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Catholic Bishops Losing Voice on Economic Justice, Hunker Down for Culture War Battles

November 14, 2011, 12:08 pm | Posted by John Gehring

bishops meeting1.jpgAfter a steady exodus of Catholics from the church and a clergy-sex abuse scandal that seriously damaged the bishops’ moral credibility, one would think that church leaders might avoid striking a confrontational posture in public life. As media coverage in the run up to the U.S. bishops’ national meeting today in Baltimore shows, the opposite is true. They are hunkered down for a long, hard fight against shifting cultural norms and an Obama administration they have portrayed as hostile to religious liberty. Rachel Zoll of the AP provides a good curtain raiser to the bishops’ annual gathering:

The mood among many U.S. Roman Catholic bishops was captured in a recent speech by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. His talk, called “Catholics in the Next America,” painted a bleak picture of a nation increasingly intolerant of Christianity. “The America emerging in the next several decades is likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country’s past,” Chaput told students last week at Assumption College, an Augustinian school in Worcester, Mass. “It’s not a question of when or if it might happen. It’s happening today.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets Monday in Baltimore for its national meeting feeling under siege: from a broader culture moving toward accepting gay marriage; a White House they often condemn as hostile to Catholic teaching; and state legislatures that church leaders say are chipping away at religious liberty.

While bishops have a right and an obligation to sound the alarm when they perceive Catholic institutions being unfairly targeted, it’s hard not to read Archbishop Chaput’s ominous, man-the-barricades warning as the anxious voice of a church fearful of being left behind in an era when institutional religious authority is waning.

As Scott Appleby, a prominent religious historian at the University of Notre Dame, notes in the AP story, many church leaders have recently adopted “a more pugnacious style” at the same time “the church no longer receives deference or the hands-off attitude that it once had for many years.” Are Catholics really a threatened class of citizens today as Archbishop Chaput and other leading bishops insist? This is a tough case to make to the broader public when Catholics hold power at the highest levels of law, government and business.

Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean emeritus of Duquesne Law School and a church canon lawyer who served as an original member of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, sees the hierarchy’s battle with the wider culture as a telling sign that church leaders are grasping to maintain power.

“Another way to look at these issues, the prohibition of same-sex marriage, the criminalization of abortions, is not as issues of the exercise of religious liberty, but as issues regarding the exercise of religious authority,” Cafardi told me. “The bishops might win the first argument. They do not win the second.”

A sizable percentage of Catholics are befuddled by the bishops’ recent high-profile political fights against same-sex marriage and disproportionate emphasis on contraception and other sexuality issues when poverty is on the rise, income inequality is growing to historic levels and millions of Americans are unemployed. I’m afraid bishops are losing touch with the real-life challenges of Catholics in the pews. This is especially sad given the bishops’ proud history of laying the moral groundwork for landmark social reforms like the minimum wage and insurance for the elderly, disabled and unemployed.

It’s not just liberal activists scratching their heads. A former top official at the U.S. bishops’ conference has a hard-hitting op-ed in the Baltimore Sun today asking tough questions for Catholic leaders.

At a time of staggering poverty, rampant unemployment and growing income inequality, Catholic bishops will gather for a national meeting in Baltimore today and remain largely silent about these profound moral issues. A recent Catholic News Service headline about the meeting — “Bishops’ agenda more devoted to internal matters than societal ills” — is a disappointing snapshot for a church that has long been a powerful voice for economic justice.

The U.S. bishops’ relative silence contrasts with a recent Vatican document that urges stronger regulation of the financial sector and a more just distribution of wealth…

I fear the church’s revered social justice witness is being crowded out by divisive culture-war battles at a time when Americans need a stronger moral message about the dignity of work and economic justice for all.

Catholic bishops find themselves at a defining crossroads. The path they choose will have major consequences not only for our national values debate heading into the 2012 presidential election, but also for a generation of Catholics who still believe their Church should be a powerful voice for economic fairness and the common good.

Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales), Flickr

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