In its efforts to influence health care reform and oppose same-sex marriage, the Catholic Church is wading more deeply into politics than it has in recent memory, observers say.
The church's role in politics came into sharp relief this week when the Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the Washington, D.C., diocese threatened to cease its charitable activities if the D.C. city council went ahead with a plan to allow same-sex marriages.
The church's social services arm provides support to 68,000 people in the District of Columbia, among them the homeless and those in need of health care. It has received $8.2 million in funding from the D.C. government in the past three years, according to the city council.
Peter Rosenstein of the Campaign for All D.C. Families described the church's move as an attempt to "blackmail the city.
"The issue here is they are using public funds, and to allow people to discriminate with public money is unacceptable," Rosenstein told the Post.
But church officials argue that D.C. city council's decision to reject an amendment that would have allowed people to refuse services to same-sex couples on religious grounds amounts to ignoring freedom of religion.
In this case, the church's pressure appears to be having a limited effect. The Associated Press reports that "most council members are refusing" to heed the church's pleas.
"Allowing individual exemptions opens the door for anyone to discriminate based on assertions of religious principle," Councilman Phil Mendelson told the AP. "Let's not forget that during the civil rights era, many claimed separation of the races was ordained by God."
Even other religious leaders have questioned the D.C. diocese's move.
"Yesterday, the leadership of the Catholic Church made clear that they are choosing a cynical political ploy over their call to serve the neediest among the community," said Rev. Dennis Wiley of the Covenant Baptist Church, as quoted by the Perez Hilton blog.
But the church may have had more success in influencing the shape of health care reform. In early October, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter to Congress warning politicians that it would not support health care reform if that reform allowed taxpayers' money to fund abortions.
A month later, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a health care reform bill that included the Stupak amendment, which bans health insurance plans that offer abortion services from participating in a public exchange. Critics of the amendment say it could actually reduce access to abortions, if health insurers decide to reduce abortion coverage so that they can participate in the public health plan.
The church's involvement in the health care debate "represents an uncharacteristic foray into outright lobbying," writes lobbying affairs reporter Timothy P. Carney at the Washington Examiner. "Similarly, the church has been consistent in voicing its opposition to gay marriage, but this week's direct confrontation with D.C.'s city council over the issue is out of the ordinary."
The church's involvement in health reform has now become personal for Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), nephew of President John F. Kennedy, who is embroiled in a political battle with Thomas Tobin, the bishop of Providence, Rhode Island.
After Kennedy criticized the church's stance on health care reform, Tobin stated that Kennedy, a member of America's most prominent Catholic political family, should be refused communion.
As the Associated Press notes, Kennedy is one of numerous politicians and government officials who have become targets of the Catholic Church. Joseph Naumann, archbishop of Kansas City, has said that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius should be refused communion for supporting abortion rights. Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis, made a similar statement with respect to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is divorced.
But the Examiner's Carney argues that, from the church's point of view, the church may have no choice but to fight these battles as America shifts towards more liberal attitudes on issues like gay marriage.
The battles in which the church finds itself embroiled today are not simply about the underlying moral issues -- abortion and gay marriage -- but about more aggressive policies that might restrict the ability of the church and of individual Catholics to act according to Catholic teachings.
Because the health care bill in Congress would create new subsidies for private health insurance, it would have subsidized abortions if not for the Stupak amendment preventing subsidies for insurance plans that cover abortion. ... In other words, it would force opponents of legal abortion to act against their conscience simply by paying taxes.
Yet not all the church's battles can be described as wars of necessity. Last month, Timothy Dolan, the new archbishop of New York, wrote a scathing criticism of The New York Times for what he perceived as the newspaper's "anti-Catholicism." Among other things, Dolan argued that the Catholic Church makes it into the news consistently over child sex abuse scandals, while similar problems plaguing other religious communities are ignored.
Clark Hoyt, the Times' public editor, rejected that criticism.
"Could the newspaper sometimes choose a better word in a story or pay more attention to transgressions in other parts of society? Yes. Has it been guilty of anti-Catholicism? I don't buy it."