John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Senior Writer and Catholic Outreach Coordinator, joined FPL after three years at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He blogs about Catholics in public life.
Archbishop John Myers of Newark just told Catholics in his diocese who support same-sex marriage that they should “refrain from receiving Holy Communion” and calls “a proper backing of marriage” a fundamental issue for Catholic voters heading into the election. Catholics in Minnesota will receive a letter this week from the state’s bishops encouraging them to donate money for television ads asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The new archbishop of San Francisco has said gays and lesbians who are in a sexual relationship of any kind should not receive Communion. In Omaha, the archbishop is encouraging priests to preach against the city’s recently passed sexual orientation anti-discrimination ordinance. Meanwhile, the Seattle archbishop, who is overseeing the Vatican crackdown on Catholic nuns while he lobbies for an anti-gay marriage ballot initiative, cheerily warns that “human society would be harmed beyond repair” by same-sex marriage. Well, at least he is keeping things in perspective. Apocalyptic musings would be so unhelpful.
At a time when one in five children live in poverty and Catholic Republicans like Paul Ryan want to eviscerate effective government programs that help the most vulnerable this is the hill Catholic bishops want to die on? The Newark case, where the archbishop is telling Catholics who even support LGBT equality not to receive Communion, is particularly scary. I missed that section of Catholic social teaching where bishops are deputized as “thought police” free to patrol our conscience and public squares for what Catholics might believe about and do for our sons, friends and neighbors who are gay. A minority of zealous bishops, encouraged by Catholic right activists who deem themselves holier than the pope, are in danger of dragging a religious tradition known for its proud social justice witness and intellectual rigor into the reactionary arms of the Religious Right. Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which encouraged the church to engage the modern world with dialogue and a hopeful posture, the flame of pastoral Catholicism is in danger of being snuffed out by a grim fundamentalism that is characterized by fear of what Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington recently described as “the new and virulent secularism.”
Catholic bishops have been unpersuasive in convincing even most Catholics that church teaching on homosexuality makes sense. Nearly three-quarters of Catholics support same-sex marriage or civil unions, and enough Catholics have gay friends and family members to roll their eyes at the church’s insistence that any homosexual relations are “intrinsically disordered,” as the Catholic Catechism teaches. A research study released in March that asked lapsed Catholics in the diocese of Trenton, NJ why they left found that the church’s unwelcoming attitude toward gays and lesbians played a role. Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell found compelling evidence in their meticulously researched book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, that a growing percentage of Americans – particularly twentysomethings – now identify their religious affiliation as “none” in part because of Christian leaders’ aggressive political lobbying against same-sex marriage. Here’s Putnam and Campbell writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2010.
Very few of these new “nones” actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics…Just as this generation moved to the left on most social issues — above all, homosexuality — many prominent religious leaders moved to the right, using the issue of same-sex marriage to mobilize electoral support for conservative Republicans. In the short run, this tactic worked to increase GOP turnout, but the subsequent backlash undermined sympathy for religion among many young moderates and progressives.
The church’s preoccupation with homosexuality and gay marriage also seems to be misplaced energy given that Catholic marriages are plummeting. Mark Gray, a prominent researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, presented the facts in an article for Our Sunday Visitor last summer. Gray writes: “The number of marriages celebrated in the Church has fallen from 415,487 in 1972 to 168,400 in 2010 — a decrease of nearly 60 percent — while the U.S. Catholic population has increased by almost 17 million.”
Bishops have enough housecleaning of their own to do when it comes to strengthening Catholic marriages and rebuilding trust in the face of clergy abuse scandals. They should drop the culture war politics.
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Ever notice that just before a Catholic bishop dives head first into roiling political waters he insists that he floats above the partisan fray? One of the latest wink-and-nod assurance comes from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who in recent years has made an election-year habit out of denouncing Democrats. In a wide-ranging interview with John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, the former Denver archbishop who essentially told Catholics during the 2004 election that voting for John Kerry was a sin, now has this to say less than two months before the polls open:
We’re speaking on the night Barack Obama is delivering his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Let me ask flat-out: Do you believe a Catholic in good faith can vote for Obama? I can only speak in terms of my own personal views. I certainly can’t vote for somebody who’s either pro-choice or pro-abortion. I’m not a Republican and I’m not a Democrat. I’m registered as an independent, because I don’t think the church should be identified with one party or another. As an individual and voter I have deep personal concerns about any party that supports changing the definition of marriage, supports abortion in all circumstances, wants to restrict the traditional understanding of religious freedom. Those kinds of issues cause me a great deal of uneasiness.
Let’s first acknowledge that when archbishops speak, especially with news outlets, they are never just offering their “personal” views. Archbishop Chaput is not any Joe Voter hit up by a reporter for a man-on-the street interview. His words and identity are inextricably linked to the institutional church he represents. Chaput goes on to give some handy political cover for Paul Ryan, a Catholic vice presidential candidate who is the architect of a GOP budget that draws 62 percent of its savings from slashing food stamps, nutrition programs for women and infants, and safety nets that protect the elderly. Ryan continues to justify his libertarian, trickle-down economic philosophy in specifically Catholic terms. This is a bit like McDonald’s trying to sell Big Macs as a weight loss option. It doesn’t pass the laugh test. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described Ryan’s radical budget proposal (tax breaks for the rich, increases in Pentagon spending and cuts to safety nets ) as failing to pass a “basic moral test.” Theologians and Catholic scholars have challenged Ryan to stop distorting Catholic social teaching. This doesn’t bother Chaput and a few other bishops who insist that the church can only speak with authority when it comes to the “non-negotiable” issues like abortion.
Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. Period. There’s just no doubt about it. That has to be a foundational concern of Catholics and of all Christians. But Jesus didn’t say the government has to take care of them, or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them. Those are prudential judgments. Anybody who would condemn someone because of their position on taxes is making a leap that I can’t make as a Catholic…You can’t say that somebody’s not Christian because they want to limit taxation. Again, I’m speaking only for myself, but I think that’s a legitimate position. It may not be the correct one, but it’s certainly a legitimate Catholic position; and to say that it’s somehow intrinsically evil like abortion doesn’t make any sense at all.
Mitt Romney’s campaign must love to see this convenient argument. If Republicans say the right things about opposing abortion church leaders will give you a free pass. Never mind the pesky details of economic policies that undermine human dignity and the sanctity of life by making it harder for struggling families to access health care and food. We’re a long way from the days when Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin championed a “consistent ethic of life” that framed respect for life not as a single-issue, but as a “seamless garment” that recognized myriad threats to human dignity. George Weigel and other prominent conservative Catholics are cheerleading the death of that era.
A new generation of Catholic bishops like Chaput have all kinds of detailed things to say about sexuality, marriage and abortion. When it comes to the real life implications of budgets and other economic policies not a few church leaders bow out with references to “prudential judgement.” Catholic bishops who were deep in the legislative weeds when it came to opposing the final health care reform law because of their technical legislative interpretations suddenly withdraw from economic debates with profound moral consequences or at trumpet Republican talking points about that evil Leviathan of government.
Chaput’s breezy reference to Jesus not telling us “government” has to take care of the poor or “that we have to pay taxes to take care of them” ignores several facts. Jesus didn’t tell us specifically how to handle many policy challenges a modern society faces. As Daniel Finn, a professor of theology and economics pointed out in his 2008 Commonweal essay, “Libertarian Heresy: The Fundamentalism of Free Market Theology,” Jesus didn’t talk about a lot of things – including free markets or democracy. “Catholic biblical scholarship and magisterial teaching have rejected the fundamentalism of “If the Bible doesn’t say it, it shouldn’t be done,” Finn wrote. Even more relevant to the particulars of Chaput’s “let them have charity” approach is the fact that churches, faith-based agencies and other charities are already strained to the breaking point. When the free market has little interest in anything but being profitable and social service agencies are barely able to meet existing demand, I’m curious to know who Archbishop Chaput thinks is going to pick up the slack? David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, said it well a few months ago:
Some representatives even argued that feeding hungry people is really the work of churches, not government. But churches can’t be solely responsible for feeding poor women, children, seniors and disabled people. We also need strong government programs. In fact, all of the food churches and charities provide to hungry and poor people in the United States amounts to only about 6 percent of what the federal government spends on programs such as SNAP and school meals for students. The Hartford Institute for Religion and Research estimates there are 335,000 religious congregations in the United States. If the House’s proposals to cut SNAP by $133.5 billion and $36 billion are enacted, each congregation will have to spend about $50,000 more annually to feed those who would see a reduction or loss of benefits. Some congressional leaders are essentially saying that every church in America — big or tiny — needs to come up with an extra $50,000 to feed people every year for the next 10 years to make up for these cuts.
It’s also worth noting that as much as Chaput and some other bishops have a visceral dislike for government, the Catholic Church’s vital social service infrastructure would be a shadow of itself without government funding. A lengthy analysis of the Catholic Church’s finances in The Economist magazine estimated that 62 percent of Catholic charities’ $4.7 billion annual revenues comes from local, state, or federal government agencies. While Catholic bishops battle with President Obama over contraception funding, his administration has not exactly been miserly when it comes to the church. More than $1.5 billion in government funding went to Catholic organizations over the last few years. This includes an increase in USDA food assistance to Catholic Relief Services from $12.4 million in 2008 to 57.8 million in 2011. Catholic Charities USA saw an increase from just over $440 million in government aid in 2008 to more than $554 million in 2010. Let’s have a robust debate about the proper role of government, not a cartoonish battle that pits “big government” v. “free markets.”
When it comes to Catholic voters and a candidate’s position on abortion things are also more complicated than Chaput’s approach suggests. Read Cathleen Kaveny’s excellent piece, “The Single Issue Trap,” in Commonweal. I agree that the Democratic Party should be more open to “pro-life” voices (as many Catholic Democrats argued persuasively at the Democratic National Convention). Some Democrats like Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Rep. Tim Ryan have shown real leadership in pushing abortion reduction legislation that focuses on preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting pregnant women. More of these efforts are needed. Democrats running for office (or those working to hold on to seats) are frequently fearful of having fundraising spigots turned off by pro-choice lobbying organizations if they stray too far from the party’s ideological orthodoxy.
At the same time, Republican pro-life rhetoric is rarely matched by public policy decisions that help women and families. Many Republicans limit their pro-life advocacy to railing against Roe v. Wade while ignoring the fact that even if it was overturned many states would not criminalize abortion. This means that building a “culture of life,” as Pope John Paul II argued, must go deeper than a legalistic approach and include robust social and economic supports for pregnant women and vulnerable families. When it comes to policies like universal health care that can actually help reduce the abortion rate, most Republicans these days punt and fall back on free-market bromides and a libertarian philosophy of radical individualism. Consider that abortion rates in Massachusetts have gone down since the state implemented health care reform in 2006, an awkward fact for Republicans since Obamacare is based largely on the Massachusetts model that one former governor now vying for president can’t run away from fast enough.
Archbishop Chaput and other bishops have an obligation to raise moral questions in a political context, but they erode the church’s credibility in the public square when they reduce Catholic teaching to a single issue and give political cover to a Republican Party that is out of sync with Catholic teaching on many issues.
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Catholic leaders have been busy cracking down on nuns and theologians while also keeping a vigilant eye on those wily Girl Scouts. The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va., is pulling a card from the McCarthy-era playbook by requiring Sunday school teachers to sign loyalty oaths. David Gibson, a prominent Catholic writer, notes in a recent NPR segment that the Vatican is doing all it can to “bring a schismatic right-wing group that rejects the reforms of Vatican II back into the fold while at the same time, it’s censuring nuns and theologians who are actually following the spirit of Vatican II.”
So when will influential Catholic organizations and public figures feel the heat for ignoring church teaching when it comes to issues like poverty, economic justice and workers’ rights? Why the free pass for Catholic conservatives like Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, who is making the rounds on Fox News defending the aggrieved richest 1 percent of Americans and preaching a gospel of free-market fundamentalism that is at odds with centuries of Catholic social teaching? Fr. Sirco’s public love letters to libertarianism, most recently in his new book – Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy – surely put him in the good graces of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or even the Romney campaign. But one would hope his bishop might at least raise an eyebrow.
A familiar presence on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, Rev. Sirico recently told the New York Times that the church’s historic defense of unions might not apply to labor fights at Catholic universities today. In a lengthy interview with the National Review he praised Ayn Rand and smugly disparaged those non-habit wearing Catholic nuns for having the audacity to challenge a House GOP budget that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described as failing a basic moral test. While the Ryan budget has no chance of passing its been endorsed by Mitt Romney and serves as an ideological blueprint for a conservative economic agenda that insists we must make a false choice between protecting the most vulnerable and being fiscally responsible. Fr. Sirico’s free-market theology and anti-government zeal often sounds more like Tea Party rhetoric than Pope Benedict XVI, who warns about the “scandal of glaring inequalities” between rich and poor, or the late Pope John Paul II who cautioned against an “idolatry of the market.” Vincent Miller, the chair of Catholic theology and culture at the University of Dayton, recently wrote in America magazine that Rev. Sirico’s “well financed defense of libertarian economics often rise to the level of self-parody.” Daniel Finn, a professor of theology and economics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, offered a detailed theological critique of Rev. Sirico in Commonweal magazine back in 2008.
Some conservatives have questioned the funding of progressive faith groups working to balance out a values debate that in recent decades has been dominated by the Religious Right. Much of this criticism is overheated conspiracy mongering from those who live in some imaginary world where religious liberals are more organized and well-funded than a politically powerful Christian conservative movement that has helped elect presidents and until recently ran circles around religious progressives in the media. But if we’re going to play the funding game let’s take a look at who has made it possible for a Catholic priest to build a national media profile churning out paeans to the free market and putting a moral gloss on corporate talking points. Not surprisingly, big business and wealthy Republicans are bullish on Rev. Sirico. The Acton Institute is backed by the DeVos family, prominent donors to the Republican Party and various conservative organizations that lobby lawmakers to slash government programs that help the most vulnerable, lower taxes on the rich and deregulate Wall Street. “Other than possibly the Koch brothers, few billionaires have a more established place in conservative America than the DeVos clan,” according to Forbes magazine. The billionaire Koch brothers, the most influential conservative donors in the country (they just hosted a lavish fundraiser for Mitt Romney in the Hamptons and plan to spend $200 million in this election) have also contributed to Rev. Sirico’s Acton Institute in the past, according to the corporate accountability and transparency group Source Watch.
Wealthy conservatives have every right to lobby for a return of trickle-down economics, but popes and bishops for centuries have rejected the blind faith in unfettered markets and radical individualism promoted by groups like the Acton Institute. Last fall, the Vatican released a timely document that calls for more robust global financial reform and offered a sharp moral critique of the kind of laissez-faire economics Rev. Sirico preaches.
The Catholic Church has plenty of room for liberals, moderates and conservatives. We need a spirited debate over how to properly apply Catholic social teaching to public policy challenges in a pluralistic society. But I worry about the message that is sent when nuns, theologians and progressive Catholics are demonized by church officials even as prominent conservative Catholics appear on national television to peddle ideologies that are at odds with bedrock Catholic values.
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It’s a strange experience to watch the Catholic Church I love and have served in different capacities over the years publicly hang me out to dry. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, my employer for a brief period, has essentially done that in a recent advisory that accuses me of “telling Catholic bishops how to guide the church” and maligns Faith in Public Life as a sinister outfit doing the bidding of a “billionaire atheist.” So I must have done something really threatening to provoke such a bristling reaction from the nation’s most powerful church? Not exactly.
To get those of you who have been busy with more important matters up to speed, here’s a summary. As part of my regular interactions with the media on various Catholic issues, I recently sent out a background memo to reporters addressing the U.S. bishops’ high-profile “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign. This national effort, which culminates with a special mass in Washington on the Fourth of July, reaches across many dioceses and aims to mobilize Catholics against what the bishops describe as ominous threats to religious freedom, in particular the Obama administration’s requirement that women have contraception covered by employers without co-pays under the Affordable Care Act. The church’s religious liberty initiative has garnered national headlines and plenty of coverage that lacks nuance or critical analysis that challenges simple storylines.
Among other things, the background memo I sent to the media included important context, examples of some bishops who have used inflammatory rhetoric and a list of commentators — Catholic scholars, theologians and other experts — available for interviews. These commentators were identified because they are well-positioned to offer reporters informed analysis, and are also moderate-to-progressive Catholics who have genuine concerns that the bishops’ religious liberty campaign is in danger of being distorted by a zealous tone and anti-Obama fervor. Did the memo have a point of view? Yes, in the same way prominent Catholic conservatives and bishops quoted in the media have a point of view and frame public debates. Good journalists seek out a diversity of perspectives from the Catholic community and don’t rely on church officials for a one-sided view.
While a few on the right hyperventilate about some perceived conspiracy of deep-pocketed religious liberals, that’s laughable. Faith in Public Life is a small organization with a handful of committed people of faith working to balance out a values debate that in recent decades has long been dominated by the Religious Right. Our budget and ability to mobilize campaigns and command media attention, for example, pales in comparison to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council.
The voices of progressive religious leaders and commentators in the media are not exactly drowning out those poor, under-funded conservatives. In fact, the marriage of convenience between the Religious Right and the GOP has been a powerful alliance that has helped elect presidents, influences media coverage and until relatively recently ran circles around religious progressives. While coverage of liberal faith perspectives has improved, many reporters still caricature Catholics and evangelicals and identify “values voters” as Republicans who view abortion and same-sex marriage as the only moral issues.
This tempest in a teapot over a simple backgrounder for reporters started after Bill Donohue of the Catholic League – a frequent TV commentator known for a bullying style and sweeping condemnation of all things progressive – quickly pounced with his usual manufactured outrage. He depicted me and Faith and Public Life as trying to “subvert the bishops’ message.” Mr. Donohue, who sees anti-Catholic bigotry lurking around every corner, was incensed that I offered a point of view to reporters. An interesting bone to pick considering this is a man who blasts out press releases on the hour and is no stranger to sharp-edged punditry on cable news. My inbox has been flooded with hate mail from the Donohue fan club assuring me I’m going to hell, kindly offering to meet me “on the battlefield” and attacking me as an “enemy” of the church.
I ignored these ugly attacks and the gotcha tone of right-wing bloggers who requested comment because to even dignify this supposed “expose” from the Catholic League seemed ridiculous. It’s not exactly breaking news that advocacy organizations (liberal, moderate and conservative) provide a perspective and resources to journalists.
So I was surprised when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ media relations director, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, picked up where Mr. Donohue left off. (Full disclosure: Sr. Walsh was my colleague when I worked in the USCCB media office). As she is employed to do, Sr. Walsh counters my analysis with the bishops’ positions. She offers some relevant counterpoints that should be part of a reasonable, civil debate between people of goodwill. But her critique also makes some strange points and has a snarky tone unbecoming of an institution that represents pastors. She oddly takes pains to explain why one bishop I cited, Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois – roundly criticized for suggesting that the Obama administration shares some ideological similarities with Hitler and Stalin – has just been misunderstood. A free media tip for bishops: keep murderous dictators out of your analogies if you want to avoid being confused with extremists. And if bishops can’t resist the temptation, it’s probably best for the church’s communications officials not to try and justify those outlandish statements.
The USCCB release also describes the bishops’ religious liberty campaign as a simple “educational” effort. But is that the impression sent when the Catholic bishops of Kansas held a religious liberty rally at the state capitol that featured Republican Governor Sam Brownback? I’m guessing the Romney campaign was pretty happy with this type of education. Bishops have every right and indeed an obligation to make their case, but when the nation’s most powerful religious institution revs up its well-oiled lobbying and PR machine over contested issues with President Obama a few months before an election, it’s moved well beyond simple education. Even some moderate bishops have raised warnings about the religious liberty campaign getting dragged through the political mud. America magazine, a respected publication edited by Catholic priests, did the same in an eloquent editorial.
If bishops don’t want to be viewed as cheerleaders for a conservative political agenda – and most church leaders don’t – it would help if they toned down the alarmist rhetoric and turned up their moral megaphones on a broader range of justice issues at the heart of our Catholic social tradition. This includes defending workers’ rights now under assault in many states and challenging tax policies that coddle the wealthiest few. In 1986, Catholic bishops released Economic Justice for All, a powerful pastoral letter that in many ways challenged the “trickle down” economic theories that perpetuated income inequality during the Reagan era. But when Catholic bishops met for a national meeting last fall economic issues and poverty were not on the agenda. Bishops failed to even acknowledge the 25th anniversary of that document. Meeting last month in Atlanta, bishops finally got around to agreeing to draft a message tentatively titled “Work, Poverty, and a Broken Economy.” Bishop Stephen Blaire said that such a statement was “not only timely, but perhaps overdue.” It won’t be released until after a presidential election that will hinge on economic issues.
The Catholic justice tradition challenges the anti-government zeal and free market fundamentalism that guides the Republican party these days, but you don’t hear much about that from bishops. Letters to Congress are helpful – bishops have sent a flurry criticizing the House GOP budget – but most Catholics in the pews are only hearing about the church’s tussle with the Obama administration. This sends a distorted message to voters. When you have high-profile Catholic leaders like House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan touting an economic vision that is plainly contrary to Catholic teaching, you would think that might inspire Catholic bishops to respond in a more full-throated way.
The USCCB response also attempts to demonize Faith in Public Life by calling into question our funding. Sr. Walsh describes FPL as being “founded with help from a pro-abortion group.” The Center for American Progress helped incubate FPL in our nascent days. It happens to be one of the nation’s most respected policy organizations providing advocacy and analysis on issues such as economics, national security, immigration reform, energy independence and health care. Describing CAP as a “pro-abortion” group” is reductio ad absurdum, an obvious smear. It also ignores our work with a range of pro-life and pro-choice leaders in calling for policies that support pregnant women and reduce abortions. Sr. Walsh also mirrors the breathless outrage of Bill Donohue and others on the far-right when she describes FPL as receiving funding from “billionaire atheist” George Soros. FPL receives funding from a diverse range of foundations and philanthropies, including the Open Society Institute. Mr. Soros does not show up at our staff meetings or dictate what we work on. As far as Sr. Walsh’s description of him as an “atheist,” I didn’t realize that only people of faith are viewed as legitimate actors in the public square. I expect that kind of demagoguery from Glenn Beck, not my church.
Beyond the particular details of the USCCB response, I’m most struck that a simple background memo from a small organization of progressive people of faith has provoked such a defensive and disproportionate reaction. It speaks volumes about the anxious, embattled posture of some Catholic leaders these days when faithful Catholics who are progressive because of the inspiration we draw from the Catholic social tradition are portrayed as threats to our church.
I believe in a “big tent” Catholicism where liberals, moderates and conservatives can disagree over politics but still share a common faith and break bread together. I believe in an intellectually vibrant, culturally relevant Catholicism that engages with a pluralistic society. In recent months, Catholic leaders have made news for cracking down on Catholic nuns, eminent theologians and that nefarious anti-Catholic organization known as the Girl Scouts. In this tireless effort to sniff out supposed subversives in their midst, I worry that some religious leaders are unwittingly dragging a church I love deeper into the fog of culture wars and farther away from the spirit of the Gospel.
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Catholic bishops gather this week for a national meeting in Atlanta facing questions about the political nature of a high-profile religious liberty campaign targeted at the Obama administration. ”We’re not trying to throw an election,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said in an interview last week.
It’s a bad sign for bishops when they are essentially forced to explain that they are not a faith-based Super Pac for the Romney campaign. Most bishops don’t want to be the Republican party at prayer, but their alarmist rhetoric and consistent antagonism toward the Obama administration often covey that impression. The amount of institutional energy spent on the bishops’ upcoming “Fortnight for Freedom” events is staggering and disproportionate. Americans are out of work. The gap between rich and poor is reminiscent of the Gilded Era. Corporate money is distorting our democratic process. Facing these urgent challenges, bishops are launching a well-oiled national campaign reaching across every diocese that just might solidify for Americans how out of touch some bishops are with the real threats faced by working families.
Thorny policy disputes between Catholic bishops and the Obama administration are described by some church leaders in near apocalyptic terms. An Illinois bishop compared Obama administration policies to those of Hitler and Stalin. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, claims the administration is “strangling“ the Catholic Church. Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland has expressed fear of “despotism.” All of this ignores the substantial progress the administration has made in responding to Catholic concerns and conveniently papers over the bishops’ role in moving the goal posts.
The real question is do moderate bishops still hold enough influence in the U.S. church to successfully make the case that there are enormous risks involved with allowing this campaign to get dragged through the political mud. This will be a challenge at a time when conservative intellectuals like Robert George, the Cardinal Newman Society and Catholic activists increasingly push the hierarchy to reduce the Catholic witness in politics to a few hot-button issues. Fighting that tide becomes even harder now that John Carr, the bishops’ prominent social justice point man over the last 25 years, has announced his retirement.
There are encouraging signs that the moderates recognize what’s at stake. Bishop Stephan Blaire, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, lamented in a recent interview that groups “very far to the right” are seeking to draw the bishops into “an anti-Obama campaign.” An unnamed bishop was quoted in the Washington Post last weekend admitting that how the bishops keep this religious liberty initiative from becoming over politicized is “a huge dilemma.”
In past years, there have been temperate appeals to prudence from some bishops and that’s needed more than ever today. In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter in 2009, Archbishop Michael Sheehan warned that bishops marginalize themselves when they embrace “combative tactics” in the realm of politics. He was speaking in response to the torrent of criticism the University of Notre Dame faced from bishops for inviting President Obama to give the commencement. And while many Catholic bishops lined up at a national meeting just after the 2008 election to describe the incoming administration in ominous tones, Bishop Blaise Cupich warned his brother bishops against “a prophecy of denunciation” and urged for a more conciliatory approach.
Catholic bishops play a vital role in pushing for public policies that serve the common good. Sweeping generalizations that depict the bishops (there are 260 of them) as only anti-Obama agitators is as simplistic as the conservative meme that there is a “war on religion.” Bishops have fought for humane immigration reform as the Republican Party happily embraces xenophobia and ugly nativism. They have described Rep. Paul Ryan’s GOP budget proposal as failing to meet a basic moral test. Catholic leaders have defended social safety nets that help the most vulnerable at a time when conservatives are working overtime to undermine them. And bishops know that the blind faith in radical individualism and anti-government zeal that now animates the GOP is anathema to the communitarian sensibilities of Catholicism.
All of this important public witness, however, is compromised if bishops even give the impression that their real goal is to boot Obama from office. This would be another crippling blow to their moral credibility in public life, and do a profound disservice to voters heading to the polls in November.
Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales), Flickr
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