US Bishops veering off track

US Bishops veering off track March 13, 2012

Over the past number of years, the bishops in the United States seem to be veering a little off track. They seem more keen on playing up certain aspects of Catholic teaching and playing down others. They seem to be associating themselves ever more closely with right-wing liberals, turning a increasingly blind eye to their deviati0ns from Catholic teaching. They seem to be more inclined than ever to adopt the all-or-nothing rhetoric associated with a particular corner of American culture. It was not always like this, and it is becoming more and more of a problem.

Let me give some examples.

  • The Iraq war. Despite strong opposition from two popes and the global Catholic Church, only one US bishop spoke out against the Iraq war. The others kept their heads down, knowing full well that the just war criteria were not met based on any reasonable prudential reading. They stayed quiet while bellicose tribal Catholics like George Weigel twisted the just war teaching in knots to defend the war. Of course, the bishops could argue that their role is to enunciate the principles, while leaving the application of these principles to particular circumstances to lay people. But that wouldn’t be right, as the Church wades into these kinds of prudential matters every day. No, I fear that they simply lacked courage to speak out in a very charged environment. And on the issue of religious liberty, they never really drew attention to their own teaching on the moral right to “conscientious objection to war in general, a particular war, or a military procedure”. One more thing – the great Chaldean Church, which survived for well over a millennium under Islamic rule, was destroyed almost overnight by George Bush’s Iraq war – this makes US concerns about “religious liberty” look petty and trivial.
  • Torture. The Church teaches clearly that torture is an intrinsically evil act that can never be defended regardless of intent or circumstance, just like abortion. It is also pretty high on the hierarchies of evil as laid down in Gaudium Et Spes. But it would be fair to say that the US bishops went extremely quiet on US participation in torture, especially during its legitimization by the Bush administration. There were certainly no calls for denial of communion to torture-supporting politicians. Again, they kept their heads down.
  • FOCA/ Notre Dame: After years of silence on war and torture, the bishops suddenly found their voice immediately after the election of Obama. They went into overdrive fighting the Freedom of Choice Act – something which had zero chance of getting anywhere, and which was simply used as a fundraising device by the professional (so-called) pro-life groups. And then they went into overdrive again to oppose Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame, while barely raising a peep when George Bush had visited earlier, the latter’s deviations from Catholic moral teaching notwithstanding – his zeal for the death penalty being an obvious example, or the Advanced Directive Act he signed in Texas giving a “panel” the ability to discontinue life-sustaining medical care even over family wishes.
  • Affordable Care Act: The bishops started off on the right track by laying out the fundamental principles – affordable healthcare for all, including immigrants, and no funding for abortion. Unfortunately, they soon veered down the wrong track by listening to much to their extremist and disingenuous allies, including the National Right to Life Committee (which has always opposeduniversal healthcare). Just to recap – the bishops supported the Stupak approach which would have required a supplemental policy for coverage of abortion on the exchanges, whereas the Act provided for a supplemental premium in the same policy, with near-identical issues of fungibility and proximity. The Act also allowed states to ban all plans with abortion, even with no public funding (more radical than Stupak), and insisted on at least one plan in each exchange without abortion. Finally, these protections were all cemented by an executive order, which would take care of any loopholes. But this was not enough for the USCCB, which – following the National Right to Life Committee – kept moving the goalposts and looking for the worst case scenario (the saddest part came with the attack on community health centers, which provide basic care for the very poor). They also showed themselves to be inconsistent – they didn’t talk at all about the coverage of abortion in private employer-based plans, and they themselves came out strongly in favor subsidized COBRA premiums for unemployed workers –  a federal subsidy of private insurance plans offering elective abortion. At the same time, they failed to speak out against the false arguments against healthcare reforms, such as the daily distortions of the principle of subsidiarity, and arguments owing more to Calvinist notions of being responsible for one’s own health than to Catholic notions of the common good. They failed to speak out loudly enough against the scandalous and gravely unjust nature of healthcare provision in the United States.
  • EWTN: When Nancy Pelosi made some self-serving statements about Church teachings on abortion, she was instantly corrected by a bevy of bishops. But on numerous occasions, ETWN commentators and guests have publicly defended torture as compatible with Catholic teaching, at least when perpetuated by the United States. The response by the bishops to this distortion of teaching was  a deafening silence. This was a public scandal of the gravest order, and nobody said anything.
  • Global financial crisis: Since Caritas in Veritate, the pope and the Vatican have spoken and written extensively on the links between the economic crisis and morality – outsized greed, a corporate culture stressing maximum profit over broader social responsibility, a powerful financial sector seeking its own advantage, rising inequality and marginalization, and faltering worker protections. The Church has explicitly condemned “economic liberalism” and “utilitarian thinking” in this context. But the US bishops – who live in Wall Street’s own backyard – were reticent to echo the Vatican in this area. They never raised their voices to criticize a depraved financial system that created the global financial crisis. This silence was especially notable, given the Irish bishop’s strong condemnation of “radical individualism”, the “bonus culture”, and “excesses of advanced capitalism”. The problem with such relative silence is that it creates far too much leeway for Catholics to ignore some of the key principles of Catholic social teaching as applied to economic justice. The Church failed to speak out against those who claimed that Catholic teaching could be reconciled with hands-off economic liberalism, who attacked labor protections, and who offered grave distortions of the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. They even failed to defend the Vatican after its teachings on the financial crisis were attacked by the right in the strongest possible terms.
  • The Ryan budget. The USCCB was and is active in standing with the poor and lobbying to protect basic safety nets from budget cuts. It does great work. But the bishops were still reticent to speak out against those who defended serious cuts to social programs and dramatic upward distribution of income on grounds of economic liberalism – or worse, on grounds of Randian anti-personalism. The USCCB could not bring itself to condemn the Ryan budget. Indeed, Dolan wrote an extremely polite letter to Paul Ryan, partially undercutting the efforts of his fellow bishops, in which he could not bring himself to explicitly address Ryans’ clear mis-reading of Catholic social teaching. Lay commentators assumed the Church was backing Ryan.
  • Contraception mandate. This brings us to the present day. The Obama administration made an epic mistake, and managed to do what few thought possible – unite Catholics of all political stripes around this issue. But the bishops blew this goodwill. In part, they made the same mistake as with healthcare – following the lead of their dubious allies on the right, shifting the goalposts, and adopting a strident and belligerent tone that stands in stark contrast to their voice other issues. I thought Obama’s compromise was made in good faith. I also understand that it leaves some important issues unresolved, including the self-insurance conundrum and insufficient recognition of the religious nature of Catholic healthcare, education, and social service provision. But the USCCB (for inexplicable reasons) jumped immediately into bed with Robbie George and the GOP, suddenly demanding the right of all employers to opt out of the contraception mandate. Even worse, they adopted their strident culture war tone. What began as a narrowly-framed issue of the ability of the Church to perform its mission morphed into a broad-based attack on mandates under the Affordable Care Act. Only a few weeks ago, all Catholics stood together; today, people are putting the bishops on par with libertine Rush Limbaugh. It’s a tragedy, and a tragedy that could easily have been avoided.

To sum up, the issue is not that the bishops are explicitly partisan. They are not. They are on the front lines defending the poor and the voiceless every single day. The Faithful Citizenship document is extremely balanced. Rather, it is an issue of tone and emphasis. Too often, they are not careful enough, they are not prudent enough, and they listen disproportionately to selective ideological voices. Too often, these are angry and embittered voices, reflective of a dominant Protestant culture, reflective of narrow demographic concerns (white, older, southern-based) instead of widerCatholic concerns. Increasingly, the bishops themselves are taking on this strident tone, not realizing how tuneless this sounds outside the bubble. On some issues, they stay completely quiet, not only letting lay Catholics form their own prudential judgments, but refusing to correct the most blatant mischaracterizations of Catholic teachings, even in highly public fora. On other issues, they elevate the prudential to the point of defining principle, and are unwilling to tolerate any dissent, even on the most prudential of matters.

Throughout all of this, the Church is forging ahead with the new evangelization. The new evangelization is supposed to persuade the modern (or postmodern) culture on the virtues of a Catholic worldview. It is supposed to persuade people that Christianity is the basis of an authentic humanism, built on the innate dignity of every person, where society is a community of people intricately connected to each other by bonds of love and not just a collection of autonomous individuals pursuing their own self interest. Through the redemption of Christ, humanity has been divinized and creation has been sacralized. This is the heart of the Christian message, and the heart of the new evangelization. It is a profoundly positive and optimistic message, open to the world, open to the culture.

Is the recent tone of the US bishops in line with this approach? I fear not. The stance needs to become more positive, more open, more encompassing, and more consistent.

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