NYT Puts Catholic Church on Defensive Again: 'Lightning Rod for Criticism'

New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein, in Atlanta to cover the annual meeting of Roman Catholic bishops, "Bishops Defend Fight Against Obama's Policy on Birth Control Coverage," portrayed the church as on the defensive over its fight for religious freedom, as did the story's text box ("Acknowledging criticism, even from some Catholics"). It was embellished with a photo not of the bishops but a small group of protesters in support of liberal nuns censored by the Vatican.

At least Goodstein didn't put the phrase "religious liberty" in scare quotes, as she did with "religious freedom" in a February article hostile to the church's opposition to Obama requiring religious institutions to provide birth control.

Ten years after a raging scandal forced the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops to adopt a package of policies for combating sexual abuse, the prelates on Wednesday heard a generally positive assessment of their progress at their annual meeting, and turned their attention to their newest overriding concern: their campaign to protect religious liberty.

The bishops acknowledged that the effort had become a lightning rod for criticism that they had exaggerated the threat to freedom and aligned the church with the Republican Party in an election year. And they sought to debunk the notion that their campaign was fixated on their opposition to artificial birth control, saying that the Obama administration forced the issue by mandating that even Catholic institutions like hospitals and universities must provide insurance coverage for birth control and sterilization for their employees.

“It is not about parties, candidates or elections, as some others have suggested,” said Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, the chairman of the bishops’ religious freedom committee, who noted that the bishops have faced hostility “even from some Catholic commentators.”

“In the face of this resistance, it may be tempting to get discouraged, to second-guess the effort, to soft-pedal our message,” Archbishop Lori said. “But instead, these things should prompt us to do exactly the opposite, for they show us how very great is the need for our teaching, both in our culture and even in our own church.”

To add weight to the religious freedom campaign, the bishops scheduled two afternoon speakers on religious persecution abroad: “Our credibility demands it,” said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the bishops’ conference. “As urgent as our fight is here, it pales with what our co-religionists throughout the world are going through.”


Bishops are meeting as the Catholic Church in the United States has been roiled by the Vatican’s censure of the nation’s largest organization of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and a theologian, Sister Margaret A. Farley, who wrote a book about human sexuality.

Members of a coalition called Nun Justice protested Wednesday outside the hotel where the bishops are meeting. They delivered petitions asking the bishops to end the crackdown on the nuns’ group. The petition had 57,818 signatures, about one for every American nun.