This weekend, Catholics all over the country heard from their bishops. Why? Well, it hasn't been major news in the secular media (although it certainly has been news), but the bishops of the Catholic Church told congregants that the church's teachings and practice are under serious threat from the Obama Administration's Health and Human Services Department. At Masses throughout the country, bishops' words were read to congregants warning them about the threat. The American Papist has been keeping track of which bishops have spoken out and which have had their statements read at Masses. The list keeps growing but as I write this, it's at 93 of 195 dioceses. What I find most interesting about this is how little I heard about this from reporters on Sunday and Monday itself. Sure, we did hear from GetReligion readers and I had Catholic contacts from throughout the country emailing me to tell me about these vociferous letters that were read to the gathered.
But I only actually read one story about the matter on Sunday. That came from Michael Brendan Dougherty at Business Insider, headlined "Here Is The Anti-Obama Administration Letter That Was Read To Almost Every Catholic Sitting In Church On Sunday."
On NPR's Morning Edition on Monday, Cokie Roberts dropped what sounded like some personal knowledge about the bishops' campaign into a piece about national politics:
But also the administration is creating problems of their own. The health care law is, as you know, already unpopular in the polls, and the administration has issued regulations that now - that say that Catholic or religious institutions that hire and serve people outside of their own religion have to cover contraceptive services and sterilizations in the health care bill.
It's got the Catholic bishops furious. There was a letter in church yesterday, calling this an attack on religious liberty, and that's a problem for the president's allies - the social justice Catholics - and it could be a problem with Catholic voters. And that becomes a huge issue if the president really starts to lose Catholic voters, because he can't win without them.
But considering that so many Catholics who went to Mass last weekend got an extremely rare earful from their bishops, the news was surprisingly undercovered on Sunday and Monday. These new rules could not have been more discussed on Catholic and conservative and religious liberty outlets or in opinion pieces at mainstream sites. And it's not just pro-lifers or politically conservative Catholics. It's possible that the politically liberal Catholics and secularists feel even more betrayed by this action from the Obama administration. Here's E.J. Dionne, Michael Sean Winters, Jonathan Chait, etc. It is huge news in many places except for the news pages, basically. The mainstream media has been very reserved in its coverage ever since earlier this month when some religious people were given one year to figure out how they'd violate their consciences.
Pope Benedict XVI has weighed in. And not in vague ways that require some spelunking to dramatize what he's said. He's called these regulations and other threats to religious liberty a "grave threat." Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has called the regulations "literally unconscionable." (Full text here.) And it's not just the Dolan-types. Here's Los Angeles Archbishop Emeritus Roger Mahony, "the most prominent carrier of the social justice tradition of Cardinal Bernardin" telling Catholics to practice civil disobedience in response. Another wrote "The callous disregard for long held personal and ecclesial beliefs augurs a chilling moment for believing and practicing Catholics in these United States." One bishop directed that the Prayer to St. Michael be read at services within his diocese:
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen
One blogger notes the significance of this prayer. It was last included in regular services between 1930 and 1965 for the benefit of believers trapped behind the Iron Curtain. "This isn’t just opposition; this is a declaration of war."
Are you getting a sense of how big a deal this is?
But the American media are mostly writing it up as a sort of horse race thing, covering what politicians have to say about the matter. Here's Newt Gingrich, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Yawn. Here's ABC News downplaying what's going on:
The Catholic Church had lobbied against the new requirement, which will go into effect January 2013.
The wording in the letters, penned by individual clergy, varied widely but the theme was distinctly anti-Washington.
Don't mind me. I'm just banging my head against the desk right now.
It's OK to cover this story from a political or legal angle, as the Los Angeles Times did in their piece on the HHS directive. The substance of the piece was about legal challenges to HHS but even they noted how "fiercely" Catholics reacted to the rules.
And to end on a higher note, there are exceptions the dismal coverage of this weekend's events in the Catholic Church. CNN's Eric Marrapodi had a great piece rounding up some of the commentary from bishops and other Catholic leaders and his piece accurately conveyed the seriousness with which they spoke. Headline, "Catholic Clergy Come Out Swinging Against HHS Regulation." There's also the video embedded above of a local CNN affiliate that hits the issue from a local news angle. And here's an Atlanta broadcast outlet that also accurately characterized church outrage at the mandate this morning. Sample quote:
"The Church is going to fight this regulation with all the available resources we have," he said. "We have to."
Obviously there are people in the Obama administration and elsewhere who believe in birth control, sterilization and abortifacient insurance coverage mandates and, further, that religious exemptions to these mandates are wrong. That's an important part of the story and one that has been fairy well covered. But underplaying how seriously the Catholic Church, its leaders and other religious groups are taking this is a disservice to readers of all persuasions.
UPDATE: There are many things I miss when I try to take a quick survey on any topic, and this is not exception. At least one area I missed was how USA Today covered the situation between HHS and the bishops. The editorial pages ran an op-ed by cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, New York City archbishop and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, headlined "HHS contraception mandate 'un-American'." The paper also ran a reported piece on the letters read in parishes, which began:
NEW ORLEANS – From Maine to Phoenix to southern Louisiana, Catholic churches across the USA this weekend echoed with scorn for a new federal rule requiring faith-based employers to include birth control and other reproductive services in their health care coverage.
Dozens of priests took the rare step of reading letters from the pulpit urging parishioners to reach out to Washington and oppose the rule, enacted this month.
Of course, I think it's the fact that the services being mandated are in opposition to reproduction that's the problem in the eyes of the Catholic Church. And I'm not sure "dozens" is the best word choice to accurately convey the widespread effort to combat these rules. But the very fact of this story is important and that it ran is important to note.