Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Bitter End: Bishops' Politicking Continued to Election Day

Rocco Palmo’s list of U.S. Catholic bishops who have now weighed in against the Democratic candidate for president and for the Republican one grows longer as election day is upon us (http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com). And as I begin to talk about that topic, I’d like to add a gloss to yesterday’s statistics re: the bishops’ partisanship.

As I noted yesterday, Palmo's list suggests that some 28% of Catholic bishops in the U.S. had by yesterday made statements—more or less, but who’s truly in doubt about what these mean?—instructing faithful Catholics to vote for Mr. McCain. Lest blog readers think that this percentage is low, I’d like to make a few observations about the statistics.

As Palmo and others commenting on the role the bishops are playing in this election have noted, it’s important to recognize that, for every bishop making a pro-McCain statement, there has been another noting that the Catholic church does not endorse candidates. To justify their refusal to exercise partisanship, a number of bishops have pointed to the “Faithful Citizenship” document released by the U.S. bishops in 2007, which was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the U.S. bishops.

The document reminds Catholics that the formation of voters' s consciences requires attention to a wide range of issues, including but not limited to the “non-negotiable” issues of abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage. Many commentators have seen “Faithful Citizenship” as a compromise document that tries to hold together those who view abortion as the overarching issue for Catholic voters, and those who maintain that Catholics serve the common good more productively when they pursue a “seamless garment” approach to life issues.

Those who see “Faithful Citizenship” as a compromise document are correct. Unfortunately, however, a sizeable (and apparently growing) proportion of the American bishops adhere to the "non-negotiables" approach of bishops such as Joseph Martino of Scranton, about whom I have blogged several times in this election cycle (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/10/talking-pro-life-or-acting-pro-life.html, http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/10/talking-pro-life-or-acting-pro-life.html).

As my postings about Martino’s surprise appearance at a political discussion group at St. John’s parish in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, on 19 October state, when Bishop Martino interrupted the forum, he announced, “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese. The USCCB doesn’t speak for me. The only relevant document . . . is my letter.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) document to which Bishop Martino was referring was “Faithful Citizenship.” When a bishop can boldly and flatly reject the validity of a document issued by an entire conference of bishops (of which he is a member), and when no brother bishop raises his voice in fraternal correction, I think we are not misguided in concluding that the U.S. Bishops’ Conference—as a body—has, for weal or for woe, succeeded in representing itself as the friend of the Republican party and the enemy of Democrats.

Whether this is a true impression or a false one, it’s an impression that the American public in general has, regarding where the bishops stand. And the repeated statements of bishops such as Martino, or, in the last several days, Finn of Kansas City, Curtiss of Omaha, and Burke of St. Louis-Rome are doing nothing to dispel that notion. Indeed, a clear picture is emerging in which—and this is a crucial point to note—as a body, as a conference of bishops, the U.S. Catholic bishops continue to play partisan politics in this election even more than in previous elections.

And the partisanship is grossly on the side of the Republican party. It is driving wedges between the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church in the U.S. and those pitifully few Catholics who continue going to church faithfully and paying any attention at all to what the bishops say. In an interview yesterday with Chris Stigall of KCMO radion station in Kansas City, Bishop Robert Finn endorses McCain outright (www.lifenews.com/state3615.html). He states, "I don't think any Catholic can in good conscience" vote for Obama.

In a statement issued two days ago, Archbishop Elden Curtiss endorses McCain in similar terms (www.lifenews.com/state3605.html). As the Lifenews.com report of Bishop Curtiss’s statement notes,

Yet another Catholic bishop has drawn the line on how Catholics should vote in the upcoming election and Catholic Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Obama, Nebraska says Catholics should vote pro-life. He says there is no reason to support a pro-abortion candidate, like Barack Obama.

In an interview yesterday with Inside the Vatican correspondent Andrew Rabel, Archbishop Raymond Burke continues his rhetoric about the Democratic party as the “party of death” and continues promoting the “non-negotiables” approach (http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com). Burke states,

It is not my intention to engage in partisan politics . . . .The Democratic Party, however has, over the years, put forth and defended a political agenda which is grievously anti-life, favoring the right to procured abortion and "marriage" between persons of the same sex.

Overt partisanship. By leading prelates of the American Catholic church. Overt rejection of documents issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. With brother bishops standing by in silence. Giving the impression to both Catholics and the nation at large that the bishops of the Catholic church in the United States endorse one political party. That they belong to one political party, as a trophy bought by that party and proudly displayed on its keychain.

I realize that in blogging about this today I am taking some of the luster from the elections. It is not my intent to do this. However, since the timing of the bishops’ meeting each year is so closely connected to the elections (and since the conversation is dictated, in part, by the outcome of those elections), I believe it is important to keep exploring this issue on election day.

It is important for American Catholics. It is important as well for the nation as a whole because the bishops have actively sought—a significant number of them—to throw the election. Finn’s statement came on the heels of polls showing that McCain had made inroads in the last several days in the key swing state of Missouri. To view his statement in isolation from that development, and as anything other than an obtrusive attempt of this bishop to influence Catholic voting in his state, would be na├»ve.

What the bishops continue doing in this election is important for American Catholics because their partisanship is bound together with their abdication—as a bishops’ conference—of good pastoral leadership of American Catholics. I will not rehearse the arguments I have made to that effect, the arguments that the bishops are, on the whole, failed leaders of their flock. Those arguments remain compelling, in my view, and the last-minute intervention of some bishops in this election only makes them more compelling.

What I do want to probe a little more now, though, is the why of the bishops’ intervention, of their meddling, of their overt partisanship. To my mind, their panic as polls indicate that their party will probably not carry the day today is about much more than abortion.

It’s about power. It’s about misuse of power. It’s about back-room deals and boardroom tables. It’s about their ability to sit with powerful men who guard their backs, and to sway those men and be swayed by them.

It’s about getting into bed with rich donors and power-wielding politicians. And not knowing how to quit them, when they no longer have the ability to coerce others to do their bidding.

And, as all this has gone on in recent years, millions of American Catholics have walked away, shaking their heads. Thousands of American Catholics have reported abuse by priests when they were children, and have, on the whole, been treated cruelly and shamefully by these men too busy with the boardrooms and the back rooms even to meet with those wounded brothers and sisters.

Too busy to sit with hurting members of their flocks. Too busy cutting deals and power-brokering to see the faces of the wounded of their flocks, or to seek out the faces of the absent. Too enthralled by power, influence, money to spend time with those who lack power, influence, and money—that is, with the majority of American Catholics.

Too busy to walk among the flock. Inclined, in fact, on the whole to slam the door if a member of the flock who is not rich, influential (and Republican) comes to the door.

This is downright disgraceful. It’s scandalous. In the extreme. And, barring a miracle, those of us who have watched the bishops carry on this way for some years now have very little hope that their meeting in Baltimore will effect any change at all in this anti-pastoral behavior.

Even if their party loses this election, which many people around the world are seeing as a significant referendum regarding the direction the country has taken. Which is to say, a referendum about the route the American bishops have taken as pastoral leaders, to the extent that they have gotten into bed with our current leaders and don't know how to quit them.

Especially if their party loses. If their party loses, the lines are in fact likely to harden, the lessons to go unheeded. Even if the Spirit of God might possibly be speaking to the bishops through their unheeded, wounded flock at this significant turning point in our history.

Even when they pray the Magnificat together in assembly, remembering with Mary that God inevitably casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly . . . . That's how history works in God's hands, isn't it? In God's hands.