Saturday, February 18, 2012

The U.S. Bishops' response to the contraceptive coverage mandate.

U.S. Catholic clergy perhaps could wallpaper Vatican City with their voluminous protests against the recent U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) contraceptive coverage mandate.  Not being a U.S. constitutional law expert, I won’t enter the constitutionality debate.  However, as a practicing Catholic with a master degree in theology, I will offer reflections from a faith perspective.

The clergy and especially the bishops claim a direct linkage to the original twelve Apostles, and say they protect apostolic teachings.  They also claim they are the closest thing to Jesus walking the Earth these days.  As I reflect upon Jesus’ examples and read the earliest apostles’ teachings, and then compare those with the bishops’ behavior responding to the HHS mandate and other issues, I wonder if there are more similarities or dissimilarities.  

Let’s start with Jesus, the guy the bishops think they better imitate than any non-ordained human.  Though Scripture never mentions Jesus’ sex life, bishops fixate on imitating it – continuing to insist upon mandatory clerical celibacy.  However, Scripture does mention Jesus habitually, knowingly and willingly becoming vulnerable, even to the point of enduring crucifixion by a secular government based on false charges.  The Church believes Jesus saved the world through that act of vulnerability.  Do the bishops place more emphasis on imitating this salvific aspect of Jesus’ life or imitating his sexual activity?

Imitating Jesus’ vulnerability would require bishops to submit to secular governments and refrain from waging political warfare.  Yet, they seem to embroil themselves in numerous secular political battles and cry “unfair” on topics ranging from clergy sexual abuse accountability to complying with various governmental mandates.  However, if the bishops did imitate Jesus’ vulnerability more than his sex life, might they improve their credibility inside and outside the church?  Might they recapture much of the flock they have helped scatter?

Now let’s consider the bishops’ adherence to earliest apostolic teachings.  The first written apostolic instructions appear in a 1st century A.D. document called the “Didache.”  Written before the four gospels, it was a training manual for Christians.  Its directives were alarmingly counter-culture, instructing the faithful to exercise profound levels of forgiveness and vulnerability, following Jesus’ example.  Here are some excerpts from its first and second rules:

  • Speak well of the ones speaking badly of you, and pray for your enemies, fast for the ones persecuting you
  • If anyone should strike you on the right cheek, turn also the other, and you will be perfect
  • If anyone should press you into service for one mile, go two
  • If anyone should take away your cloak, give also your tunic
  • If anyone should take from you what is yours do not ask for it back
  • To everyone asking you for anything, give it
  • You will not swear falsely, you will not bear false witness, you will not speak badly of anyone, you will not hold grudges
  • You will not be covetous, and not greedy, and not a hypocrite, and not bad-mannered, and not arrogant.

Regardless of if the HHS ruling is just or unjust, constitutional or unconstitutional, from reading the Didache’s apostolic instructions, I would expect the bishops to respond by exceeding government requirements, praying for the Spirit’s healing touch, and fasting, while willingly giving their employees requested healthcare coverage.  I certainly wouldn’t expect them to lead a widespread campaign in every diocese and parish disparaging the U.S. President, his administration and his policies.  Yet, which is their response?   

Many clergy seem to bear unyielding grudges against certain politicians, including President Obama.  Is there anything President Obama has done that has evoked their praise?  Or are they determined to dislike him – which surpasses grudge-bearing and leans towards harboring determined prejudices – both violating early apostolic teachings.

Do the bishops imitate Jesus’ and the early Christians’ habitual vulnerability when they rail at secular governments, lobby against politicians with whom they disagree, hide assets to avoid paying sexual abuse restitution payments, lobby against extending child molestation statute of limitations, and take liberties with truth in those efforts? 

Early Christians did seem to follow the Didache’s instructions because in the 3rd century A.D. the historian Tertullian wrote that the non-Christians observed of the Christians, “See how much they love each other.”  Unfortunately the Church does not evoke this sentiment today.  Instead it is often seen as intolerant, homophobic, sexist, truth-impaired, hypocritical, arrogant, complaining, totalitarian and unyielding.

Ironically, the bishops hail the U.S. Bill of Rights for containing moral truths while leading an organization that extends no such rights to its members.  They demand freedoms of religion and conscience yet increasingly deny these freedoms within the church.  Might this qualify as hypocrisy?  

Are the bishops actually providing superior examples imitating Jesus?  Are they actually protecting and following apostolic teachings? 

As an aside and point to ponder, the Didache calls apostles who deviate from its teachings, “false prophets.”  Are the bishops acting in true or false apostleship?  If they are false apostles, what should the faithful do?   


  1. Thank you for your insight.

  2. Jesus did not submit to secular government. He submitted to
    his FATHER. Big difference.

  3. Jesus died at the hands of secular government. He did not resist. He went so far as to heal the ear of a soldier that one of his disciples attacked. Now, his Father directed him to do this, but he did submit to the secular government. And there are no scripture references that indicate he resisted or railed against secular government. Jesus' only instance of possible violence was against the hypocrisy of religious leaders when he cleared the temple, driving out the money changers. Those were religious folk trying to profit from religion. He was incensed by such hypocrisy. But, he told people to render to Caesar what is Caesar's - so he seemed to show indicates of cooperation with secular governments.