voters into a new Republican electoral coalition to replace the fading New Deal coalition, he decided abortion was the perfect wedge issue, both because it tapped into conservative dissatisfaction with the new, socially liberal culture and because it could potentially separate Catholic voters from the Democratic Party. Weyrich rebranded the bishops' right-to-life movement the "pro-family" movement, teamed up with direct mail wizard Richard Viguerie and televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to form the Moral Majority, and the culture wars were officially born.

Four years after the Moral Majority got Ronal Reagan elected, when Walter Mondale attempted to unseat him, the Catholic bishops returned to abortion politicking. New York Archbishop John O'Connor declared that a Catholic "in good conscience cannot vote for a candidate who explicitly supports abortion." When Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, hoping to draw Catholics back to the Democratic Party, O'Connor attacked her for supporting abortion rights. He accused Ferraro of misrepresenting Catholic teaching on abortion because she had signed a cover letter for a briefing by the organization Catholics for a Free Choice asserting that there was a plurality of Catholic opinion and teaching on the morality of abortion.

With that, the issue exploded in an election year. Catholic politicians were forced to defend their positions. Bishops and archbishops weighted in pro and con. Cardinal John Krol pointedly gave the invocation at the Republican convention. "Nuns for Ferraro" signs sprouted at Ferraro rallies. Abortion, according to the New York Times, was now a "profoundly divisive" issue in American politics.

In response, a group of some 100 Catholic priests, nuns, theologians and prominent lay people placed an ad in the New York Times asserting that a "diversity of opinions regarding abortion exists among committed Catholics" and "a large number of Catholic theologians hold that even direct abortion ... can sometimes be a moral choice."

The ad, which ironically ran 30 years to the week that the family synod met in Rome, marked a turning point for the church. With its authority on sex-related issues openly challenged, the Vatican fought back, launching a crackdown against dissent that continued until the election of Pope Francis.

Today, the Catholic bishops have a chance to back down from the culture wars they started. They could declare a truce in the costly and increasingly pointless war against the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate and stop equating emergency contraception with abortion, which even the Catholic Health Association admits is untrue. They could signal their willingness to welcome LGBT Catholics, as progressives suggested during the family synod, by backing down from their harsh rhetoric against same-sex marriage. They could retract their unfounded assertion that the ACA contains an "abortion surcharge." It's clear the bishops can take action right now to help end the culture wars and move the country forward. The question is: will they?

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