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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  • deiseach

    Max, I hate to sound like a broken record on this, but if the debate about the mandate is turning nastily political (the implication that this coverage is necessary for women’s health and the bishops don’t care about that), then this result from the survey (you know, the one that gave the media their “98% of Catholic women use contraception” figure) should be widely used as clarification. At least, I think it makes for interesting consideration.

    Reasons why women stopped using a method of contraception (figures roughly rounded by me, and only the reasons for giving up using the Pill selected as an example – oh, and being a national survey, it covers all women, not just rich white women who don’t have to worry about insurance):

    Too expensive – around 3%
    Insurance didn’t cover it – around 2%
    You had side effects – around 64%

    Hmmm – side effects and not money being the majority reason? Don’t you think this is interesting, if the debate is being framed in terms of women’s health versus cruel, heartless, doctrinaires?

  • Todd

    George Weigel isn’t exactly the most scholarly or knowledgeable of critics. Archbishop Bernardin wasn’t in charge of a see until a few years after CCHD was founded. The bishops were explicit in saying CCHD was founded in response to Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio. So what is this, coming from a notable JPII groupie? We shouldn’t be paying attention to papal encyclicals? Or just the ones on the best-seller list.

    But perhaps in the Weigel universe, only one Paul VI encyclical counts–the one on sex. Or that perhaps the papacy didn’t really come into its own until 1978. JPII, it should be remembered, gave JB his red hat. Critics are happy to hoot about the Bernardin machine, but it was all done with the approving nod of the Vatican under “the Great.”

    Like all communication, leadership has three factors, not just the ability to be jovial in public and handy with flagellation in private. You need a message. You need to communicate it effectively. And you need responsive listeners. Unless the USCCB gets all three pulling in the same direction, and can avoid the pitfalls of their own mismanagement, they have little hope of galvanizing the laity. And if they’re going to make contraception their stand, the one thing they’ve got going for them is that they’re not the 1%. They’ve doubled down over the Wall Street bankers, if we can believe the numbers.

    Personally, I think the Jovial One and his hangers-on have drunk deeply of the hermeneutic of subtraction. In real life, real ministry, you need to have something to galvanize people. Jesus had a gospel message that was a little deeper than not-Rome, not-Israel. Could he assemble Catholic health care into a system of service and insurance under one roof? It might take years, but somebody’s got to offer an alternative to the medical slavery imposed by our corporate masters.

    In my mind, Dolan and his confreres are going to have to come up with something a little more substantial than not-health-insurance. I’m glad he took a weekend to reflect on the president’s counteroffer. But it sure looked to me like he was taking his talking points from his lay experts in the USCCB bureaucracy. And that’s fine. Lay expertise will serve him well. If indeed it is expert in content. I’m a skeptic on that.

    Me, I’m thinking of triangulating out of all of this. I have no problem opposing the president on his policies, and being critical of them. I also expect more from the bishops. And if these mewlings are the best they can do, I’m inclined to write off the Jovial One as out to save his own moral butt. He and his clergy can disconnect me and other Catholic employees from partial sponsorship of health insurance. But the reality is that I will have a lot less heft if I want to negotiate to buy into a health plan that doesn’t cover Catholic non-negotiables.

    The insurance system is still sick. Honest believers are confronted with compromising our values nearly every day. We don’t live in rectories with guaranteed employment for life. The USCCB chatter has a whiff of narcissism about it. High ideals, of course. But the bishops are no more special when it comes to living a moral life than anyone else. And given recent witness to that effect, they seem to have a lot of obstacles in that regard.

    So I’m going to go Third Party on the HHS debacle. The president has lost my vote. And until my bishops come up with a working alternative that helps me improve life for my family, I’m going to oppose them, too.

  • jkm

    “Obama likes the Church just fine; it’s just that the Church he likes no longer exists.”

    Excellent insight. I’d modify it just a bit to say Obama likes Catholics just fine; it’s just that the Catholics he likes are no longer the American Church’s policymakers. I’m sure it’s as much a surprise to him as it is to liberal Catholics that they’ve been Left Behind.

  • Neil Allen

    Why is it that you said Dolan “couldn’t make his way through an airport without being held personally responsible for sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy”, but his article says it only happened to him 3 times in the last 9 years.

    Why is it that Catholics have to break the 9th commandment (and not tell the truth) in order to make us believe them, and why is it that they can’t understand when we don’t believe them?

  • deiseach

    Neil, possibly because for Catholics it’s the Eighth Commandment (about lying), unless you mean by the Ninth Commandment “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife”?

  • Neil Allen

    deiseach, interesting. I just did an Internet search, and everywhere says that the 9th commandment is “Do Not Lie” according to the bible. Then I did further research, and found that the Roman Catholic church changed it for their own purposes.

    I guess if the Roman Catholic church can change the word of God directly from GOd, they can add rampant child sex into the mix.