Quote of the year on Catholics and American politics

I don’t know how you feel about anonymous quotes, but, as a rule, I am opposed to them.

However, when faced with an important anonymous quote, one of the first questions I always ask as a journalist is, “Who is the author of the piece and does this person have the kind of authority and access that makes this anonymous quotation believable”?

In this case, the author of the following Our Sunday Visitor column is a person who every religion-beat reporter in her or his right mind just knows has the kind of access to land this killer quote. We are, you see, talking about Russell Shaw, author of one of the essential books for those who work the religion-news beat: “Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church.”

What does Shaw know about serious discussions that go on behind closed doors when the U.S. Catholic bishops get together? How much does he know about the delicate dance that goes on in the halls of Catholic power, when it comes to dealing with politicians and with reporters? Scan this short biography and tell me. The key is the nearly two decades as a press spokesman and information director for the American bishops.

Several years ago, I used this anecdote to capture some of the lessons Shaw learned about religion news and the Catholic hierarchy. This guy knows things. He also knows what he cannot know.

If you want to cause trouble for American bishops, stick them in a vise between Rome and the armies of dissenters employed on Catholic campuses.

But the bishops had to vote on Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”). After all, they had been arguing about this papal document throughout the 1990s, trying to square the doctrinal vision of Pope John Paul II with their American reality. Rome said their first response was too weak, when it came to insisting that Catholic schools remain openly Catholic. Finally, the bishops approved a tougher document on a 223-to-31 vote.

Soon after that 1999 showdown, someone “with a good reason for wanting to know” emailed a simple question to Russell Shaw of the United States Catholic Conference. Who voted against the statement?

“There was no way to know. In fact, the Vatican doesn’t know — for sure — who those 31 bishops where,” said Shaw, discussing one of the many mysteries in his book. …

“The secret ballots were destroyed,” he noted. “These days the voting process is even more secret, since the bishops just push a button and they’ve voted. Even if you wanted to know how your bishop voted, or you wanted the Vatican to know how your bishop voted, there’s no way to do that.”

Professionals have learned to read between the lines of debates held in the open sessions that the U.S. bishops choose to schedule. Outside those doors, insiders talk and spread rumors. Some bishops spin the press and others, usually those sending messages to Rome, hold press conferences, publish editorials or preach sermons. But many of the crucial facts remain cloaked in secrecy.

With all of that in mind, please scan the list – click here – of the Americans who are currently cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church.

Then read this recent offering by Shaw, which contains the anonymous quote mentioned at the top of this post. I offer this as part of our ongoing post-2012 election discussions here at GetReligion about why it is unwise for journalists to keep pinning current-day political labels on the foreheads of people whose lives are defined by centuries of religious doctrines.

So here is the soundbite that I think might be the religion-beat quote of the year.

The cardinal looked grim. “This is the situation now,” he said. “One political party is dangerous and the other is stupid.”

Since that was said in a private chat, it wouldn’t be fair for me to name the speaker. But his comment expresses sentiments that probably are widely shared in the American hierarchy today, as indeed they’re shared widely by many Americans. Bipartisan disgust with politics is a sorry byproduct of our recent, toxic election campaign. If the country should actually topple over the infamous fiscal cliff, plenty of people would suppose both parties gave it a shove.

The cardinal’s words also have considerable relevance for the Church, underlining something that’s now more clear than ever. While the Church is obliged to take both deeply flawed political coalitions as facts, it has no natural home in either. No cause for smugness here, though. Before lecturing the parties, the Church needs to face up to internal problems of its own, which requires recognizing what those problems are.

Yes, some of the paragraphs that follow in his column are linked to familiar patterns about the various kinds of “Catholic voters” and how the pronouncements of bishops inspire some of them, primarily those who embrace Confession and other Sacraments, and infuriate many others, especially cultural Catholics who go to Mass one or two times a year, if that. This is old terrain here at GetReligion.

The reason I think Shaw’s column should matter to informed reporters is that he digs into this subject — Catholic life beyond normal political labels — deep enough to end up in a totally logical place, yet a place that few politically-obsessed reporters would end up.

Where is that? Pulpits.

At their fall assembly in November, the bishops approved a document on preaching (.pdf) that makes the familiar point that a typical congregation today includes a lot of people who are “inadequately catechized.” Here is a delicate way of saying even many who go to Mass don’t have a clear notion of what the Church teaches and don’t see how it applies to them. That has deeply negative implications for political behavior and nearly everything else.

If Catholic teaching matters, this needs to change. The bishops should give early attention to a massive, continuing and intellectually serious program — one not directly tied to politics and the election cycle — to educate Catholics in the doctrine of their Church, including social doctrine and doctrine on human life and marriage. Isolated statements in the face of election year passions aren’t enough.

Homilies should be a part of this new effort but only part.

Read it all.

I mean, read all of Shaw’s column or read all of the U.S. Catholic bishops document on preaching. Take your pick or read both. There’s news in there, news that is hard to label.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Melissa

    I think I just figured out why nobody outside of Catholics will reference actual Catholic teaching.

    The Bishops’ document on preaching is 54 pages long. Ex Corde Ecclesia goes on, and on, (and on).

    We live in an age of Twitter and Facebook. People think in sound bites. If you can’t get your point across in 140 characters or less, the general population isn’t going to pay attention to you.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Melissa, notice the intended audience for those documents. The document on preaching is intended, it says, for “our brother priests…our deacons…those who are responsible for the formation and training of future priests and deacons as well as those who conduct continuing education programs for clergy…” Ex Corde Ecclesia is a constitution, so there is a lengthy preamble setting out why it’s needed and then there are the laws that John Paul established.

      “We live in an age of Twitter and Facebook. People think in sound bites.” You’re right. But that doesn’t mean that the issues of human life in relation to the divine are capable of being treated in 140 characters or less. The Church cannot become like the secular culture, otherwise it becomes the secular culture. The Church has to learn how to use the tools of the secular culture to draw attention to the eternal realities to which the Church points, realities which cannot be condensed into tweet-sized bites.

    • Nancy D.

      How about this simple statement? Those who deny the Sanctity of every Human Life from the moment of conception, and deny The Sanctity of Marriage and The Family, are no longer in communion with Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. (Catholic Canon 750)

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    My guess as to who it was who said it? Cardinal Francis George.

  • Thinkling

    I do not know who said the money quote, but it is a real beaut. Frankly I could easily see any of the half dozen or so most prominent (“most oft quoted”) Cardinals saying it though. It is on a par with the “my successor” quote from a few years ago, recently attributed to Cardinal George.

    Russell Shaw is one of the best writers at OSV. OSV is meant for a Catholic audience, but Shaw is one of the few who a non-Catholic can read and not feel like “he is not talking to me”.

  • Ben

    Which party is which? :-)

  • Martha

    What I am anticipating is the reporting (if any do report on it) of the story breaking over at Rocco Palmo’s blog(seriously, U.S. bishops’ conference, give this guy an official paid position for crying out loud!)

    The Pope has just today issued a motu proprio on Catholic charitable services. This is setting down laws and rules for what bodies can officially call themselves Catholic and under whose authority they come:

    “In view of this, with the present Motu Proprio I intend to provide an organic legislative framework for the better overall ordering of the various organized ecclesial forms of the service of charity, which are closely related to the diaconal nature of the Church and the episcopal ministry.”

    Amongst many relevant points, I anticipate this one is going to cause some differing of opinion:

    “Art. 5.
    The diocesan Bishop is to ensure that the Church enjoys the right to carry out charitable activities, and he is to take care that the faithful and the institutions under his supervision comply with the legitimate civil legislation in this area.”

    So, for example in the American context where we’ve already seen controversy over fostering/adoption services to same-sex couples – do or don’t charities have the option to continue providing adoption services where they may be required to consider same-sex couples? On one hand, the bishop has to make sure that Catholic principles are followed by any service calling itself Catholic; on the other hand, if the state has passed a law making it legal for same-sex couples to adopt, how do you follow that law if it is in conflict with Catholic teaching?

    As I said, I can’t wait for the news stories trying to pin “conservative” or “liberal” political slants on this – and I wonder which outlet will be first with the “Vatican slams” or “Vatican cracks down” headlines?

  • Mark

    It’s not the political parties’ fault. It’s the bipolar American people. We (apparently) want European-style socialism but are unwilling to pay for it. The dangerous/stupid party is just a symptom of a deeply flawed electorate.

  • FW Ken

    Mr. Shaw declines to “parse the Catholic vote” explicitly, but then ends of doing so more or less, and I got a little confused. He seems to assume three kinds of Catholics (tribal Catholics who maintain the identity without meaningful practice), active Catholics who are uncatechized, and believing, practicing Catholics (tmatt’s “sweaty Catholic”). I think he makes an error in his taxonomy, however, which is common among Catholics. He (reflecting the bishops, of course) assumes catechesis will solve the problem. That overlooks a significant number of Catholics who know exactly what the Church teaches but dissent from it. This includes some priests and, I suspect, bishops.

    Still, Mr. Shaw points to a larger discussion (two, actually). This isn’t the place to have those discussions, but perhaps it’s not amiss to note them and thank him for raising them.

  • suburbanbanshee

    Mark Shea the Catholic blogger is a cardinal? Who knew? And him a married man!

    Seriously… it’s pretty old stuff to characterize the Democrats as the Evil Party and the Republicans as the Stupid Party, except when they switch places every so often. Mark Shea wasn’t the first person to say it, and a lot of people (Catholic and otherwise) regard it as a truism. This is just a variation on a perfectly normal comment that Joe Blow and Linda Schmo say all the time. The only newsworthy bit is a cardinal saying it.

  • The Old Bill

    It was M. Stanton Evans who wrote, “We have two parties here, and only two. One is the evil party, and the other is the stupid party. I’m very proud to be a member of the stupid party. Occasionally, the two parties get together to do something that’s both evil and stupid. That’s called bipartisanship.

    The Catholic hierarchy is in the business of opposing evil. It has, on occasion, enthusiastically embraced stupidity.