Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bishops Throw a Party, No One Comes

Today’s Los Angeles Times carries interesting commentary by Tim Rutten on the end of “the” Catholic vote in this election (,1,3091816.column). Rutten notes that a recent New York Times/CBS poll shows Obama now with a commanding 59%-31% lead over McCain among Catholics nationwide. This despite a quarter of the U.S. bishops instructing their flocks to vote solely on the basis of abortion . . . . In heavily Catholic Pennsylvania, a key battleground state where the Catholic vote is crucial, all polls show Obama with a double-digit lead over McCain.

Whispers in the Loggia is reporting today that, as North Carolina also becomes a toss-up state—with the senate seat of the former senator Jesse Helms up for grabs!—North Carolina bishops Peter Jugis and Michael Burbidge have taken it on themselves to issue a joint letter insisting that their flocks vote on the basis of abortion—codespeak for vote Republican ( Whispers in the Loggia has a link to the text of the joint letter.

The letter was issued under the auspices of one of those mysterious quasi-Catholic, quasi-political websites whose funding is not immediately apparent—Catholic Voice NC ( Click to the site and one finds it “operates under the authority” of the two bishops—but nary word about its funding sources or status as a 501(c)(3) or PAC or anything else. The site contains the predictable list of the “non-negotiable” issues that Catholics are supposed to consider paramount as they vote, with immigration thrown in for good measure.

The site claims to be “non-partisan.” Yet I find it being linked to by a current Republican candidate in NC, Paul Terrell, whose website lists the Family Research Council and the American Family Association alongside Catholic Voice NC as resources for voters (

The bishops are doing almost everything including standing on their heads to throw this election to “the” “pro-life” party. And Catholics aren’t listening.

The bishops have a problem on their hands. Bishops should not ever place themselves where their voice becomes extrinsic to the lived experience of their flock. Bishops should not court irrelevance by diminishing their moral authority. That authority has already been seriously strained by revelations about how a large percentage of American bishops have handled the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of minors.

Now it is being strained further—I would argue to the breaking point—by the bishops’ undisguised partiality for a political party that does not, in the estimation of an increasing number of Catholics, in any shape or fashion adequately represent Catholic values, including Catholic values regarding the sanctity of life. By clinging obstinately to that single party and the single political option it represents, the bishops are giving many Catholics the impression that, in the final analysis, they don’t really care whether there’s concrete evidence of their party’s commitment to life or not. Which is to say, they are leading us to wonder if they are actually so gung-ho about the value of life as they keep telling us they are.

Or whether their commitment to “the” “pro-life” party is primarily ideological, and based on ideological considerations transcending the life issue . . . . As the latest editorial of the National Catholic Reporter puts the point, the bishops’ narrow anti-abortion effort hurts the pro-life cause ( The bishops’ one-cause, one-party politics is hurting the pro-life cause the bishops claim to hold most dear. Through their single-issue politics, the bishops are militating against the values they claim to serve, rather than effectively proclaiming those values.

Predictably, this editorial is provoking shouts of outrage from true believers who have swallowed the bishops’ ideological line for several decades now. And predictably, the well-orchestrated campaign of blog comments blasting NCR only serves to underscore the editorial’s point: if this is what a “pro-life” politics is all about, this stream of endless bile, of calumny and hatred, then what on earth have we been building through our alliance with “the” party of life?

In the name of life, in the name of the “non-negotiables,” Catholicism is coming to be viewed as a religion rabidly opposed to those core values necessary to sustain a healthy civil society—values like tolerance, respect for diversity, willingness to entertain differing viewpoints, fidelity to the truth. Values like love and affirmation of those who are hurting.

One of the truly frightening developments in the Catholic political world in the United States in recent years is the extent to which the most ardent pro-life Catholic political leaders are also turning out to be the most hateful homophobes around. I talked yesterday about Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, an ardent pro-life Catholic whose homophobia eventually became too toxic even for his conservative supporters to stomach. Hard to find love and affirmation of those who are hurting, in what Santorum and his clones holding Catholic Republican seats around the nation stand for. Hard to see core Catholic values at all in their positions.

To their discredit, this alliance between hate and pro-life politics is one the bishops have carefully cemented through the tunnel-visioned pastoral strategy they have pursued for decades now. The connection between hate and pro-life politics is something the bishops have worked for. It’s something they’ve created, and which they aren’t decrying in this election in any way that salvages their already badly damaged credibility as pastoral leaders.

The bishops have work to do. We people of faith have work to do.

This is a conclusion that NCR reporter John Allen is also reaching as the election cycle ends. Allen’s recent article “Serious Catholics Wind Up ‘Politically Homeless’ in America” comments on the serious problems facing Catholics at the close of this election ( Interestingly enough, at the same time that Allen’s article appeared on the blog café of NCR, several of the rabid bloggers attacking NCR for its editorial suggesting the bishops are hurting the pro-life cause praise Allen as the only credible reporter at the publication.

And that praise is indicative to me of something troubling in Allen’s analysis, which I’d like to discuss now. I want to do so because I suspect Allen’s analysis will be very influential in coming weeks, as Catholics dissect the election and as the bishops meet following the election. And, though I think Allen’s analysis makes important point, I propose that it does so from a rightward-tilting direction masquerading as centrist, and thus compounds rather than offers viable solutions for the deep problems of American Catholicism it notes.

Allen’s thesis is that “serious Catholics” are now finding themselves without a political home, since neither party adequately represents core Catholic values. Allen asks, “What would happen if a serious candidate came along who's pro-life, pro-family, anti-war, pro-immigrant, anti-death penalty, pro-sustainable development, and a multi-lateralist in foreign policy concerned with religious freedom and a robust role for believers in public life?”

He concludes that, “In some ways, we are at risk of becoming two separate churches.” In Allen’s view, the communion of the American church is in danger of being so fractured by political factionalism that preserving communion may be the most serious issue American Catholics face after the election: “The challenge of fostering communion may, in fact, be the deepest question posed by the '08 elections for American Catholics, even if it's not one given much space on political blogs or newspaper op/ed pages.”

While I agree with much that John Allen says here, I have serious reservations about his argument. I wonder why he is only now discovering the political homelessness of many American Catholics—now when, for several decades, almost all American Catholics who have not toed the one-party, one-issue political line have been made to know that we are not welcome in our religious family.

It’s not as if this problem of homelessness for some American Catholics is only now surfacing. It’s been there for some time, and for those of us who have actively been made to feel unwelcome, it has been painful and serious for decades now. We have already been crying out—or trying to do so, in a church that does not ever hear our voice—about breach of communion. We have offered testimony that has fallen on deaf ears, about how we have been shoved from the table, tacitly expelled from communion.

Why the sudden interest in politically homeless Catholics now? Why a focus on the problem of American Catholic homelessness only after the futility, the moral bankruptcy, of the bishops’ single-issue political and pastoral strategy is finally definitively apparent? As “the” “pro-life” party no longer easily commands Catholic loyalty . . . .

Something in the way John Allen sets up his plaintive argument calling for attention to politically homeless Catholics and the problem of broken communion suggests to me that this problem is a new problem primarily for those who are only now seeing the limits of the Catholic alliance with the Republican party. That is, the problem is now real, since it affects those who have followed the one-issue party line up to now, and who find themselves unable to do so since they have not been offered a viable pro-life candidate in this election. This is an analysis of the homelessness of politically disenchanted Republican Catholics, who are facing the end of their dreams to control American culture and political life through theocratic means.

This interpretation of Allen’s argument is reinforced by his insistence that it’s “serious” Catholics who are now feeling politically homeless. So the rest of us are, what, unserious Catholics? The chopped liver of the American church? Why were the problems of being made homeless and of being shoved from the table not apparent when we lax Catholics noted them over and over, with much pain, in recent years?

Allen notes, vis-à-vis the current election, “For disenfranchised Catholics, the road ahead is far less clear.” Yep. Been there. Done that. Many of us have been saying this for years now. So, once again, why now? Why is this recognition only now grabbing the attention of mainstream Catholics like John Allen? Now, when the party they have given a free ride to for far too long is suddenly in danger of losing?

Allen’s rhetoric about pro-life, pro-family political leaders in the quotation I excerpt above also sets my teeth on edge. As I’ve noted previously on this blog, the pro-life battle cry has to all intents and purposes been evacuated of serious significance by those who have turned it into a slogan to bash others over the head with.

And when I hear the phrase “pro-family,” I can only hear “anti-gay.” As a slogan in Catholic political rhetoric, this battle cry has come to be another of those stand-against rather than stand-for phrases. Those of us who are the object of the battle cry know in our bones that it’s not so much about building healthy families as it is about bashing us and our families. We have long wondered why “the” “pro-life,” “pro-family” party, whose policies do far less to meet the needs of real American families than do the policies of the party some bishops call the party of death, has earned a pro-family star in Catholic circles.

I have to wonder about John Allen. Where does he really stand, while he reminds us he’s objective and centrist in his approach? I’ve noted on this blog his attempt to whitewash the homophobic Vatican witch hunt to expel gays from seminaries, and the negative reaction that attempt elicited from some very good American theologians and from major superiors of Catholic religious orders.

I have even begun to wonder about Allen’s reported ties to Archbishop Chaput. Earlier this year, Allen was identified by one Catholic bogger as a friend of Chaput ( When Chaput invited him to speak in Denver, Allen himself noted in a 2004 article that “. . . I share a connection [with Chaput] through the Capuchin Franciscans. (Chaput is a Capuchin, while I grew up in Capuchin schools in Western Kansas)” (

The company we keep provides a powerful frame through which we see and interpret the world. The connections we make may blind us to the deleterious effects of some of our hidden political alliances.

My concerns about the tenor of Allen’s analysis only deepens when I read his comments the Spanish government in the article on the homelessness of “serious” Catholics in America. Allen notes,

The Vatican has centuries of experience in dealing with regimes that, in one way or another, are hostile to church teaching. When Pope Benedict XVI travelled to Spain in July 2006, for example, many analysts expected an Ali/Frazier-style prizefight with Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who has done battle with the Catholic church on every imaginable front: same-sex marriage, divorce, abortion, stem cell research and more.

Regimes that are hostile to church teaching? Spain? Zapatero? This is a one-sided analysis of the relationship between Zapatero’s government and the Spanish Catholic church.

After the Spanish bishops orchestrated an anti-gay marriage demonstration at the end of last year, 150 grass-roots Catholic communities in Spain issued a statement accusing the bishops who orchestrated the event of ignoring the will of the vast majority of Spanish Catholics, who are strongly committed to human rights for all (

And theologians in Spain, including the John XXIII Association, have repeatedly noted that the battle is not between secularism and Catholicism, as the Vatican (and Allen) like to depict it, but between two very different notions of Catholicism: the pre-Vatican II fascist Catholicism of the Franco regime and a lay-oriented Catholicism in line with Vatican II that strongly supports the current Spanish government (

The problems in American Catholicism are, indeed, serious as the bishops prepare to meet in November. This election is bringing them to the front, but they have been there for some time. I do not think that Allen’s analysis will help us face them squarely and solve them, though I suspect his analysis will be welcomed by not a few bishops who are only now beginning to wonder about the wisdom of their political and pastoral agenda for the U.S. church, now when the party they have anointed no longer commands Catholic allegiance.

As I noted in my post-Katrina essay cited on this blog several times, as the bishops continue to natter on about the sanctity of life while supporting political leaders who are anti-life, it’s entirely possible that, one day, they’ll give a party and no one will come (

I’m afraid that day is here. A February 2008 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) shows weekly mass attendance among American Catholics at 23%—an all-time low (
And that was in February, before this election with its continued demonstration that the bishops are simply not capable of offering the American church sound pastoral leadership, as an episcopal body.

Wise pastoral leaders would face such a serious problem squarely. They would also ask about their complicity in creating it. Somehow, I doubt the U.S. bishops will do either of those things as they meet following the election. I expect them instead to continue their one-issue politics, and to deepen the breach of communion in the American church.

Of course, if they do want advice, many of us who are on the other side of the breach they have created—those of us pushed outside communion, who are now being joined weekly by over three quarters of our fellow Catholics—could give the bishops an earful. If they want to hear, that is.