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If the Catholic Bishops Preach Economic Justice in a Forest…

November 21, 2011, 3:37 pm | Posted by Nick Sementelli

Thumbnail image for USCCB sign.jpgIn his article on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) relative silence on economic justice issues in their national meeting last week, David Gibson quotes a prominent bishop defending his peers’ recent efforts on the issue:

“I can’t tell you what the public perception is, I just know what the reality is,” said Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., head of the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Bishop Hubbard’s comments are true–the bishops have done more than most know on the issue — but (with all due respect) they also demonstrate a little naivete. In politics, public perception can matter just as much (if not more than) reality. Effective advocacy takes advantage of the political pressure media focus can bring to an issue. The Catholic bishops may have been working and speaking on economic issues, but they haven’t drawn much attention to that work.

In the article, Bishop Hubbard goes on to articulate the bishops’ recent record, highlighting the series of letters he and fellow bishop Stephen Blaire have sent to Congressional leaders, the USCCB’s participation in the “Circle of Protection” campaign, and their behind-the-scenes lobbying on Capitol Hill.

But these examples actually illustrate the opposite point. The letters Bishops Hubbard and Blaire sent, while rich in Catholic teaching, were relatively vague and focused on broad principles rather than specific proposals dominating the news cycle.

And although the bishops conference signed onto the “Circle of Protection” as a partner, they seemed content to let others be the faces of the group instead of employing the voice of their senior prelates to draw more attention to the campaign.

Furthermore, while the bishops’ lobbying is certainly influential, they chose not to back it up with a grassroots mobilization of the millions of Catholics they can reach in the pews.

The worst case, of course, was USCCB President Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s response to Rep. Paul Ryan’s shameful argument that his draconian federal budget proposal was consistent with Catholic Social Teaching. The Archbishop’s letter’s language was so vague and the criticism so subtle that some outlets actually read it as an endorsement of the Ryan budget–a misconception that did not appear to trouble Dolan.

For contrast, look at the open letter from Archbishop Rowan Williams and 17 other Church of England bishops protesting proposed social service cuts in Britain this week. Publishing the letter in a major news outlet and keeping it short and specific, they made their message unambiguous and clearly relevant to the political news of the day. And the high-profile personal endorsement of the top Anglican prelate communicated an additional level of commitment to the issue.

The obvious problem is that the bishops know all of this already. Watching their efforts around other issues makes clear that they are perfectly capable of forcefully communicating their message when they choose to do so. As Francis X. Doyle articulated in his recent op-ed highlighting this disparity:

In recent years, church leaders have opposed historic health care reform, lashed out at the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Barack Obama to give a commencement address, and publicly chastised pro-choice Catholic politicians…

Over the last few weeks alone, the bishops have launched a massive parish bulletin campaign and a high-profile new committee, and Archbishop Dolan met directly with President Obama — all on the issues of conscience, abortion, marriage and the perceived threat to Catholic religious liberty.

So we know what it looks like when the bishops use their “megaphone” (as John recently put it). As long as this obvious discrepancy between which issues they employ it on and which they don’t persists, they really shouldn’t be surprised when observers point it out.

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