Leaked e-mail shows media campaign against US bishops

By Kevin J. Jones

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John Gehring of Faith in Public Life.

A leaked e-mail shows that the Democratic-leaning organization Faith in Public Life is running a behind-the-scenes media effort to undercut the U.S. bishops and the “Fortnight for Freedom” events intended to rally opposition to the HHS mandate.

Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, released the e-mail detailing the campaign on June 18. He said a copy of the e-mail had been leaked to him.

Donohue said “fair minded persons” may disagree with the religious freedom effort “but there is something unseemly going on when those who work for a George Soros-funded group are quietly providing talking points to the media.”

The June 7 e-mail from John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Catholic Program Director, is addressed to reporters, editors and columnists. It describes itself as a “backgrounder” and contains talking points, adversarial questions for Catholic bishops and recommendations of experts to interview.

It appears aimed at shaping a narrative skeptical towards Catholic objections to a Department of Health and Human Services mandate that requires employers, including many Catholic institutions, to provide insurance coverage for sterilization and contraception, including some abortion-causing drugs.

“Are you willing to sacrifice Catholic charities, colleges and hospitals if you don’t get your way on the contraceptive mandate?” reads one proposed question for a bishop.

“Are you willing to drop all health insurance for your employees?” reads another.

The e-mail encouraged journalists to “ask critical questions” about the bishops’ “sweeping claims” in light of a “charged political backdrop” ahead of the 2012 election.  It noted that both the June 8 “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rallies and the June 21-July 4 “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign include Catholic dioceses.

EWTN News sought comment multiple times from Gehring and Faith in Public Life but did not receive a response.

On its website, Faith in Public Life describes itself as “a strategy center for the faith community advancing faith in the public square as a powerful force for justice, compassion and the common good.” It runs strategic communications and “narrative-setting” campaigns. The organization says it can identify “moments of opportunity when a targeted event or campaign can effectively broaden or shift the values debate.”

It works to insert its perspective into political debates and to highlight “progressive and moderate people of faith at key moments.”

Gehring’s June 7 e-mail focused only on contraception and “birth control.” It did not mention coverage of sterilization or contraceptive drugs that may cause abortion.

He wrote that several Catholic bishops have used “inflammatory and irresponsible rhetoric” that conflates “working through complex policy issues with a fundamental attack on the Catholic Church.”

The leaked e-mail also suggested that reporters should reject as “fiction” any claim that there is a “war on religion” and a “war on the Catholic Church.”

It classified as “fiction” U.S. bishops’ conference president Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s statement that the administration is “strangling” the Catholic Church. Gehring also suggested news media ask whether bishops should be concerned about the religious freedom campaign “becoming politicized in an election year.”

Over 40 Catholic institutions have filed lawsuits challenging the mandate, while Catholics and other faith leaders have organized religious freedom rallies around the country, including the upcoming “Fortnight for Freedom.”

Gehring encouraged reporters, columnists and journalists to ask who is funding the religious freedom effort.

“Reporters should consider asking about the Knights of Columbus, an organization with deep pockets,” the e-mail advised. Gehring tried to paint Supreme Knight of Columbus Carl Anderson as a political partisan, noting his work in the Reagan administration and his time as a legislative assistant to Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Faith in Public Life’s recommended sources for interviews, as listed in Gehring’s e-mail, are John Gehring, Duquesne University law professor Nicholas Cafardi, Fordham University theology department chair Terrence W. Tilley, Boston College theology professor Lisa Sowle Cahill, Note Dame Law School professor M. Cathleen Kaveny, Fairfield University religious studies professor Paul Lakeland, and Father Thomas Reese, S.J. of the Woodstock Theological Center.

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