American bishops have been getting plenty of flak from their flock these days. Some of it is deserved. In particular, their much-touted “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign, which draws an audacious parallel between present-day American Catholics and first-century as well as sixteenth-century martyrs, appears to be mistaking a certain loss of privileged social standing (which the Church never should have claimed anyway) for outright persecution; besides which, its conflation of “American and Christian” values verges on the idolatry of civil religion (the culmination of the fortnight being scheduled for July 4 makes me especially nervous). The USCCB’s inexplicable investigation of the Girl Scouts, especially in the wake of the kerfuffle over the CDF report on the LCWR, virtually begs for angry accusations of misogyny – which I’m not looking to make, but there are plenty who are, and they’ve been having a field day with this stuff. These sorts of things only hand more ammunition to those who like to cast the bishops as Republican cronies – a charge that the more vocally partisan bishops are making it hard to defend against, even for an unrepentantly pro-institutional, determinedly centrist Catholic convert like myself.
That said, there are caricatures being thrown around of the episcopacy as a whole that are unfairly overgeneralized, if not patently untrue. The ironic juxtaposition between stereotype and reality has been (apparently unwittingly) picked up in, of all places, this month’s issue of The Mennonite, which (on p. 11) contains this quote from Catholic author Gary Wills: “Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless.” At the bottom of the same page is a news item from Sojourners, headed … wait for it … “Protect the poor, say Catholic bishops.” Apparently nuns aren’t the only ones critiquing the moral failings of the Paul Ryan budget.
The bishops’ social consciousness doesn’t fit the paradigm of the culture wars, which are thus largely to blame for the relatively little attention that such things get. With a Catholic right that thrives on touting its loyalty to and backing from ecclesial authorities (at least when it’s convenient to their position, which they’d like to think is all the time), and a Catholic left that simply loves to hate said authorities (and is similarly inconvenienced by anything that contradicts the caricatures), both have a vested interest in portraying the bishops as one-sidedly right-wing. So it’s little wonder that the USCCB’s objection to the HHS mandate has been much more widely discussed than, say, its amicus curae brief filed jointly with Lutheran and Presbyterian leaders in the case against SB 1070, Arizona’s unjust immigration law – a brief that “argued that the federal government is in the best position to protect the well-established goals of family unity and human dignity in the nation’s immigration system” and portrayed the criminalization of the Church’s indiscriminate social services, no less than the HHS mandate, as a religious liberty issue. And how many times in the past two days have you heard mention of the USCCB’s immediate praise for President Obama’s deferral of deportation for undocumented minors who would qualify for the DREAM act? More generally, the USCCB’s official positions in areas such as human life and dignity, cultural diversity, and yes, marriage and family are admirably politically transcendent and noticeably informed by Catholic Social Teaching. I will be eager to see the content of the message on poverty and the economy that the bishops recently voted to draft, which is intended “to communicate the bishops’ concern for people hurt by the economy” and to “seek to go beyond the ideological and partisan polarization on economic issues”.
It should be clear from the opening paragraph above that I am not trying to say that the bishops are or should be above critique, or that we should ignore anything they do or say that might be worthy of critique in favor of a pollyannish focus on only the positive. Rather, there is an important distinction to be made between specific critiques and blanket stereotypes. To suggest that the bishops may be mistaken or misguided on a particular point is sometimes justified, but to suggest that they are the enemy of social justice or of lay involvement or of women, or whatever other sweeping accusations are being thrown in their direction, is wildly inaccurate and divisive.
The bishops are not the enemy. Partisan polarization is.