Catholic schools are getting aggressive lately, and not just their football teams. Last month, several U.S. Catholic universities, including Notre Dame and the Catholic University of America, joined a lawsuit against an Obama administration order mandating birth-control coverage in health care plans. In Canada, Catholic organizations are clashing with the Ontario government over anti-bullying legislation that would allow students to form “gay-straight alliances” at schools. In some cases, Catholic organizations are heading into the political fray with renewed vigour: Richard W. Garnett, professor and associate dean at Notre Dame Law School, says that this is “a time when many Catholic institutions are thinking about their Catholic character, and what it means to be ‘Catholic’ in a pluralistic society.” In some cases, that means hitting back against liberal governments.
In the U.S. in particular, official Catholic opposition to the Obama administration has often been explicitly political, with pugnacious press releases and media appearances full of pushback against Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. A Catholic school in Ohio, Franciscan University, declared that rather than comply with the administration mandate, it would stop providing health insurance to its students; the school’s vice-president of advancement, Mike Hernon, went on Fox News to call the mandate “a moral and economic injustice.” Catholic bishops in the U.S. are calling for a “Fortnight of Freedom” to take place this summer, during which time Catholics and Catholic organizations will be encouraged to call for an end to “this unprecedented government coercion.” And Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, has attacked the Obama administration in almost libertarian terms, saying that “a bureau of the government is attempting to define what a church is.”
This kind of rhetoric has shocked liberal Catholics like the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, who warned U.S. bishops that they might be turning the Church “into the Tea Party at prayer.” Although the Church’s positions on contraception and abortion haven’t changed, it used to be equally well known for its liberal attitudes on issues like war and social justice. Ryan Topping, visiting chair of studies in Catholic theology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, says that “the kind of liberal Catholicism represented by Paul Martin in Canada and Kathleen Sebelius” in the U.S. used to be more dominant, even among the clergy. But today there’s less laxity on social issues. Topping thinks that the Church’s sex scandals have convinced some bishops of the importance of cracking down on enforcement of other social issues: “the public failure of some bishops to discipline sexual predators,” he says, has made them “much less cavalier in their approach to internal discipline.”
Whatever the reason, some institutions are taking a tougher line on these issues than they did a few years ago—or even a few days ago. When the Obama administration announced that it would compromise on the contraception issue by shifting the burden of coverage to insurance companies, the president of Notre Dame issued a statement welcoming the compromise and applauding “the willingness of the administration to work with religious organizations to find a solution,” but the school soon changed course and joined in the lawsuit. And Xavier University, a Jesuit school in Cincinnati, found that it was already covering contraception for its employees as part of its regular health care plan, and announced that it would stop doing so. Moira McQueen, executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, says, “I don’t think that the American bishops or Canadian bishops have become more conservative in these issues,” but “I think it’s true that they may be speaking out a bit more as they’re seeing encroachments in these areas—always about sexuality.”
Since polls show that the majority of rank-and-file Catholics don’t agree with the Church position on contraception, none of this might have an impact on the 2012 U.S. election. But it could have an impact on political polarization within the Church. McQueen thinks that liberal Catholics may be turned off by the hierarchy “when they’re making political statements; because they’re more attuned to the current mores than the Catholic ones.” There’s even a bit of generational conflict in the mix: Topping says dismissively that social liberalism is “still fairly fashionable among the baby-boomer faculty at Catholic universities.” It could be that staying out of partisan politics is just another relic of the baby boom generation.