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Catholic Bishops Look to Get Their House in Order

5 years ago
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BALTIMORE -- If you judged the influence of the Roman Catholic bishops in the United States by the heated reaction to some of their recent forays into political lobbying, you'd think American Catholicism was the most well-oiled and disciplined political machine since, well, Tammany Hall.

"Do Catholic Bishops Run the United States Government?" said a Huffington Post headline after pressure by the hierarchy helped pass the Stupak-Pitts amendment barring abortion funding and then helped put the House version of the health care bill over the top. "Who elected them to Congress?" asked California Democrat Lynn Woolsey in a column at Politico in which she suggested that the IRS consider lifting the church's tax-exempt status.

In reality, the Catholic hierarchy and the nearly 70 million-strong church itself are hardly so unified, even if their efforts on current health care reform and gay marriage have been impressive. Both within the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and throughout the pews, American Catholics are deeply split on a range of issues that affect matters internal to the church as well as policy in the public square. And contrary to another popular notion, the bishops can take as much flack from the right as they do from the left.

Bridging those internal divides is arguably the chief priority for the American bishops.

"I think there's a deep concern that within the household of the church there are still some harsh divisions and that those divisions are not beneficial for the mission of the church. In fact, they detract from the energy we have to bring to that mission," Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tuscon told me near the end of the bishops' annual meeting. Kicanas is vice-president of the bishops conference and will, according to custom, assume the top post a year from now.

How to restore unity -- once viewed as the hallmark of American Catholicism, from its colonial beginnings up through the election of John F. Kennedy -- could be a matter of as much debate as any of the third-rail issues that have prompted the internal feuds in the first place.

Some, like the current USCCB president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, can often sound as if they want to return to a "pray, pay, and obey" style of Catholicism from the last century, when bishops ran the show and lay people followed orders.

In his opening address to the bishops' conference last week, Cardinal George seemed to take up that line as he reminded Catholics that it is the bishops who govern the church and that "an insistence on complete independence from the bishop renders a person or institution sectarian, less than fully Catholic." Cardinal George also referred to three task forces he set up over the summer that are reportedly aimed at reining in Catholic media, universities, and organizations and lobbies by having the bishops determine which qualify as Catholic.

According to church insiders, the irritation of George and some other bishops stems from frustration that lay Catholics did not seem to heed their warnings about voting for Barack Obama, (53 percent of Catholic voters went for the Democrat) and anger at Notre Dame's decision to invite Obama as its commencement speaker last May over the objections of the local bishop in Indiana, John D'Arcy. Cardinal George and dozens of other prelates joined D'Arcy in protesting the invitation. HERE

The Notre Dame controversy was one of the most serious internal splits the church has faced in recent times. But most lay Catholics and many bishops either supported or did not publicly oppose Notre Dame's invitation to Obama, which was widely seen as a triumph for both the president and the university.

At last week's meeting of the hierarchy, there were a number of signs that the bishops may want to tone down the tough talk and seek engagement over confrontation.

For example, two days before the bishops met in Baltimore, Pope Benedict XVI replaced Bishop D'Arcy, who had headed the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese for 24 years, with Bishop Kevin Rhoades from Harrisburg, Pa. While Rhoades supported D'Arcy in objecting to Obama's appearance at Notre Dame, after his appointment Rhoades said of the controversy: "I think that's now in the past. Let's move to the future. I love Notre Dame. I want to have a close personal and pastoral relationship. It's such a strong place."

During the meeting, the bishops also elected several committee chairmen, events that can excite only the wonkiest church insiders. But it was telling that in each of the votes moderates and centrists consistently outpolled bishops with more controversial public profiles.

In the most lopsided vote, for a committee chairmanship on marriage and family issues, Bishop Rhoades defeated Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City by a 61-39 percent margin. Archbishop Naumann is a favorite of Catholic conservatives, and drew headlines last fall for declaring that then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius -- an Obama supporter -- should not receive communion because of her pro-choice views. Obama has since named Sebelius head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

On other internal matters, the bishops seemed keen to move past issues that have bogged them down for years, most notably by approving new translations for the Mass that were widely criticized by many bishops, publicly and privately, for following the Latin originals so slavishly that the English versions are at time incomprehensible, or even grammatically wrong. While a few bishops, most notably Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., tried to keep the battle with Rome going, it was clear to everyone else that the Vatican was going to force the bishops to accept the new translations whether they liked it or not. So the bishops gave their thumbs up and moved on.

The bishops also approved a lengthy document on marriage that ran through the usual litany of proscriptions against divorce and contraception and pre-marital sex -- though it passed, barely, and only after they adopted nearly 100 changes to try to make it sound more pastoral.

They also also unveiled the first in a series of upbeat videos aimed at promoting marriage and persuading younger Catholics especially that same-sex marriage should not be permitted by law. The video is so corny that most viewers will likely cringe, but it is emblematic of a realization that the bishops have to offer a positive message rather than just a series of protests against everything that comes down the pike.

That was a thrust of Bishop Kicanas' remarks to me when we spoke in Baltimore, and indeed his expected election next year as president of the USCCB is another sign that the conference could adopt a more positive and engaged stance in what church leaders hope will be a "post-scandal" era for the church.

In his comments, Kicanas repeatedly stressed the importance of building "communion" between the bishops and the rest of the church through dialogue.

"Familiarity does not breed contempt -- it breeds understanding," Kicanas said. "And our hope is to find structures for a deeper level of conversation and communication that will help to heal some of the divisions that may exist."

"The bishops have a responsibility to govern the church, but to do that in collaboration with others. So, the more we can create a sense of collaboration, and take down some of the argumentativeness, the divisive voices that have been trying to divide rather than unite the church, it will be beneficial."

No one expects this process of internal reconciliation to be easy, if indeed it is possible. And it will certainly be complicated by external political developments.

With an administration whose social priorities are in line with the bishops on issues ranging from health care to immigration reform to poverty reduction, the bishops have a chance to be heard in the coming years, as opposed to the Bush era, when their pleas against war and on a host of other issues often fell on deaf ears. But health care, immigration reform, and the like divide Catholics just as they do Republicans and Democrats, and it will test the bishops' political savvy to try to get Catholics and pols on both sides to listen to them.

The bishops certainly face an uphill climb in their effort to make opposition to gay marriage -- as much as their pro-life message -- a hallmark of their ministry. While they can point to successes on the abortion front, opinion polls show that they are gaining little traction with younger Catholics on gay marriage; 60 percent of Catholics under the age of 30 say they favor same-sex marriage compared to just a quarter of Catholics age 65 or older. And 58 percent of Catholics overall say homosexuality "should be accepted by society" rather than "discouraged"-- the highest level of any religious group in the U.S., and in the largest religious group (24 percent of the population, 26 percent of the electorate) in the U.S.

The bishops themselves have their cliques and internal rifts, too.

On Friday, the day after the bishops meeting wrapped, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington were at the National Press Club in Washington to unveil a statement against gay marriage and abortion that was organized by social conservatives such as Robert George and Chuck Colson who have close ties to the Republican Party. The "Manhattan Declaration," as it is known, is backed by more than 125 Christian leaders in a list that reads like a Who's Who of the Religious Right. That Rigali and Wuerl and several other bishops would lend their names to a document that could be seen as taking a partisan position will not necessarily sit well with the rest of the bishops.

In a sense, the political divisions that have marked American society have been mirrored in the Catholic Church, and they are likely to be no less stubborn. Indeed, they even overlap.

The furor that erupted last summer over misdeeds at ACORN ( the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) also washed over the bishops as the hierarchy's chief poverty-fighting arm, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), was found to have made grants to ACORN. Political and church conservatives who were long at odds with the more liberal social justice actions of the bishops' conference launched a furious campaign against CCHD even though the organizations immediately suspended all ACORN funding.

Yet as ACORN became a favorite whipping boy for conservatives in the secular world, much the same happened in the Catholic Church, with charges that CCHD was funding "pro-abortion" groups and all manner of liberal causes in the name of the Catholic bishops and the faithful. Several conservative Catholic groups have organized a boycott of the CCHD annual collection and demanded that the organization be entirely reformed or dismantled.

At last week's meeting, Bishop Roger P. Morin of Biloxi, Miss., who oversees CCHD for the bishops, delivered an impassioned defense of the organization and denounced those who "with their own ideological or political agendas repeat and spread outrageous claims that the bishops are funding abortion, attacks on the family, and other untruths."

Morin's address was especially urgent because the annual collection for CCHD, which undergirds their anti-poverty work throughout the year, is set for this weekend, Nov. 21-22. At the end of the day, there may be no better barometer of how united the Catholic Church is than how much Catholics put in to the basket at Mass this Sunday morning.

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