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Has Religion Been “Neutered” in the Public Square?

November 18, 2011, 9:40 am | Posted by John Gehring

dolanrangel.jpgArchbishop Timothy Dolan sees a brewing battle between secular forces and institutional religion, New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein notes in her coverage of the bishops’ national meeting.

“We see in our culture a drive to neuter religion,” Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the bishops conference, said in a news conference Monday at the bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore. He added that “well-financed, well-oiled sectors” were trying “to push religion back into the sacristy.”

This strikes me as a bit of hyperventilating. The United States is the most religious country in the industrialized world. Catholics, as National Catholic Reporter editor Tom Roberts points out, make up a majority on the Supreme Court, represent the largest single denomination in Congress and hold powerful positions at the highest levels of business. Americans, compared to those relatively godless Europeans Pope Benedict XVI is concerned about, take religion seriously and say their faith plays an important role come election time.

Surely, the bishops see competing interpretations of proper policy on abortion and marriage as threats. And Bill Donohue of the Catholic League keeps them in a perpetual state of alarm with his humming fax machine and ominous book titles (“Secular Sabatoge: How Liberals Are Destroying Religion and Culture in America”). But the Catholic intellectual tradition that so many Americans admire should not be reduced to scary sound bites from the latest front in the culture wars.

It seems what Catholic bishops face now is less a drive to “push religion back into the sacristy” than a waning of influence. This owes in part to disillusionment after the clergy sexual abuse crisis and profound cultural shifts on issues like same-sex marriage, which a growing number of Americans (including Catholics) support. The days of “pray, pay and obey” Catholicism that defined an earlier generation of Church leadership are long past.

Recent news that most Catholics in the pews have not read the bishops’ balanced and thoughtful call for political responsibility is a sign that Church leaders need to rethink their strategy for engaging their flock and influencing the wider culture. Bishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe and other bishops recognize these challenges in a clear-eyed way, but the media microphone is too often commanded by Church leaders who seem to relish a fight.

Archbishop Dolan is regarded by many in the Church as a moderate, engaging leader. After a recent White House meeting with President Obama, he came away praising the president’s sensitivities to concerns about the conscience rights of Catholics when it comes to issues like contraception and abortion. His stewardship of the bishops’ conference has potential to defuse some growing tensions between the White House and bishops.

But he also recently warned that the Obama administration’s decision not to continue supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in court could “precipitate a national conflict between church and state of enormous proportions.” Those are not words used lightly. The Church is certainly on a collision course with the culture’s growing acceptance of civil unions and gay marriage, but the question is how the Church can maintain its legitimate right to articulate its position on this and other divisive issues without polarizing the debate in a way that obscures their important witness on a host of other issues.

I’m not saying the Church should shift its positions because of the latest poll. But if the bishops want to remain relevant in the long term (and for a Church that is often said to “think in centuries” that should make sense), they should dial down the heated rhetoric and assess more prudent ways to engage the culture.

One way to do this on the issue of “family values,” for example, would be to talk more often about the threats to heterosexual marriage posed by economic stress – unemployment, the lack of affordable child care, the housing crisis. The perception that the Catholic Church is fixated mostly on fighting same-sex marriage doesn’t help the bishops win hearts and minds on other issues they deserve a fair hearing on in the public square.

Gaudium et Spes, one of the Catholic Church’s foundational documents that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, urged the Church to address “the signs of the times.” Those signs are not hard to read: growing poverty, income inequality and millions of Americans deprived of knowing the “dignity of work” – as the Catholic social tradition describes it. And yet in the face of these moral challenges, Catholic bishops gathered for their national meeting this week and failed to address these issues. Catholics who respect the Church and want to see bishops reclaim their moral voice are justified in asking why.

Photo: Archbishop Dolan and Rep. Charlie Rangel, Credit: RepRangel, Flickr

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