Many local Catholics, myself included, were startled by a recent issue of the Catholic News Herald. A bright red circle-with-a-slash symbol appeared over a photo of a crucifix, along with the headline, "Catholic Identity Under Siege." Inside the local publication, articles urged area Catholics to oppose gay marriage, and a column by Bishop Peter Jugis of the Charlotte Diocese warned of "an alarming and serious matter ... that strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty."
Jugis was referring to the new federal regulations that mandate free contraception coverage in all employers' health plans. President Obama, reacting to criticism from the nation's Catholic bishops, changed the regulation so that insurers, rather than the church, will foot the bill. Some Catholic groups were satisfied with the compromise, but the bishops say the rules, in Jugis' words, still represent a "severe assault on religious liberty."
The column seemed to be the culmination of Jugis' steady swing to the far right. The bishop showed his doctrinal conservatism in 2006 when he told priests who planned to wash parishioners' feet during Holy Thursday that they should only wash men's feet. Jugis stepped into anti-gay territory when he opposed the School Violence Protection Act, which requires schools to adopt strong policies against bullying and harassment, including bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Jugis now forcefully supports N.C.'s proposed anti-gay marriage amendment.
Some critics say if these Catholic bishops have their way on what they frame as an issue of religious liberty, it will be an infringement on the liberty of non-Catholic women who work for Catholic employers and want contraception coverage. Salon.com's Joan Walsh, who is Catholic, argues that the majority of adult U.S. Catholics use birth control despite the Vatican's dictates, and that the bishops don't represent regular Catholics' views. Their actions, Walsh says, are a veiled political fight rather than a defense of religion.
David Hains, the Charlotte Diocese's communications director, says those arguments don't hold water: "Women who work for Catholic institutions have never had access to contraception through their health insurance, so the argument that their liberties are being denied is a bit of a leap of faith." Hains is correct that North Carolina's insurance mandates exempt religious institutions from contraception coverage. Several other states, however, do not offer exemptions, and Catholic employers in those states have been providing contraception coverage.
As for Walsh's argument that most Catholics use contraception, Hains says Jugis and the other bishops are making a religious statement. "The Catholic Church teaches that it's not part of God's plan for humans to use contraception," Hains says. "It's not a popularity contest; God doesn't allow us to take a vote when he reveals his truth to us."
More truth was revealed to local Catholics recently when a gay music minister at St. Gabriel's was fired, a move widely believed to be at Jugis' urging. Catholic liberals are not happy campers, particularly considering Jugis' support of the proposed anti-same sex marriage amendment. His position is a turnaround from what Charlotte Catholics were previously accustomed to.
Marco Cipolletti heads the Diocesan Ministry for Gay and Lesbian Catholics at St. Peter's. The ministry was set up in 1996 by the parish's late vicar, the Rev. Gene McCreesh, with the help of former Bishop William Curlin. Things have changed since then. After an August 2011 celebratory mass at St. Peter's for LGBT Catholics, one priest, who was not from St. Peter's, openly worried whether Jugis had sent "spies." Cipolletti says he and other DMGLC members met with Jugis soon after the bishop was installed. "Bishop Jugis permits us to continue, which is something, but he's not actively supportive," says Cipolletti.
The current Catholic battles date back to the huge changes of the 1960s and '70s after Vatican II. Jugis is a product of conservative Catholicism's reaction against Vatican II's liberalization. That reaction was bolstered by Pope John Paul II, who crammed the ranks of bishops and cardinals with conservatives who today are trying to roll back time to the '50s.
The passage of time, however, is working against Vatican conservatism. In the modern world, particularly in the U.S., with its deep traditions of individualism, old-school blind obedience doesn't sit well with many Catholics. Sure, the "obedient sheep" model of Catholicism is still alive here, but to an increasing number of Catholics, demands for uniformity by the Vatican, and by its hand-picked conservative messengers like Jugis, seem medieval. I would add "irrelevant," but that's why I'm a "lapsed" Catholic.Image Credit: About.com