Almost three decades ago, Pope John Paul II, alarmed at the way Liberation Theology was tearing apart the Catholic Church from the left, banned political activism by clergy. Perhaps this pope, Benedict XVI, ought to tell some lay Catholics, purportedly speaking in his name on the right, to cool it.
Good places to start would be Deal Hudson and Bill Donohue. Both are self-appointed spokesmen for orthodoxy. Hudson, a onetime operative for President George W. Bush, runs Catholic Advocate. Donohue, a favorite on Fox News, heads the Catholic League. Both are working to turn a protest movement sanctioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called Fortnight for Freedom into 14 days of rage against the re-election of President Obama.
Fortnight for Freedom is part of a campaign by the bishops to stir nationwide concern over what they see as multiple threats to religious freedom of conscience and practice, starting with the Obama administration's mandate that insurers of Catholic institutions provide coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing pills.
Inspired by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and directed by William Lori, the archbishop designate of Baltimore, the bishops call on Catholics to devote all the energy they can muster from June 21 to July 4 to public demonstrations to preserve religious liberty.
Their strong message cites the insurance mandate on church institutions and the administration's bid to define what constitutes a truly religious organization. But it also protests federal moves to force Catholic agencies out of immigration aid work, and state policies eliminating Catholic agencies from foster care and adoption because they won't refer kids to same-sex couples.
The bishops also mention acts of discrimination against religion, and freedom of association by New York City and several college campuses.
So there seems to be plenty for the bishops and traditionalists to be mad at. Yet nowhere in the bishops' call does it mention the 2012 election, or any election actually, or this president or any political party. This is prudent.
This hasn't stopped Hudson, in the name of the Catholic Church, from working in swing states to promote the Fortnight as "a game-changer" against Obama on Nov. 6. Donohue is less direct about Obama, but his frequent appearances to promote the Fortnight in conservative forums, like Fox and Newsmax, that are dedicated to Obama's defeat, says it all for him.
Another self-appointed spokesman for the church is Eternal Word Television Network, or EWTN. Its lay personalities, like Johnette Benkovic and Raymond Arroyo, are also using the Fortnight, whose stated aims are wholesome, to make political points against the president, and against consecrated religious with whom they disagree.
Right-wing efforts to herd Catholics into the Republican Party are not new. The late Chuck Colson, the Nixon dirty trickster who was born again, was part of it. Democrats, who are officially pro-choice, aren't making it easy for Catholics to be nonpartisan, either. This generation of conservatives has produced its own version of "Cafeteria Catholics." For example, some of them, including some priests, do not like Pope John Paul's stress on support for the poor, for labor or the bishops' support for universal health care.
Wise heads should discourage the Fortnight from becoming partisan. That would only play into its enemies' hands. The church is looking schism straight in the face. It already has plenty on its plate, such as cleaning up the abuse mess; replacing the hundreds of millions lost in the scandals; dealing constructively with open dissent among its women, lay and religious; and, most of all, teaching the fundamentals of Christianity to a generation that got very little instruction.