Frames of Catholic Conflict

Yesterday in Syracuse, NY, there was a homily given in protest, and a protest of the homily. The homily was given by Bishop Robert J. Cunningham to those gathered inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and the protest was performed outside the cathedral by Faithful Catholics Concerned, a local activist group organized in opposition to the Bishop’s message. News coverage of the event can be read here and here.

The topic of the Bishop’s homily reflected the USCCB’s ‘Fortnight for Freedom.’ In response to federal health care policies requiring Catholic institutions to provide health coverage for services the Church opposes, including contraception, the Bishops have dedicated the weeks of June 21st through July 4th to “emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty.” According to the USCCB, the Fortnight coincides with the liturgical celebration of several saints martyred for defending their faith “in the face of persecution by political power,” and will end with a closing mass to be given in Washington D.C. on U.S. Independence Day. A letter sent by Bishop Cunningham to parishes in the Syracuse diocese on May 23rd tells readers that the “’Fortnight for Freedom’ is in direct response to the federally imposed HHS mandate that will require most Catholic institutions to pay for employee health coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations and contraception,” and closes with the Bishop asking local parishioners to “join me and fellow Catholics as we pray for a new birth of freedom in our great land.”

Contested Frames

While contraception and abortion are mentioned in the local and national documents, one doesn’t need much training in social movement theory to discern the Catholic Church’s promotion of a ‘religious freedom’ frame. The passage from John Paul II featured on the Fortnight for Freedom web page clarifies it further:

The challenge facing you, dear friends, is to increase people’s awareness of the importance for society of religious freedom; to defend that freedom against those who would take religion out of the public domain and establish secularism as America’s official faith.

According to news coverage from the Syracuse Post Standard, today’s homily indeed merged concerns about health care with religious freedom:

The Mass lasted a little more than an hour and included a responsive prayer for religious freedom. There was a plea for doctors to be able to treat patients without violating their own beliefs and that institutions not be force to provide health-coverage that goes against their religious beliefs.

The hymns included “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful.”

The Post Standard coverage also makes clear that Faithful Catholics Concerned were rallying around a counter frame:

The protesters outside sang the same songs as they held signs that said “The bishops don’t speak for us,” and “Respectfully Disagree.”

The group…believes the church is wrong in its position on birth control: Catholics should follow their consciences about such an important decision. And they also believe the bishop has entered too far into the political fray.

The protesters don’t emphasize birth control or abortion, but rather are critical of what they see as an overtly political move by the bishops in an election year. They also prioritize individual conscience over Church teachings about birth control, a move that finds official support not only in Bishop Cunningham’s letter, but also in the USCCB document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. This frame really comes as no surprise as much research on Catholics over the last 20+ years has found the locus of moral authority to be moving away from the Church, and toward the individual. For example, in terms of birth control, a recent study from the Pew Center for the People & the Press found that just 15% of Catholics believe contraception is morally wrong (27% among weekly attenders). In fact, over a third of Catholics do not even consider birth control to be a moral issue.

Legitimating Moral Authority, or The Bishops’ Wager

In the context of lay Catholics increasingly trusting their own conscience in matters of morality, and attitudes about birth control in particular, it should come as no surprise that the USCCB does not want to make the ‘Fortnight for Freedom’ explicitly about contraception (and they likely want to do whatever they can to avoid issues of sexuality and gender). Most lay Catholics find birth control morally acceptable, or just don’t see it as a moral issue. A birth control frame will not rally widespread support even among those Catholics who attend mass weekly. The more likely outcomes would be division within the laity or apathy. The bishops, in short, do not have moral authority with American Catholics when it comes to contraception, not even with most of those who are highly Church connected.

Timing the ‘Fortnight’ with U.S. Independence Day and explicitly rooting their protest in the “American heritage” is an attempt to instead legitimize their opposition to health care policy by evoking the sacred doctrines of the ‘Founding Fathers.’ The bishops wagered that entering the public square in defense of ‘American freedom’ was a better move than to explicitly defend Catholic morality. A potential strength of this approach is that it may resonate more widely, meaning the bishops might be able to rally the support of non-Catholics as well.

At the same time, at least in Syracuse, it gave Faithful Catholics Concerned, and the priests that joined the protest, a rather obvious counter frame. When the protestors say that they prefer ‘pastors’ to ‘politicians’ they argue that the Church leaders are doing political work, and not religious work. The protesters see themselves as the defenders of Catholicism against the bishops who are politicizing the Church.

From the Post Standard:

Christiane Page, one of the protesters, said the group’s real worry is that the bishops are politicizing the church. A parishioner at All Saints Catholic Church and a mother of four, Page said she simply doesn’t think the provisions in the Obama health-care plan are an attack on religious freedom.


There are certainly many more complexities to this issue, and I’d expect they may come to the surface in the coming months leading to the November election. How will these arguments intersect with gender issues? Will this matter of sexual ethics get tied to the Church’s handling of the child sex abuse scandal? Will it accelerate movement out of the Church for those marginal Catholics who have been leaving already? A larger question can be asked about what this episode says about religion in modern times. The USCCB’s choice to so explicitly root their activism in secular, political values when the issue at stake is about protecting a Catholic teaching, at least to me, says a lot about its lack of authority in contemporary America.


  1. Interesting! I note you don’t mention Humanae Vitae and that may be because the USCCB is steering away from Catholic teaching in favor of religious freedom, but it is Huamane Vitae that is at the core of the birth control issue, whether the Bishops want to speak of the encyclical or not. And, it is my understanding that the issue of Catholic institutions in NY State providing birth control in their health insurance plans is already, and has been for some time, a fact. The conservatives within the Catholic Church, ordained and laity, contend Huamanae Vitae is an infallible teaching of the Church… and it is not. The concept of collegiality which resulted from Vatican II and which was quite alive and well for a number of years following has long since been pretty much extinguished – but I see flickers of hope in the activity of the FCC in Syracuse. I’m cheering them on!

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