The Bishops: Players Once More

Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan denies that the bishops have become “bullies who are now trying to impose our beliefs on the rest of the country, and trying to utilize the offices of the federal bureaucracy to do that.” What he should have said is: “We bishops are no more bullies than Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association or the AFL-CIO.” If policymaking is a sport, the controversy over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has made the bishops into serious players.

They’ve united in a cohesive bloc. Yesterday, Thomas Peters of American Papist reported that every one of the 180 bishops in charge of American dioceses has condemned the act. Before the 2008 election, 89 bishops, or half that number, ordered voters in their dioceses to cast their vote for the pro-life candidate. The following year, over 70 bishops publicly denounced the University of Notre Dame’s decision to award an honorary degree to President Obama. Each show of force was impressive, but this late show of solidarity is unprecedented.

It’s become fashionable to compare Obama to Hitler, but to do so would overstate Obama’s popularity. Among the German bishops, Hitler could always count on a few friends.

For many bishops, this activism must come as a welcome change. Last year, Cardinal-designate (then Archbishop) Dolan couldn’t make his way through an airport without being held personally responsible for sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. By then the scandal was mostly old news, but not entirely. The same year, a Philadelphia grand jury criticized the city’s archdiocesan review board for returning credibly accused priest to ministry. Members of that review board later denied ever having seen the greater number of the charges. In spring of 2011, it emegered that Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph had retained a priest in ministry after learning the priest had saved photographs of naked children on his laptop. This past October, Finn pleaded guilty to one count of failing to report suspected child abuse, a misdemeanor.

From cringe to war cry is not an easy or obvious transition. In First Things, George Weigel offers his version of how this animating spirit evolved. Dolan’s election to the USCCB presidency over the head of the expected winner, Tucson’s Bishop Gerald Kickanas, marked “a different mode of engagement between the Church and American public life.” The previous model, concocted by the so-called Bernardin Machine, named for Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, took its ecclesiology from “the progressive wing of the post-conciliar spectrum,” and in politics leaned “à gauche, but always with an eye toward ‘the center.’”

A schmoozer in public and a whip-cracker in private, Bernardin, says Weigel, imposed his will and vision on his fellow bishops for as long as he lived, and both survived him by many years. Under his direction, the bishops took what Weigel calls “some tentative steps into the murky worlds of radical activism” by creating the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. The CCHD, in turn, “began to support programs of community organizing modeled on or promoted by Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation.” One of these organizations was the Developing Communities Project, for which Obama served as executive director during the late 1980s. Bernardin, whom Obama recalled in his Notre Dame speech, bears chief responsibility for the president’s good impression of the Church.

But, Weigel explains, Bernardin’s Church and Dolan’s Church are two very different institutions. With help from New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor, John Paul II began re-orienting the American Church toward a more confrontational style of engagement. Inspired by John Paul’s “heroic” model of the priesthood, and of the office of bishop, the post-Bernardin bishops renounced any interest in “finding an agreeable fifty-yard line.” When Dolan said, of the Obama administration’s recent revisions to its contraception mandate, “I don’t think there’s a 50-yard line compromise here,” he really meant there could be none. If this is really the Church John Paul envisioned, then his vision’s become a reality.

Weigel’s view tends to support Dolan’s instistence that the bishops aren’t “Obama-haters.” They’ve been gearing up for this fight for the past two decades; Obama just happens to have brought it. It also gives the lie to Obama’s anti-crusade against Catholicism. Obama likes the Church just fine; it’s just that the Church he likes no longer exists.

In the national conversation that’s developed since the administration announced the revisions, it could be argued that the bishops’ voices have been the dominant ones. Philadelphia’s Arcbhishop Charles Chaput has declared himself and his brother bishops the guardians of the Founding Fathers’ vision. Bridgeport, Connecticut’s Bishop William Lori testified Thursday before Congress. As a body, the bishops have backed Missouri Senator Roy Blunt’s Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, which would allow any employer to deny employees any services “contrary to the provider’s religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

This raises the question of what will happen if the bill fails to pass, and if Obama ends up winning a second term. Will the bishops go into some kind of guerrilla mode? Weigel gently suggests that the USCCB “reexamine its habit of having a comment on virtually every contested issue in American public life” and its “reliance on domestic policy default positions” — including the call for government-mandated health care. To focus full-time on opposing the Obama administration on life issues would certainly be a labor-saver, although it would make the bishops look more partisan than ever before. In any case, it’s going be a long millennium.

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