On Outspoken Bishops

On Outspoken Bishops November 25, 2008

I don’t for a second believe the emotive rhetoric that claims the bishops are doing the bidding of the Republican party. And it certainly doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that about half of the bishops may have voted for Obama (I have a reputable source overhearing a prominent bishop to 2004 claiming that most bishops then supported Kerry). But even so, some of the rhetoric directed at Obama before he has even been elected by a small but vocal group of bishops is noteworthy, and little frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of bishops standing up for Catholic teaching, especially on the consistent ethic of life. The more the better. And Catholics are absolutely right to denounce the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which is why I supported Henry’s open letter to Obama. But I must make two points about the vehemence on display.

First, there is not a scintilla of evidence that FOCA is even on the horizon. As noted by David Gibson and Joe Feuerherd, Obama’s FOCA pledge was pure pandering and has no chance of being passed– just as he will almost certainly not renegotiate NAFTA either. Think of the obstables: it must pass through sequential hurdles in the House and the Senate, and the pro-FOCA people simply do not have the votes (note that many of the new wave of Democrats are not exactly in the Planned Parenthood lobby).

Second, I find it somewhat puzzling that so much energy is exerted on this non-existent Act, while there was relative calm when the last administration instituted torture and conducted a war that the Church knew was manifestly unjust. As I said, I would have an easier time cheering those those who stand up against FOCA today if they had used the bully pulpit to the same extent yesterday. As Eduardo Penalver puts it:

“I frequently think to myself that the rhetoric some bishops (and Cardinals) are preemptively unleashing against Obama on abortion would be easier for me to stomach if they had raised an outcry that was even remotely as emphatic about the officially sanctioned use of torture by the outgoing administration.  You know, intrinsic evils and all that.”

The issue is not some context-free assessment of the gravity of the issues. While it is certainly far more morally grave to kill an unborn child than to torture a prisoner, it is also the case that Bush was an acting moral agent in a way that Obama most certainly is not (put it another way, Obama supports the private right to take an unborn life, Bush is directly the torture himself). Given this, there should have been far more Catholic voices against torture, and against the Iraq war, and against a host of other injustices over the past eight years. For the more that Catholics are seen to be aligned with one political movement, the less they will be able to persuade, and to establish and seed the kinds of subsidiary mediating institutions that are essential to changing the culture and nudging toward a consistent ethic of life. In fact, they will fall into the pit with the modern Republican party, forever tied to its know-nothing Palinesque rump. This will set back the pro-life cause far more seriously than any veiled threat of FOCA.

And by the way, before anybody jumps on this, I’m not advocating either that the pro-life movement ally itself with the Democrats. That is precisely the point. Abortion will not end with overturning Roe, and abortion will not end with more poverty-reduction programs, welcome as both might be. We need to think on a larger scale here, beyond the rigid duality of the political system.

I’ll give the last word to Nicholas Cafardi, who says it well:

“But beyond this, this enthrallment with the Republican Party on the “legal solution” to the abortion issue has deprived these bishops of their prophetic voice on so many other issues. How often did we hear reports of Catholic bishops, during this last election, speaking out against the unjust war in Iraq, the secret prisons where America tortures her captives, the homeless in New Orleans and in Iraq, the lack of adequate health care for so many Americans; the possibility of innocent individuals executed by capital punishment; and above all, the evil of racism, an evil that has as many victims as abortion does? To be sure, some bishops did speak out on these issues, but they were drowned out by their colleagues for whom there was one and only one issue.

It does not have to be this way. Last spring, when Italy (where abortion is legal and state-subsidized) was having yet another national election, some politicians put together a list of “pro-life” candidates and asked for the church’s endorsement. The Italian bishops conference, in their magazine, Avvenire, was having no part of it. Their spokesperson said: “The initiative of a list on abortion, beyond its noble intent, mistakenly brings a moral theme to an electoral competition. It’s as if it were a list of ‘pure people,’ of ‘champions,’ of ‘specialists.’ It carries a grave risk of extremism, of ghettoization of one part of the Catholic world on such a sensitive issue.”

Would that all our American bishops were as wise.

Every time in the past that the People of God have been held captive by civil power, it has benefittedcivil power and hurt God’s people. This time is no different. It is time to end the Republican captivity of our church so that, no longer enthralled to one political party, our bishops can recapture their entire prophetic voice.”

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