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We like men in dresses as much as the next person. Nevertheless, we are amazed at the fulsome embrace Republicans have extended to the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

The love fest occurs in the midst of the heated debate about whether some Catholic institutions, such as universities and hospitals, should be required to offer its workers the option of obtaining birth control as part of employee health insurance.

Most cardinals and bishops are, of course, notoriously reactionary on matters of sex and sexuality. Anti-gay and anti-choice, the official Catholic leadership, at first blush, would seem to be natural allies of right-wing politicians.

Despite what you see on Fox News and hear on know-nothing radio, however, Catholic social teaching — when considered in its entirety — is a bit more complicated than just saying no to condoms or the morning-after pill.

In fact, by today's standards, the church (with the exception of certain bizarre cults such as Opus Dei) is decidedly left-wing.

Consider the following positions, all of which represent the official Catholic party line:

• Universal health care should be the right of every American. Yes, the church opposes choice and birth control, but unlike the GOP, it considers health care a God-given right.

• The death penalty is a moral abomination. Tell that to Republicans in Texas, who seem to have a bloodlust for executions.

• Needy families deserve welfare as a basic condition of human dignity. Is that an idea that Rick Santorum — himself a Catholic — can endorse?

• America's national minimum wage should be increased. There's an idea that should send a shiver up Mitt Romney's spine — if he has one.

• Undocumented aliens should not be treated as criminals, and the contribution of illegal immigrants should be recognized by all. Would Rush Limbaugh consider this a valid political idea?

• Workers have "basic rights" that include fair and decent wages, safe working conditions, and the right to unionize. Republicans have fought this principle since the New Deal of the 1930s.

• In the realm of foreign policy, preventative war is wrong and the invasion of Iraq was a travesty. So much for the Neocons.

In this light, Republican support for the Catholic Church's anti-birth-control holy war is nothing more than gross hypocrisy.

When the birth-control controversy began a few weeks ago, there were some legitimate worries about federal policy infringing on freedom of religion.

Some of the most eloquent commentators voicing those concerns were Catholics on the left: Chris Matthews of MSNBC, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, and the progressive National Catholic Reporter and Commonweal.

President Barack Obama's handling of this issue may not have been the smoothest, but it's a fair bet that whatever his administration first proposed would undoubtedly have been met by the usual Republican catcalls of abuse and opposition.

Now Obama has compromised, and the policy is probably as good as it is going to get.

Slowly, the debate is shifting to one within church circles.

Conservatives are holding to a hard line against any form of birth control, crying that the constitutional provision of freedom of religion has been abrogated.

Conservative clergy, all men, would do well to remember that American bishops support the separation of church and state. No woman or man, after all, is compelled to practice birth control or family planning.

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