Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Bishops Assert Their Authority: U.S. Catholic Bishops Tell Us about Marriage

As expected (and as Colleen Kochivar-Baker has noted with insightful analysis), the Catholic bishops of the U.S. have approved the marriage pastoral drafted for this USCCB meeting, with a number of revisions.

Those revisions include the deletion of language about cohabitation outside marriage and use of artificial contraception as “intrinsically evil.” The final draft says, instead, that these violations of natural law are “objectively wrong” and “essentially opposed” to God’s plan. By contrast, the bishops want to maintain that same-sex marriage poses a “multifaceted threat to the very fabric of society,” though the same natural-law norms used to forbid contraceptive use and cohabitation before marriage also forbid homosexual acts.

I don’t really have anything new to add to what I’ve said previously about this eminently unpastoral—this eminently anti-pastoral—letter. Instead of analyzing the text anew, I’d like to offer a smorgasbord of thoughts about where the U.S. Catholic bishops are leading the American Catholic church with statements like this.

These are desultory, not organized and polished, thoughts, more a set of aper├žus than careful analysis. Frankly, I’m not sure that this pastoral statement deserves more—and that’s where I’ll begin my set of reactions:

▪ A majority of American Catholics will simply ignore this pastoral letter, except insofar as it provides further ammunition to the religious and political right to bash gays, and the bishops know that this is the case and intend for the letter to be received in this way.

▪ The really pastoral response to the situation in which U.S. Catholicism finds itself due to the lack of leadership by its current bishops would be, instead, to ask why large numbers of Catholics are leaving the church and will continue to leave, and what the bishops ought to do about that reality.

▪ The choice to issue a marriage pastoral is a political choice that reflects a number of political realities.

▪▪ This choice reflects a church-political reality: the bishops are dancing to Rome’s tune, and they have no effective autonomy to look at the situation of the national church they are leading, and to respond to its pastoral needs from within the American context, independently of the tune played by Rome.

▪▪ It is extremely important to the current papal regime that all national bishops’ conferences say exactly—no more and no less—what Rome intends for them to say, and so statements like this pastoral letter are being dictated and imposed by Rome, regardless of what the bishops of a particular bishops’ conference want or think.

▪▪ There’s also a secular political reality at work here: this is the bishops’ intent to remain aligned with political groups (and wealthy donors within these groups) for whom it remains crucial to stigmatize and marginalize gay persons and to have religious support as they do so.

▪▪ I take a remark of Archbishop Kurtz of Louisville, head of the subcommittee that drafted this pastoral letter, as an indicator of the extent to which political considerations are driving this pastoral statement: Kurtz stated that the document will serve the American church well “for the next three years.”

▪▪ This suggests to me that there is an overwhelming need on the part of the bishops (acting in conformity to instructions from Rome) to address a political situation in the U.S. in which gay rights, including the right to same-sex marriage, may move forward dramatically in a short period of time, until a new election cycle calls this trend into question.

▪▪ The bishops aren’t defending marriage so much as they’re acting in concert to roll back the tide of gay rights in every way possible. This is a tactical, present-oriented political move that has nothing at all to do, in the final analysis, with reintroducing the majority of American Catholics to teaching about marriage from which they have strayed.

▪ In fact, the bishops don’t care much about the use of artificial contraceptives and about premarital cohabitation. They know full well that these are social trends that are impossible to reverse, and that they would pay a very high price if they began to preach against, attack, and organize politically against Catholics cohabiting before marriage and using contraceptives.

▪ This “pastoral” letter is an overwhelmingly political and overwhelmingly anti-gay move on the part of Rome and the U.S. bishops—a cynical move that may one day be seen by historians as a shocking abdication of pastoral responsibility on the part of the bishops.

▪ As Fr. Geoff Farrow points out on his splendid blog this week, the bishops (taking their orders here from Rome) are making a cynical “market” calculation by hinging more and more of the Catholic “brand” on homophobia. They believe that in doing so, they are playing to the cultural mindset of developing nations in which the Catholic population is growing rapidly.

▪ If gay people happen to be the price that has to be paid in this cynical transaction to consolidate the church’s hold over the populations of developing nations, then it is not, after all, such a high price, considering 1) that gay people are a small minority, and 2) that many people will actively support the violation of the human rights of a despised minority even, or perhaps particularly, by religious groups.

▪ This calculating and cynical political strategy runs the risk of bringing short-term gains at a very high price, however, for the Catholic church in the developed portions of the world.

▪ It will not reverse, but will instead increase, the tendency of more and more younger Catholics to walk away from the church.

▪ As a result, the church in the developed nations will be left with a core of hard-line, ill-educated younger believers who are incapable of communicating Catholic values to the culture at large, because 1) they have rejected key aspects of the culture, and 2) their educations do not equip them for such dialogue.

▪ And none of these actions will conceal what is really at the heart of the exodus of many Catholics from the church today: the bishops’ (and Rome’s) complicity in and responsibility for the sexual abuse crisis in the priesthood.