Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Whither the Bishops? U.S. Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Vote

And, in case anyone thinks that the U.S. Catholic bishops are being careful in this election to avoid giving the impression that they have come out (once again) in favor of the Republican candidate, check out Carol Martin’s “Cardinal All But Endorses McCain and Palin” in today’s Chicago Sun Times (,CST-EDT-carol10.article).

Martin notes that Cardinal George had a letter read at all Masses in the Chicago archdiocese last Sunday. As she notes, “George's five-paragraph message focused entirely on abortion.” She concludes (and I agree) that the letter represents an attempt to influence Catholics to vote for McCain-Palin.

Yes, this is the same Cardinal George for whose resignation the Catholic lay organization Voice of the Faithful called in a letter published 19 August ( The letter notes that Cardinal George’s recent deposition in several cases of clerical abuse “is a clear indictment of his pastoring skills and his inability to lead the people of Chicago.” In the view of VOTF, “His repeated failures in both the Bennett and McCormack cases indicate a trend to disregard advice from outside clerical circles and continue to follow precedents of deceit, cover-ups and secrecy (imbedded in the clerical culture) in lieu of protecting innocent children from irreparable harm.”

Yes, that Cardinal George. The one whose track record as a spokesperson for morality is incredibly impaired by his willingness to protect pedophile priests and to transfer them to parishes without informing parishioners that a predator was in the midst, and by his attempt to have a pedophile priest released from prison before he had fully served his sentence.

The Cardinal George who is the current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose voice many Catholics rightly take to be the voice of the Bishops' Conference itself. Yes, that Cardinal George.

Think these folks haven’t succeeded in controlling the conversation such that new generations of Catholics are woefully ignorant of the meaning of a consistent ethic of life? If you do, check out Diane Tucker’s “Palin Winning Over Twenty-Something Catholics” ( Tucker notes that, after McCain’s selection of Palin, polls are showing younger Catholics who still identify with the church trending to the McCain-Palin ticket—because it’s, don’t you know, pro-life.

A lot of the present furor over the pro-life issue has to do with the recent interview of Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic, by Tom Brokaw, in which Pelosi dared to enter episcopal terrain and try to address the complexity of the abortion debate. Since then, she has been roundly excoriated by many U.S. bishops for what she said. (And, by the way, since when did Mr. Brokaw become a spokesperson for the U.S. bishops and an authority on Catholic theology?)

Though I find what Nancy Pelosi had to say about abortion and the Catholic tradition incomplete, I am not among those detractors who are claiming that Catholic politicians ought to stay out of the theological kitchen and stick to politics. They have to deal with theological issues. They have to try to understand intricate theological points.

There is no option both because they are political leaders dealing with a smorgasbord of issues that have theological underpinnings, and because the religious right (including the Catholic bishops) keep pushing this issue. I am disappointed with some commentators who have stated that Pelosi doesn’t understand abortion well from a theological standpoint and ought to leave the discussion of that issue to theologians and the bishops.

Here’s the problem: the bishops long ago told theologians to shut up about this issue. Saying that Pelosi should leave the discussion to theologians and the bishops is implicitly saying it should be left to the bishops.

Like Cardinal George. Bishops who have not proven themselves, in very many cases, to be trustworthy moral leaders. Who want to claim absolute ownership of all theological and moral discussions.

In a church in which every baptized Christian is a priest by virtue of baptism, someone sharing in the (non-ordained) priesthood of Christ has a right and an obligation to delve into theological and moral issues and to speak out about them, particularly when she has a public office. Why on earth shouldn’t Pelosi speak out about abortion—as a Catholic, who has as much right to think about and come to conscientious conclusions about this issue as any bishop has? As a woman? As a politician?

What this “debate” is boiling down to is whether bishops have the unilateral right to control theological and moral discussion, and to impose a unitary voice on the discussion. And then to use that unitary voice to commandeer the Catholic vote.

They’ve tried this in the past, and doing so hasn’t served church or society well. It appears they are doing so again this election cycle. I doubt that their attempt this go-round will serve church and society well.

In fact, I am coming to the conclusion that we are well-enough informed about many issues—including the bishops’ own malfeasance when it comes to the abuse crisis—to make this attempt to lock Catholic consciences’ up in the Republican closet downright sinful.

Can bishops sin? You better believe they can . . . .