Time for our A game

Why can’t Catholics get a hold of our own story? 

More importantly, how did the issue of religious liberty — prompted by a series of governmental decisions that seem to be targeting the Church for its opposition to abortion, contraception and sterilization — morph into a “War on Women?” 

When the Department of Health and Human Services released regulations forcing Catholic institutions to provide abortifacient drugs, contraception and sterilization to their employees, the government gratuitously launched a battle that challenged the Church’s own understanding of its mission and its responsibilities. In what looks to be a breathtakingly bold case of overreach, the government is seeking to define what is a legitimate Catholic activity and what is not, and it is turning centuries of constitutional precedent on its head. 

For a nanosecond there was common cause between Catholics conservatives and liberals who were horrified by the implications of these rules. That moment vanished quickly when — thanks to some clumsy missteps and some shrewd spin — religious liberty morphed into a “war on women.” 

Suddenly it was men sitting before a congressional panel explaining why HHS was wrong. Then it was a story that went viral about a Catholic school teacher whose contract was not renewed because she was using in vitro fertilization to get pregnant. And finally, for the coup de grace, the Vatican announced an official inquiry into the largest organization of women’s religious orders. 

Never mind that there are other sides to all of these stories: Stitch them together and it looks like the patriarchy is about to launch a “bring back the night” campaign.  

I might be a little woozy from pounding my head against the wall, but there seems to be a few lessons we should be learning. File these under “better late than never”: 

First, if you are going to take on a political administration in an election year, as we are with the HHS regulations, we have to bring our “A” game. That means no gimmees for the other team. Don’t make it Bishops vs. The World. Bring in sharp, articulate laymen and women to run point. We do have them. And cross the aisle: Make the argument go beyond the internal ideological boundaries that too often typify us as a liberal or conservative Catholic. 

Second, don’t get ensnared in the overheated political rhetoric that is pretty typical these days. Avoid looking like shills for someone else’s agenda. Avoid being used by either party as a patsy or a punching bag. Remind Catholics that once the camel gets its nose under the tent, who knows where it will stop? Today it is HHS. Tomorrow it may be INS. Or the IRS. 

Third, use the resources we do have more effectively, including all that Catholic media that the bean counters keep saying are too costly. Don’t assume that one letter written by one bishop does the trick. Most of the people weren’t even at Mass that day, and those that were probably only understood half of what was being said. Of course there will be dissension and debate: We’re Catholics, after all! But keep diffusing the message in a variety of formats from a variety of people. 

Finally, adult faith formation, anyone? If one thing has been exposed, it is Catholic ignorance about the Church’s moral teachings (and that includes social justice). We need a pastoral plan that engages people and helps them to understand what their Church teaches and why. This doesn’t mean lectures. It means engaging Catholics as adults. Catholic media are now the primary tools the Church has for adult faith formation. This is a start, but without the support of DREs, pastors and bishops, it will never be much more than that. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.