Catholic Bishops Vote to Double Down on Culture War

The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ vote to maintain their politically aggressive Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty for another three years signals that despite the warnings of Pope Francis to tone down the culture war stuff, the bishops are fully invested in their crusade against same-sex marriage and universal access to birth control.

And it’s no wonder, given the people they’re listening to for advice. On Thursday, the bishops will hear presentations on marriage from Helen Alvare, a former staffer and leading far-right proponent of the “contraceptive mentality” and its supposed dangers to women and marriage, and W. Bradford Wilcox, author of a controversial Washington Post op-ed which advised women to get married already so they wouldn’t get beaten or raped by their boyfriends (original headline: “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married”).

It’s the dream team of socially regressive conservative tripe on why marriage is good for everyone—except gay people, for whom it is very, very bad—and contraception is evil, largely because it allows women to avoid marrying their baby daddies.

The bishops are now fully invested in a long-term campaign to oppose same-sex marriage. In fact, Archbishop William Lori, who heads the religious liberty committee, likened it to the bishops’ anti-abortion efforts. “It’s a major task on a generational scale,” he told the conference.

This should give proponents of same-sex marriage pause because it was the bishops’ early efforts to oppose the legalization of abortion that created the modern anti-abortion movement more commonly associated with the Christian right. It was the bishops who created the first state right-to-life groups and who united them under the umbrella of the National Right to Life Committee.

Sociologist John McCarthy says that it was the Catholic bishops’ initial organizing that made the anti-abortion movement a potent, grassroots force:

The density and extensiveness of the pro-life mobilization is importantly the result of the leadership by the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church and the consequent widespread availability to activists of the structures of the church and its community organizations.

After Roe v. Wade, many assumed that a woman’s right to abortion was a done deal. But in the ensuing 40 years, anti-abortion opponents have managed to put significant limitations on abortion that while stopping short of overturning its legality, have curtailed access and put many young and poor women back to a pre-Roe situation.

The Catholic Church has the financial and organization resources to conduct a long-term rearguard effort against same-sex marriage much the way it did against abortion, though these efforts would more likely focus on creating “carve-outs” where individuals and institutions wouldn’t be required to recognize same-sex marriage as legitimate, similar to “conscience” exemptions from providing contraception.

Some on the Catholic right even advocate the seccession of states that refuse to recognize same-sex marriage. Frederick Clarkson of Political Research Associates notes in a recent piece on theocratic violence that the conservative Opus Dei priest Father C. John McCloskey, who is credited with converting a number of influential Republicans to Catholicism, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Newt Gingrich, Gov. Sam Brownback, Robert Bork and Larry Kudlow, has advocated just such a solution:

McCloskey told columnist Terry Mattingly in July 2013 that “the United States is no longer a Christian country.” Because this is so, he explained, traditionalists will need to cluster in states that are more congenial to their views on such matters as abortion, marriage, parents rights, and homeschooling. …

McCloskey predicted in 2001, and again in 2012, that conservative Catholics and evangelicals would need to band together in a civil war of secession. The “secession of the ‘Culture of Life’ states,” he predicted, would emphasize “the fundamental issues of the sanctity of marriage, the rights of parents, and the sacredness of human life,” and that the secession would precipitate “a short and bloody civil war” that would break the country into what he calls “the Regional States of America.” He repeated this general view in an essay in January 2014, in which he discussed separating from the “tyrannical regime” in Washington, D.C.

Funny how the future starts to look an awful lot like the past.

Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work on the intersection of sex, religion, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Ms., and Huffington Post. She was the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor-in-chief of the National Journal’s health care briefings.