As the Catholic bishops gather for their annual meeting in Baltimore this week, Jesuit father Tom Reese (and former editor of America) has advice for them: "Clearly the political strategy of the bishops is not working."
And, "So where do the bishops go from here?" Here's Reese's advice as a political scientist:
The first step in plan B should be "listening." The bishops need to listen to those Catholic voters who ignored their advice and find out why. The whole premise behind "No Child Left Behind" is that when students fail it is not always their fault. Teachers need to examine how they teach so that the students can learn. Bishops need to listen.
Reese also notes that the bishops are fighting a losing battle on the gay-marriage front, as an "approaching tsunami of young voters" promises to make marriage equality legal in state after state. Deliberately taunting and enraging their opponents when the bishops themselves are on the losing side is a self-defeating and even masochistic strategy.
And so Reese suggests that the bishops ditch tactics like punishing the gay community and states that enact marriage equality by shutting down Catholic Charities rather than permit gay adoption. As he notes, though the bishops regard divorced and remarried couples as less than kosher Catholic couples, they still acknowledge such marriages as legal under civil law, and they don't specifically target divorced and remarried Catholics with the heavy guns they bring out to attack the gays (I'm added my own rhetorical flourishes here to Reese's more measured prose).
Reese also proposes that banning pro-choice or pro-marriage equality politicians or voters from Communion is counterproductive, as is banning pro-choice or pro-marriage equality candidates or speakers from Catholic university campuses. Draconian tactics reveal the weakness of an authority figure's hand: "Any time you have to use power rather than persuasion in a political debate, you have lost."
Any strategy based on censorship rather than persuasion has failed before a word is spoken. The church should be on the side of free and open debate because "Catholic tradition maintains," in the words of Benedict XVI, "that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation."
What novel ideas: listening. Pastors listening to their flocks. Pastors eschewing threats, power plays, bullying, censorship. A church "on the side of free and open debate."
A church in which the entire people of God is led by the Spirit and listens for the Spirit's voice in scripture, tradition, the guidance of pastoral leaders and the signs of the times. In which love is the leitmotiv of the community and the assurance that God dwells among the people of God. A church whose motto is in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.
I seem to have a vague memory that some church council whose name I've now forgotten, which may have met not too long back in history, said all of these things. But the behavior of the church's leaders in recent years has erased the memory of that council from my mind.
The graphic: the Pentecost event depicted in the 15th-century Ranworth antiphoner.