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.
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.