ATLANTA — The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops have long prided themselves on being political without being partisan, throwing themselves into the scrum of public affairs without aligning themselves with one party or the other.
Now, some Catholics are beginning to wonder out loud whether the bishops have abandoned their historic nonpartisanship — or, at least, are at risk of being seen that way — as they press forward with a vigorous campaign against contraception provisions in President Obama’s healthcare plan.
Led by the indomitable Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the bishops are arriving in Atlanta for their annual spring meeting this week determined to throw the spotlight on what they perceive as an assault by the Obama administration on religious liberty.
In that fight, the bishops have the support not just of many Catholics but of evangelical Christians and others on the conservative side of the religious and political spectrum — including Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger who has repeatedly portrayed Obama as an enemy of religious freedom.
Perhaps because of that, some liberal and moderate Catholics are uncomfortable with what they see as an inappropriate insertion of the church into a hot-button political issue at the outset of a presidential campaign.
“I think the real danger bishops need to confront is getting this dragged through the political mud just a few months before an election,” said John Gehring, the Catholic outreach coordinator for Faith in Public Life, a liberal faith-based advocacy group. “I think some of the alarmist rhetoric that some church leaders are using gives the impression that some bishops are quite happy making this part of a Republican campaign.”
Gehring said there was a risk that the bishops could come to be seen as “the Republican Party at prayer” — which, he stressed, he does not believe is the case.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore insisted to the National Catholic Reporter last week that there was nothing partisan about the church’s campaign. “We’re not trying to throw an election,” he said. “We’re simply trying to defend fundamental freedoms.”
In doing so, however, the bishops have used unusually strong language. Dolan said the White House was “strangling” the church. The bishop of Peoria, Ill., compared what Obama had done to the treatment of churches by Hitler and Stalin.
Complicating matters for the bishops has been the timing of their campaign, which coincides with a Vatican crackdown on American nuns for doctrinal disobedience and with deliberations in the Philadelphia trial of a high-ranking Catholic cleric accused of covering up sexual abuse of children by priests.
“It’s a very fragile time,” said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University who specializes in religion and politics. The bishops, he said, have already lost some of their moral authority as a result of the sex abuse scandal, and risk being seen as antagonists of the nuns, who are appreciated by many Catholics for devoting themselves to the poor and powerless.
Against that distracting backdrop, the bishops are launching what they call a “Fortnight for Freedom,” a two-week period from June 21 to July 4 dedicated to prayer, study and public action against the contraception provisions in the healthcare bill, which require insurers to offer free contraception to most women, including some who work for Catholic-affiliated institutions (but not churches).
The Department of Health and Human Services initially proposed requiring that most employers, including Catholic hospitals and schools, include contraceptive services in employee healthcare plans. After an outcry, the administration announced a compromise — dismissed as meaningless by the bishops — that put the onus on the insurance companies, not the employers.
In addition to the Fortnight observance, the bishops also are using their pulpits to let the Catholic faithful know that they believe the administration has crossed a line. Dolan has even written a brief e-book, scheduled for publication later this month, in which he lays out an intellectual argument for “the Gospel of life.” More than 40 Catholic organizations have sued the federal government.
Polls suggest that Obama may be paying a price among Catholic voters, who formed a key part of his electoral support in 2008. A recent Gallup poll showed Obama and Romney in a virtual tie among Catholics.
“What we are seeing is that Catholics in this country are increasingly dissatisfied with Barack Obama because they don’t like the way he’s carrying out the mandate,” said Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with the Catholic Assn., a new group that describes itself as a traditional Catholic voice in the public square.
McGuire defends the bishops from charges of partisanship, saying: “I don’t think the bishops are trying to influence the campaign.... I mean, the bishops are not going to get behind one political candidate or another. They never have and never will.”
Tim Byrnes, a political science professor at Colgate University whose books include “Catholic Bishops in American Politics,” agreed that U.S. bishops had long been seen as above the partisan fray, in part because their agenda had elements that overlapped both parties.
In recent decades, their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage has lined up with the GOP, while opposition to the death penalty and support of immigration reform and the social safety net put them in good stead with Democrats.
However, Byrnes said: “I think it’s without doubt that they are in the process of squandering that special position or role in American politics. The danger is that they’ll be seen as social conservatives in league with a political party whose views on economic issues are not ones that the bishops share.... That doesn’t strike me as a particularly good way of protecting the long-term viability of the church as a participant in American policy debates.”