Many in Europe are amazed at the vitality of religion in the United States. They are amazed not just at the levels of participation, but the role many of these religions play in the civil discourse in the United States itself on a day to day level.
The Catholic Church, like many of its counterparts across the United States, run its own schools, hospitals, adoption services and homeless shelters as well as a host of other services that would be provided by the government in many European countries. Yet, some commentators are saying that the Church in America is becoming more “European”, with declining levels of attendance and falling levels of commitment among those who practice. Their main argument is the sexual abuse scandals that were found out in 2002, in the Archdiocese of Boston under Bernard Cardinal Law with reports of abuse cover up spreading across the country.
Cardinal Law, like many other Roman Catholic bishops in the United States, and indeed across the world, put the reputation of the Church first. It was a deliberate action of the bishops to ignore, obfuscated and block the truth, covering up priests who abused minors. Many thought the scandals were finished. However, sadly this was not the case.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, led by Justin Cardinal Rigali, was investigated in a 2005 by a grand jury report. The report accused him and other diocesan officials, of a pattern of protecting abusive priests while taking little or no measures to protect minors or remove priests from ministry. No charges were brought however due to an expired statute of limitations. In February 2011 a second grand jury report was published which detailed the total lack of action of Cardinal Rigali into removing suspected abusive priests from ministry. The second grand jury report noted that as many as 37 priests had credible allegations brought against them. Much of the blame for the cover up has fallen on Cardinal Rigali and Msgr William Lynn who served as, Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua’s, “vicar for clergy”, effectively, head of personnel.
On 26 March 2012 the trail of Mgr Lynn began in a Philadelphia courtroom on charges of endangering the welfare of children. This is the first time that an American Church official has had to stand trial in a criminal court. Lynn says that he told Cardinal Bevilacqua about the allegations but was ordered to shred the documents. Cardinal Bevilacqua died on 31 January 2012, aged 88. The report that was shredded was witnessed by Fr. Joseph Cistone, now bishop of Saginaw. The trial is expected to last three months. Lynn, if convicted of all three counts, faces 28 years in prison. Matters are made worse for what little remains of the reputation of the Church when a ruling in February 2012 allowed the prosecution to admit evidence of 30 other abuse claims beyond those of the time of the trail.
The Church is at its lowest ebb, with one commentator noting that the scandal was “Boston, reborn”. Indeed, looking at the sinful and immoral acts of the clergy and bishops of the diocese, one could see the future of Catholicism in America as bleak, following the trend of the Old World.
However, almost at the same time as the events in Philadelphia are occurring, events in Washington DC are giving those who doubt that Catholicism in America has a future, second thoughts.
In January President Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius announced as part of the new Federal health care law that religious groups would not be allowed opt out of offering contraceptives and sterilisation to their employees. The single concession given to religious groups by the administration is that they have one year to alter their teachings to conform to the new law. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) mobilised a broad coalition on the Catholic Left and Right to oppose the mandated change on the grounds of freedom of religion.
However, after weeks of lobbying from a range of Catholic groups, on 10 February President Obama said, “I directed the Department of Health and Human Services to speed up the process that had already been envisioned. We weren’t going to spend a year doing this; we’re going to spend a week or two doing this”. He added that a women’s employers who have religious objections to providing contraceptives will no longer be required to fund them. Instead he said that insurance companies would provide and pay for the requirement, this he said would mean “that religious organizations won’t have to pay for these services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly”.
After this the USCCB issued a statement on 14 March, which said that forcing “virtually all private health plans nationwide to provide coverage of sterilization and contraception—including abortifacient drugs—subject to an exemption for ‘religious employers’ that is arbitrarily narrow, and to an unspecified and dubious future ‘accommodation’ for other religious organizations that are denied the exemption”. Echoing President Kennedy’s 1960 speech in Houston to Protestant ministers, the USCCB statement mentions how “This is not about the religious freedom of Catholics only, but also of those who recognize that their cherished beliefs may be next on the block”. It goes on to say that the “mandate includes an extremely narrow definition of what HHS deems a ‘religious employer’ deserving exemption—employers who, among other things, must hire and serve primarily those of their own faith. We are deeply concerned about this new definition of who we are as people of faith and what constitutes our ministry”.
Anyone who says the role of the Catholic Church in America will inevitably fade and die have been proven wrong. Whether one agrees with them or not, the bishops are arguing for religious freedom and against a dangerous, intolerant secularism. Whatever happens with the administration people should be thankful for their efforts.