Friday, April 20, 2012

DANGER AHEAD -- PRIESTLY POLITICS


What happens in Peoria stays in Peoria? Hardly. Talk radio was all abuzz this morning with news that Peoria, IL Bishop Daniel Jenky (above, with Pope Benedict XVI) held a mass in which he essentially compared President Barack Obama to Hitler and Stalin. On April 14, Jenky had this to say during his mass, titled “A Call to Catholic Men of Faith”:

“Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services, and health care. In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama – with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path.”

Just to re-iterate: He said this in a MASS. There are so many things wrong with Jenky’s statement that one is hard pressed to know where to begin. Jenky, who has been a priest since the 1970s, was in the midst of a somewhat traditional sermon when he made these comments about two-thirds of the way through. It begs the question: Did the bishop inexplicably not realize how insensitive his statement was? Those who lived through the Holocaust to tell of its horrors surely would take issue with his comparisons. Those who uphold the time-tested tradition of the separation of Church and State would wonder why he ventured into this rhetorical territory. Clearly a personal political statement, did Jenky not realize he was putting his archdiocese’s tax-exempt status at risk by politicizing from the pulpit? And above all, whether he approves of Obama’s policies and job performance or not, is there no respect left for the office of the President? Comparing Obama to maniacal mass murderers is surely a stretch that most Americans would not support, many Catholics included.

Predictably, a number of Catholic Americans have come out in support of Jenky for making these comments, even though among them are surely thousands who know, in their hearts, that the President of the United States is not a supporter of mass murder. At issue is Obama’s health care initiative, which includes a provision that compels Catholic schools, hospitals and charities to provide birth control coverage for their employees via their health insurance. Although Obama’s plan prohibits federal dollars from being spent on abortions, it does make exceptions for rape and incest. Catholic leaders are incensed at what they perceive as Obama’s disregard of the Church’s strict anti-abortion stance.

That evidently prompted Jenky to add this comment to his sermon:

“This fall, every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences, or by the following fall our Catholic schools, our Catholic hospitals, our Catholic Newman Centers, all our public ministries -- only excepting our church buildings – could easily be shut down. Because no Catholic institution, under any circumstance, can ever cooperate with the intrinsic evil of killing innocent human life in the womb.”

Those of us who are not Catholic have often been left to wonder about the Church’s rigid stance on social issues. We have often questioned policies such as denying birth control in third world countries where overpopulation has caused mass starvation. We wonder about people who go to the Catholic church every Sunday and worship, and then come home and use the exact artificial birth control methods the Church stands against. Why, we wonder, are women denied the right to ascend to the priesthood, simply because of their gender? We are astonished at the decades and decades of the church’s now-admitted coverup of sexual assault of children among priests. The Catholic church’s discrimination against homosexuals is now legendary.

If Jenky has strong convictions against Obama, or against the healthcare plan, the pulpit was the last place he should have expressed them. And even if he felt somehow compelled to do so, perhaps it would have been wise for him to at least foresee the media firestorm he was about to create, at a time when the Catholic church should be doing everything possible to avoid bad publicity. Just this week headlines were once again international in scope about the Vatican’s chastising American Catholic nuns for their “radical feminist themes.” Criticism was especially harsh for the nuns "protesting the Holy See's actions regarding the question of women's ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons." In its report to the nuns, the Vatican said, “Public disagreement with the bishops — ‘who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals’ — is unacceptable.”

Some critics of the Vatican see moves like this one as those of desperation. The Vatican (right) knows that traditional Roman Catholic doctrine stands in stark contrast to contemporary Western culture. The Pope, in his 80s and ailing, is largely seen as a leader who does not know how to reign in those he views as “radical.” The nuns who were the subject of the latest report from the Vatican are represented in an organization called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which includes a reported 80 percent of the country’s’ approximately 57,000 nuns. Are we to believe that tens of thousands of American nuns are radicals?

That Jenky’s comments were ill-conceived is inarguable. But that they were so ill-timed is stunning. Barack Obama is not a threat to the Catholic church. In fact, he is probably no match for the massive, unwieldy, socio-industrial complex the Church has become. However, with mass communication and proliferation of media what it is in 2012, people like Jenky are the ones who stand to cause the church and its devotees the most harm.

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