llinois Bishop Daniel R. Jenky has declared war.
In an April 14 sermon at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Jenky said the Catholic Church is under attack by the U.S. government, and he wants to recruit a “fearless army of Catholic men ready to give everything we have for the Lord.”
Thundered the prelate, “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.”
But Jenky has a solution.
“This fall,” he said, “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.”
There’s just one problem with Jenky’s plan, critics say: It violates federal tax law. The IRS Code bars all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, including churches, from intervening in elections on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.
Five days after Jenky’s partisan diatribe, Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, calling for an investigation of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria.
In a letter to the IRS, Lynn wrote, “Bishop Jenky compared Obama to Hitler and Stalin and accused him of pursuing policies that will close Catholic institutions. Moments later, he exhorted members of his flock not to vote for candidates who fail to uphold Catholic values. It is impossible to interpret this as anything but a command to vote against Obama.”
Jenky’s appeal for a church-based voting bloc was legally dubious, but many also found fault with the shrillness of the homily.
Lonnie Nasatir, the Upper Midwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Jenky’s remarks were “outrageous, offensive and completely over the top” and called on the bishop to apologize.
“Clearly, Bishop Jenky needs a history lesson,” Nasatir told the Chicago Tribune. “There are few, if any, parallels in history to the religious intolerance and anti-Semitism fostered in society by Stalin, and especially Hitler, who under his regime perpetuated the open persecution and ultimate genocide of Jews, Catholics and many other minorities.”
Meanwhile, over 130 faculty members at Notre Dame University also demanded that Jenky renounce his sermon “loudly and publicly” or resign from the Catholic school’s board of fellows.
Said the joint letter, “Bishop Jenky’s comments demonstrate ignorance of history, insensitivity to victims of genocide and absence of judgment.”
Other Catholics agreed. Writing in the Jesuit magazine America, the Rev. John Coleman called Jenky’s homily “remarkably intemperate.”
Wrote Coleman, “Reverend Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (not an organization I usually admire) rather rightly suggested that the IRS look into the tax exemptions of the Diocese of Peoria because any right-minded listener could hardly miss that Bishop Jenky effectively urged a vote against President Obama, against the IRS limitations for tax-exempt churches.”
Jenky, however, refused to recant, issuing a diocesan statement claiming that many of his comments “were taken out of context.”
Ultraconservative Catholics and Religious Right leaders sprang to the bishop’s defense.
Thomas Breen of the Thomas More Society told the American Family Association’s OneNewsNow that he was “heartened” by the bishop’s remarks.
“It does seem interesting,” he said, “that you can identify political leaders, sports figures and others who say incredibly controversial things throughout our society, and they can say those things, and then nothing happens. But heaven forbid a bishop or other religious leader get up and speak his mind and do so in a very intellectual way… folks say, ‘Well, no – you don’t have a right to do that.’”
Breen said his legal outfit would be glad to represent the Peoria diocese if the IRS launches an investigation.
The Family Research Council also rallied to Jenky’s side. In an article titled, “Lynn-sanity Hits Peoria!,” FRC President Tony Perkins criticized AU’s Lynn for the IRS complaint and said it’s a myth that churches can’t intervene in partisan politics.
“Believers, including clergy,” Perkins said, “are not only entitled to their political opinions – they are entitled to voice them from the pulpit!... As the White House becomes more aggressive in its war on religious freedom, [Jenky] understands that the church has to get just as aggressive in educating its members.”
Erik Stanley of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) accused AU of “tattling” to the IRS and applauded the bishop.
“Bishop Jenky understands the stakes of this battle,” said Stanley, “and is courageously speaking up to protect religious freedom.”
The FRC, the ADF, Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition and other Religious Right groups are aggressively trying to forge conservative evangelical churches into a disciplined voting bloc in advance of the November elections. And they are glad to have help from the Catholic bishops in steering church-going voters to the polls to defeat Obama and elect Republican candidates.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued no statement on the Jenky controversy, but it seems clear that the Illinois bishop’s foray into partisan electioneering is an approved component of official church strategy.
Catholic prelates have dramatically escalated their feud with Obama in recent months, and shrill rhetoric and grassroots organizing against the president and his policies are core parts of the package.
For example, at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast April 19 in Washington, D.C., Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt said religious liberty is “sadly under attack here” in the United States and there is a “battle for the soul of America.”
Although he didn’t mention Obama by name, Chullikatt, who serves as Vatican ambassador to the UN, deplored violent persecution of Christianity in some countries, then segued into criticism of secularization and other supposed threats to freedom in the United States and other Western nations.
Quoting a fellow archbishop, he said, “While ‘nobody would confuse this marginalization of religion with the actual persecution and killing of Christians in various parts of the world, it is from this marginalization and denial of religious freedom that violent religious discrimination and persecution is born.’” (Critics say the Catholic breakfast is a political front operation designed to energize conservative Catholic voters on behalf of Republican candidates; former GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum was among the attendees warmly greeted at the event.)
USCCB leaders have been using similarly shrill language to try to organize their parishes into political units.
In an April 12 statement, the bishops announced a national “Fortnight for Freedom” project that asks parishioners to study, pray and take action about alleged infringements on religious liberty. For two weeks leading up to July 4, Catholic parishioners will be urged to mobilize in a “great national campaign” to enact the bishops’ agenda.
First on the list of topics is opposition to the Obama administration’s effort to ensure that all Americans have access to birth control through their health insurance plans.
But another prominent topic is government defunding of church-affiliated agencies that refuse to comply with public policy mandates. The bishops’ statement complains that Catholic agencies have been denied taxpayer funding because they refused to provide adoption services to gay couples or reproductive health care to women who are victims of sex trafficking.
Critics, including Americans United, said the real issue is not religious liberty but continued public subsidies of church enterprises, even if they refuse to comply with public policy.
AU’s Lynn noted that the Obama administration has already agreed to a compromise that exempts religiously affiliated institutions from paying for birth control coverage if they object to doing so. Under the new proposed policy, employees at those institutions would still get the services without a copay, but the assistance would come from insurance companies directly.
That compromise, however, is apparently insufficient for the hierarchy.
According to an internal USCCB document reported by the Religion News Service, the bishops say the administration’s new proposal on birth control coverage is “radically flawed” and “unconstitutional.”
“While USCCB representatives will continue to meet with representatives of the Administration to discuss these new proposals,” the memo concludes, “it must also be very clear that the church, together with other religious groups and faith-based entities, will simultaneously continue to seek relief from the legislature and redress in the courts.”
The bishops also contend that denial of public funding for church-affiliated social service agencies would constitute “discrimination.” They demand that Catholic organizations be allowed to participate in government contracts “in a manner consistent with their beliefs on contraception and abortion.” They also boldly asserted that civil disobedience might be necessary.
AU’s Lynn said the bishops’ stance is clear.
“The bishops want to maintain their privileged status,” he asserted in a press statement, “even if it means that other Americans’ freedoms are infringed. It is imperative that President Obama and Congress refuse to cave in to this outrageous assault on church-state separation.”
Unfortunately for Bishop Jenky and other members of the hierarchy, many Catholics support birth control, gay rights and church-state separation and are unlikely to enlist in any election-year army called for by the church leadership.
After the Peoria bishop unleashed his recent screed, parishioner Barb Heinz told the Peoria Journal-Star she was “very upset.”
“I’m outraged that the bishop wants to tell Catholics how to vote, period,” she said. “That’s our decision, not his.”
As the November elections near, this religious-political battle is expected to heat up.