PEORIA, Ill. (CNS) — An Illinois bishop’s mention of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin in an April 14 homily calling Catholics to “heroic Catholicism, not casual Catholicism” in the face of current threats to religious liberty in the United States has stirred widespread controversy.

After listing several governments throughout history that “have tried to force Christians to huddle and hide only within the confines of their churches,” Peoria Bishop Daniel R. Jenky said President Barack Obama “now seems intent on following a similar path.”

He warned that Catholic schools, hospitals and Newman Centers “could easily be shut down” rather than comply with the government’s mandate that most health plans cover the cost of contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can induce abortion.

In the ensuing days, many have strongly objected to Bishop Jenky’s linking of Obama’s political actions to those of figures with genocidal policies such as Hitler and Stalin.

By April 23, more than 90 faculty members at the University of Notre Dame had signed a letter calling for Bishop Jenky to “renounce loudly and publicly this destructive analogy” or resign from the university’s board of fellows. Bishop Jenky served at Notre Dame for more than two decades before becoming a bishop.

Lonnie Nasatir, the regional director of Chicago’s Anti-Defamation League, also demanded an apology from Bishop Jenky, calling his remarks “outrageous, offensive and completely over the top.”

Statements the Diocese of Peoria has issued since the homily was delivered said Bishop Jenky’s comments were being “taken out of context.”

“Bishop Jenky expressed concern that our country is starting down a dangerous path that we have seen before in history,” Patricia Gibson, diocesan chancellor, said an April 19 statement. “Bishop Jenky gave several examples of times in history in which religious groups were persecuted because of what they believed. We certainly have not reached the same level of persecution. However, history teaches us to be cautious once we start down the path of limiting religious liberty.”

The bishop’s remarks prompted Americans United for Separation of Church and State to file a formal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service asking the agency to investigate the Peoria Diocese “for illegal electioneering,” claiming the comment “amounts to an order to vote against Obama.”

Bishop Jenky’s homily was addressed to more than 500 Catholic men who had marched through the city’s downtown in a steady rain April 14 as part of the annual event “A Call to Catholic Men of Faith.”

Focusing mainly on the power of Jesus’ resurrection to embolden today’s believers as it had the early disciples, Bishop Jenky used the occasion to call Catholics to more strongly defend their faith as well as religious liberty.

“As Christians, we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, but as Christians we must also stand up for what we believe and always be ready to fight for the faith,” he said. “The days in which we live now require heroic Catholicism, not casual Catholicism. We can no longer be Catholics by accident, but instead be Catholics by conviction.”

After joining the men on a silent, mile-long walk from the Peoria riverfront to St. Mary’s Cathedral, Bishop Jenky used some of the strongest language yet by a church official in protesting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate. Many of the church’s public ministries, he said, could be shut down by the fall of 2013 “because no Catholic institution, under any circumstance, can ever cooperate with the intrinsic evil of killing innocent human life in the womb.”

The Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate includes a religious exemption, but leaders of various Catholic and other faith-based organizations say it is too narrow and they will still be forced to provide coverage they oppose.

The administration has defended the mandate as “preventative care,” but religious groups that oppose it say it infringes on their religious liberty.

A new federal proposal issued March 21 suggested third-party administrators pay the costs of contraceptives for religious employers who object, but the U.S. bishops said even with that, the mandate remained flawed.

“Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services, and health care,” said Bishop Jenky. “In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama — with his radical pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda — now seems intent on following a similar path.”

To sustained applause, Bishop Jenky said no matter what happens in “this passing moment,” “Christ wins” and the church will survive current threats, including “the hatred of Hollywood, the malice of the media, and the mendacious wickedness of the abortion industry.”

“The church will survive the entrenched corruption and sheer incompetence of our Illinois state government,” he continued, “and even the calculated disdain of the president of the United States, his appointed bureaucrats in HHS, and of current majority in the federal Senate.”

Last year, legislation on civil unions and subsequent court rulings forced Catholic Charities agencies throughout Illinois out of adoption and foster care.

Bishop Jenky said “this is not a war where any believing Catholic may remain neutral.”

“No Catholic ministry — and yes, Mr. President, for Catholics our schools and hospitals are ministries — can remain faithful to the lordship of the risen Christ and to his glorious Gospel of Life if they are forced to pay for abortions,” said Bishop Jenky. He said every practicing Catholic “must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences” in the fall elections.

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Contributing to this story was Tom Dermody, editor-in-chief of The Catholic Post in Peoria.

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Editor’s Note: The full text of Bishop Jenky’s homily at “A Call to Catholic Men of Faith” can be found here.

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Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria, Ill., walks through downtown Peoria April 14 with more than 500 men during a “Call to Catholic Men of Faith” march. After the silent, mile-long walk to St. Mary’s Cathedral, Bishop Jenky used some of the strongest langu age yet by a church official in protesting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate. (CNS photo/Daryl Wilson, The Catholic Post)