An embarrassing campaign gone awry

I have to cringe every time I read the latest front page headline or see the TV update on the biggest Catholic story of 2012 -- the U.S. bishops' struggle for "religious freedom." However, it turns out, whether the hierarchy wins the day, the Obama administration triumphs or there's a satisfactory compromise, this roiling controversy is an embarrassment.

Why, people wonder, would the bishops spend what little public relations capital they have at this point in history by battling against contraceptive coverage in insurance plans for employees of church-related organizations? It's like this is the fight they've been hungering for, like the Armageddon clash between absolute good and absolute evil, as if the very essence of Catholicism is on the line and our backs are up against the wall.

And just when curious observers begin to think there may be something substantial here, they are struck by a confusing piece of information: Virtually every report on the dispute notes that on the critical issue of artificial contraception, the overwhelming majority of Catholics support it and are therefore at odds with the bishops on the subject, and have been for more than 40 years. Polls have consistently shown that, depending how the question is asked, between 85 to 98 percent of Catholics do not regard contraception as inherently evil.

So even if you concur that the religious freedom of the bishops is a valid concern, you have to ask why they would fight for their cause by laying enormous weight on a campaign to limit the availability of contraception. Do they really believe a great mass of Catholic voters are prepared to mount the ramparts in defense of a cause they don't support if the Obama administration does not yield?

There is, of course, a reason why this sort of thing happens. An institution that is closed at the top makes decisions entirely through the deliberation of a carefully selected, all-male elite and feels no obligation to consult the voice of the church body is almost guaranteed to engage in foolhardy campaigns and come up with misguided strategies. Generally when this does occur, only Catholics are aware because the subject doesn't affect non-Catholics, much less get into the middle of a national political campaign. But this one does. Everyone can enter the debate while puzzling over the fractured church we have.

For most Catholics, I think, it is indeed an embarrassment.

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