The Most Rev. Robert N. Lynch is my shepherd. But I am no sheep.
His Sunday letter to area Catholics became a bully's pulpit to inflame Catholics against President Barack Obama and health care reform. The princes of the church have chosen to wage this public crusade during a presidential election year.
As a Catholic, a father of three daughters, and a citizen who works on behalf of First Amendment values, I am offended and raise my voice in opposition.
The bishops' problem began in 1968 when Pope Paul VI (against the advice of a many theologians, especially in Europe and the United States) wrote his own letter to the faithful condemning the use of artificial means of birth control, even for married couples with many children.
The matter took me into the confessional some 30 years ago. A wise and compassionate priest asked me, "How many children do you and Karen have?" I answered three. "You've done enough," he said. "Don't give it another thought."
Most Catholics have ignored this ban on birth control over the last three decades, their consciences telling them that women need not confine their roles in life to the making of babies. They act on the simple belief that a condom can prevent the conception of a child who might otherwise be aborted, and that it can protect couples from the transmission of deadly disease.
I would be willing to bet the bishop (or Mitt Romney) $10,000 that most of the Catholic priests in this diocese, if they were able to speak freely, would express the opinion that taking the pill or using a condom is not an immoral act, and, in certain contexts is the right thing to do.
But now the church hierarchy has decided to use the full weight of its moral authority to lobby against that part of the president's health care reform that "would require some religious institutions to offer their employees contraceptive and family planning services as part of their health insurance."
Bishop Lynch argues, "A huge piece of the wall of separation between church and state has been breached and if allowed to stand, one has to wonder what the government might require next. Mandatory abortion coverage sometime in the future should not be discounted by anyone if we allow this regulatory implementation to go unchallenged."
The bishop then attacks the president himself, using the familiar rhetoric of Republican opposition: "The lofty and hopeful words of the president … about freedom of and respect for the religious conscience of all have been rendered questionable at best. What a tragedy and what a shame."
Tragedy and shame are words I might used to describe the recent history (and continuing failure) of the Catholic Church hierarchy worldwide to deal effectively with the sexual abuse scandal within its own ranks. What moral authority remains, I wonder, on questions of gender, marriage and sexuality?
I praised my bishop when he took up the cause of the homeless in Pinellas County. Such charity lies at the heart of the Christian gospel, drawing its strength from the Sermon on the Mount and what Catholics call "the corporal works of mercy": feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, comforting the ill and the dying. Nowhere in these holy lessons do I see: "Blessed are the babymakers, for they shall avoid contraception."
The bishop goes on, "Those of you who have known and watched me over the 16 years it has been my privilege to be your bishop know that I have until now refrained from engaging in political discourse. But this is now a moral issue and the timing by the president leaves me no option but to inform you what is happening which I believe to be an assault on the sacred."
An assault on the sacred? Where was your activism, for instance, when corrupt corporations on Wall Street made their bets against working class home owners, driving the middle class into poverty and into the streets? Or when a Republican president led us into a senseless war? Your moral silence during the previous administration was deafening. But now we hear you loud and clear. The moral peril of our times lies not in the war rooms of the powerful, or the boardrooms of the greedy, but in the bedrooms of the needy.
Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. He was raised a Catholic in suburban New York, attended Catholic schools through college and is a member of St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. He can be reached at [email protected]