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.