Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Washington D.C. archbishop, said something to the Washington Post yesterday that screams false equivalence. When Barack Obama was president the “raging issue” for U.S. bishops was the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, Wuerl said. Under President Donald Trump, Wuerl says, the “raging issue” is immigration.
Strangely, Pope Francis did not see things the same way. In February 2016, he told reporters “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.”
That remark is so telling in so many ways, it makes a Catholic feminist want to cry. It also explains once more why the election last year turned out the way it did. One of Trump’s secret weapons was the passive Catholic hierarchy, which ignored the teachings of the gospels and largely failed to speak out against a campaign that relied on racial prejudice, the demonization of immigrants, and all-round embrace of bullying.
Instead, as Wuerl so aptly put it, the “raging issue” in 2016 continued to focus on the reproductive rights of women and the church’s insistence that all women in the U.S., regardless of their personal beliefs, should adhere to church law.
Even if you are the most by-the-book Catholic, it is pretty easy to see the false equivalence imbedded in Wuerl’s statement. The current policies on immigration rip families apart, threaten entire communities, and jeopardize the lives of thousands of deported immigrants.
You can’t make the same case for the bishops’ staunch and vocal opposition to Obama Administration policies. Even if one understands where the bishops are coming from on the issue of abortion, their beef with Obama was primarily about … contraception. While churches would be exempt, many Catholic institutions – nursing homes, hospitals, universities – that employ many people of differing faiths were covered by the mandate.
And for good reason. What employer has the right to tell an employee how to plan her family? (And yes, I know some pro-life physicians claim that some emergency birth control technically causes an “abortion” but the scientific evidence strongly suggests that the devices and drugs covered by the ACA are contraceptives only.)
If bishops were logical, it would seem that improved access to contraception would help reduce the total number of abortions, a win-win for everybody. But instead, they framed this as an issue of “religious liberty” although whose freedom was being usurped was never clear to me. Certainly, not the freedom of U.S.Catholic women who have had sex, the majority of whom use, or have used, artificial birth control.
The bishops supported court fights by religious orders and Catholic institutions like Notre Dame University, even after the Obama White House offered a compromise: the institutions could offer insurance that did not cover contraception, but insurance companies would still have to provide it.
Their annual “fortnight for freedom” had an impact. In 2008, Obama received 47 percent of the White Catholic vote. By 2012, his share of the vote dropped by 7 percentage points. In 2016, Hillary Clinton received only 37 percent of white Catholic votes.
Candidate Trump made very clear that he would do all he could to deport undocumented migrants. He didn’t spring these plans on us right after the election. Where were the bishops when migrants were being threatened last year?
Turns out they were one “raging issue” behind. And millions of our brothers and sisters are paying the price.
Celia Viggo Wexler is the author of Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope (Rowman & Littlefield).