I participated in the New York Times’s Room For Debate feature today, in which the group of liberals and conservatives (I’m the only non-Catholic in the group) discussed the political fallout from the pope’s interview. See all the short essays here. In my piece, I said that whatever the spiritual and pastoral value of the pope’s stance, it will be harmful to the church’s priorities on the US political front — especially on religious liberty. Excerpt:

Though surely he didn’t intend to, Francis has just given license to those Americans who devoutly wish the bishops would be quiet about Catholic truths they find inconvenient.

There’s a lot more at stake here politically than the disedifying spectacle of arguing over whether politicians should be denied communion. One may disagree with the Church on contraception (as most American Catholics do) but still be alarmed on conscience grounds by the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. Similarly, the country is entering a lengthy and consequential period of litigation sorting out the boundaries of religious freedom in an era of expanding gay rights. These are theological and moral matters, but they are unavoidably political matters too.

Despite their many sins and failings, the U.S. Catholic bishops have been and will continue to be fighting to preserve the Church’s liberties on these fronts, against a hostile news media and an increasingly combative popular culture. Now, though, the pope has effectively sandbagged them. Get ready for the “But Even The Pope Says…” chorus to shout down anything a bishop or a Catholic politician says on these topics. Never mind that they will be distorting Francis’s message; in politics, perception is reality.

Why do Catholics go on about “religious liberty” when it comes to gay rights and contraception? they will say. Even the Pope says they should quit focusing on this stuff.