Monday, November 10, 2008

And Now the Bishops Meet

Beginning with this open letter to the U.S. Catholic bishops on 10 October, I have blogged repeatedly about the opening to violence that hateful campaign rhetoric—especially at rallies of Sarah Palin—has now created in our society ( I have repeatedly called on the U.S. Catholic bishops as a body to address and condemn such rhetorical violence, and to remind people of good will that rhetorical violence fuels actual violence.

The bishops have remained silent. Since they are now meeting in Baltimore, I renew my appeal to them.

Today, Tim Shipman reports in the London Telegraph that the Secret Service has now released information that they “warned the Obama family in mid October that they had seen a dramatic increase in the number of threats against the Democratic candidate, coinciding with Mrs Palin's attacks” ( Shipman notes that Palin’s attacks on Obama “provoked a near lynch mob atmosphere at her rallies, with supporters yelling ‘terrorist’ and ‘kill him’ until the McCain campaign ordered her to tone down the rhetoric.”

During the campaign, two plots to assassinate Mr. Obama were broken up. Others remain under investigation. The Secret Service has warned Obama that he “is a high risk target for racist gunmen.”

Once again: the hate rhetoric that fanned the flames of potential violence walked hand in hand with pro-life rhetoric in the recent campaign. As leaders of a religious community that accentuates the need to respect life, the bishops have an obligation to speak out on behalf of life values and against violence.

Unambiguously, strongly, clearly. Though the campaign is over, when demagoguery begins to elicit violence, people of faith and their leaders have an exceptionally strong responsibility to speak out repeatedly—against violence and for life. And to distance ourselves from those using pro-life rhetoric who simultaneously foment violence and hate.

As one small voice in a large flock, I continue to call on the U.S. Catholic bishops to offer pastoral leadership to the flock. And to offer the nation the moral guidance on which the Catholic community prides itself. The bishops’ voice needs to be heard, particularly when a member of their body, Bishop Rene Gracida of Corpus Christi, released a radio statement during the campaign speaking of Mr. Obama as Barack Hussein Obama as he instructed Catholics to vote against Mr. Obama (,

This is inflammatory rhetoric. It deserves to be roundly condemned by the bishops as a body. It should be repudiated in a way that makes clear to the American public that the bishops reject violence as a Catholic value.

And on the subject of the pastoral leadership of the bishops—another topic I have repeatedly addressed on this blog—I want to note an 8 November article of Peter Steinfels in the New York Times ( Steinfels asks,

By appearing to tie their moral stance on abortion so closely to a particular political choice, have they [i.e., the U.S. Catholic bishops] in fact undermined their moral persuasiveness on that issue as well as their pastoral effectiveness generally?

In my view, the answer to that question is an indubitable yes. Particularly when there are undeniable indicators of a growing collusion between those using outright hate rhetoric and those who claim to promote the bishops’ pro-life stance. I have documented that link in detail on this blog as the campaign unfolded, and will not repeat what I have said about it.

As I have also noted, a percentage of bishops perhaps greater than in any previous election played overt partisan politics in this campaign, making statements that were either outright endorsements of Mr. McCain (as was Bishop Gracida’s), or were obvious endorsements wearing a disguise so thin no one was in doubt of what lay underneath the scant vestments. Steinfels notes the estimate of 50-60 such partisan bishops that was circulating as the election ended, an estimate I have cited several times from Rocco Palma’s Whispers in the Loggia Blog.

As I have also noted, given the partisan statements of such a significant number of bishops—and the silence of their brother bishops as these statements came forth—the public now has a strong perception that the bishops as a body were strongly partisan in this election.

For many Catholics, it no longer suffices to suggest that the bishops oppose single-issue voting and recognize a range of values and issues that ought to merit Catholic attention. As Steinfels notes,

Many Catholics may understandably feel that the bishops are talking out of both sides of their mouths: Catholics are not supposed to be single-issue voters, but, by the way, abortion is the only issue that counts. The bishops do not intend to tell Catholics how to vote; but, by the way, a vote for Senator Obama puts your salvation at risk. Catholics are to form their consciences and make prudential judgments about complex matters of good and evil — just so long as they come to the same conclusions as the bishops.

Given the now widespread perception of Catholics and the public at large that the bishops play partisan politics as a body, and that their real judgment about the Democratic party and its candidate are clear no matter how carefully some church leaders parse political statements, Steinfels wonders how the bishops will confront their apparent defeat in the election, as they gather in Baltimore.

Steinfels’ emphasis on the (self-created) threats to the bishops’ pastoral leadership is well-placed. The real question that ought to be front and center in the bishops’ minds as they meet now is how to deal with their failed pastoral leadership of the American Catholic people.