When the bishops of the United States gather later this month in Baltimore for their fall meeting, they ought to take some time to ponder a simple question: Were their words and actions during the recent election season the kind of discourse that informs and persuades or did they contribute to the partisan shrillness that we hope our teachers are educating youngsters to rise above as they mature into voting citizens?
This edition of NCR will be published before we know the outcome of the national election, but the results for the church are already well-known--no polls necessary here. The activity of the loudest and most extreme voices in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have left us the most politicized and divided church in recent memory. They have not only done a disservice to the cause of unity, they haven't done much to advance the causes they so stridently champion.
Those members of the hierarchy--and we're led to believe they are in the majority--who bristle when the conference is characterized by its most extreme elements need to overcome their reticence and the unspoken rule that bishops don't argue in public. They need to let their brother bishops know that outlandish pronouncements and empty threats further diminish the hierarchy's already compromised authority.
Not one episcopal voice was raised in objection to the slanderous and absurd claims of Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, who last April compared President Barack Obama to Hitler and Stalin. Not one openly questioned the wisdom of the extreme partisan fight against health care reform, a fight, as it turns out, that was waged on the false claim that the reform would lead to federal dollars used to procure abortion. It didn't and it won't. Not one episcopal voice--questioned the validity of trumped-up threats to religious liberty or of the ill-conceived "Fortnight for Freedom," which turned out to be a fortnight-long seminar on how not to organize a campaign.
The bishops are so beholden to the huge sums of money dumped on them by the Knights of Columbus (see Page 7) that they can't imagine pushing back against the political agenda of an organization led by a longtime, high-level Republican operative. And who will raise a voice asking for some prudence when the likes of Bishop Thomas Paprocki threatens "the eternal salvation" of a person's soul over a decision to vote for a given candidate who may not conform to all of the church's positions? Bishop David Ricken is another who has neatly carved out the nonnego-tiables of political decision-making along thinly disguised partisan lines with a similar threat that a vote for the wrong candidate could "put your soul in jeopardy."
What will it take to make them aware that they are preaching to a small choir already convinced of their narrow and partisan view of politics while further alienating the rest?
A bumbling approach to politics is bad enough--and some of the bishops come off as old-time ward heelers, and incompetent ones at that. Worse, however, is that those who are permitted by dint of volume and extremist language to fashion the Catholic story in the public square actually do more harm than good to the causes they espouse. Abortion is a prime example.
For decades now, the polls have shown almost the same result year in and year out. There is a small portion of the electorate at …