Catholic Bishops, Religious Liberty and Politics
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