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'Fortnight for Freedom' shows Catholic split; Many don't share focus as bishops defy Obama

With Catholic bishops largely united in opposing President Obama's broadening of insurance coverage for birth control, dioceses across the country, including the Diocese of Buffalo, embark today on "Fortnight for Freedom," a two-week campaign in defense of religious liberty.

But it's not clear that Catholic parishioners are embracing the bishops' intense focus on overturning a federal contraceptive coverage mandate set to take effect in 2013.

"I don't think most Catholics think that this is an infringement upon religious freedom," said Michael V. Toner, a Catholic who lives in Amherst. "This just seems a part and parcel of the hierarchy leaning toward the Republican Party as of late."

A recent national poll showed that most Americans -- 57 percent -- don't believe that religious liberty is being threatened in America.

Catholics overall were more supportive than the general public of the Obama administration requiring employers -- including religiously affiliated hospitals, colleges and human services agencies -- to provide employees health plans that cover contraception, according to polling conducted in March by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Results of the survey were released last week.

For decades, the church has taught that artificial birth control violates Catholic principles, even though U.S. Catholics in the pews overwhelmingly disregard the teaching.

The president proposed a compromise plan in February that would allow health insurance companies -- rather than religious employers -- to cover the costs of birth control.

But the bishops have continued to oppose the mandate.

"This is not about the Church wanting to force anybody to do anything; it is instead about the federal government forcing the Church -- consisting of its faithful and all but a few of its institutions -- to act against Church teachings," the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in a statement unanimously approved at the organization's June meeting in Atlanta. "This is not a fight we want or asked for, but one forced upon us by government on its own timing."

During his introduction May 29 as Buffalo's next bishop, Bishop Richard J. Malone of Portland, Maine, said the issue boiled down to the church's right "to be able to define what it is and what its ministries are."

"We want to serve anybody who comes to us in Catholic Charities, Catholic schools, whatever, but in those cases where we're not 100 percent Catholic in terms of those people being served and those of us who serve, then we are subject to this new mandate that requires us to accept what's unacceptable, and that is moral values that the Catholic Church cannot agree with," Malone said.

Malone, who will be installed as Buffalo bishop in August, also said that the "bishops are very united on this."

The "Fortnight for Freedom," which runs through July 4, is part of a coordinated campaign by the USCCB.

In the Diocese of Buffalo, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec will kick off the fortnight with a 3 p.m. "holy hour" today at the Carmelite Monastery, 75 Carmel Road. A variety of area Catholic parishes will be offering prayer services, Eucharistic adoration, and talks and presentations on religious freedom throughout the two-week period.

But some Catholics said they were growing weary of the relentless emphasis on religious liberty, which they consider a smoke screen for the bishops' political opposition to the Obama administration.

The actions of the bishops, combined with a recent Vatican crackdown on U.S women religious, convinced Kathy Mang to change the way she gives to her Catholic parish.

"I just was getting more and more angry about all these things coming up," she said.

Mang is canceling her automatic monthly parish gift, out of concern that some of the money gets sent to the diocesan chancery and to the conference of bishops, helping fund the campaign against the contraception mandate.

She plans to give to individual ministries in her parish, St. Joseph-University on Main Street. "I still believe in my local church," she said.

Upstate NY Call to Action, a Catholic group that advocates for greater involvement by laypeople in decision-making, recently sent a letter to Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York objecting to the bishops' efforts.

"This campaign seems motivated by political concerns designed to protect the institutional church rather than its members and to use its members as a political weapon against its opponents," the letter states.

Faithful Catholics Concerned, a newly formed group in Syracuse, planned to protest the fortnight events with a vigil at noon today outside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse, the same time the diocese was beginning its fortnight events.

The group also wrote a strongly worded letter to Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, the Buffalo native who heads the Diocese of Syracuse.

"By refusing to accept the accommodations of the [Obama] administration or to engage in any compromise regarding the implementation of the mandate," the latter states, "the bishops' strategy has taken on a politically partisan nature thereby dividing the Catholic community and further diminishing the credibility of the bishops as a moral voice in our American society."