Thursday, November 12, 2009

Exclusionary Politics or Care for the Poor?: Reflections on the Eroding Moral Authority of the U.S. Catholic Bishops

I appreciate the discussion that followed my posting two days ago about the latest Catholic hall of shame—the list of Catholic dioceses across the U.S. (and in the Caribbean) that sent donations to the diocese of Portland, Maine, to attack gay human beings in Maine recently. Some readers have noted that if you look carefully at the list of donors to the Portland diocese which the diocese provided the Maine Ethics Commission on 23 October, you’ll see more bishops than those I listed contributing to this attack.

That’s correct, and I’m glad to have it pointed out. I’ve revised the list to try to include the names of any bishops I missed with my initial compilation.

Another issue that has surfaced in the discussion is the question of whether these dioceses took up special collections to support the Maine initiative. I don’t have any way of knowing for certain, but I suspect that the vast majority of the dioceses, if not all of them, contributing to the assault on their gay brothers and sisters in Maine used funds donated by parishioners in ordinary Sunday collections each week.

That’s to say that I suspect that most Catholics from all over the country whose donations to the church were used in this mean-spirited political initiative had no idea at all that when they were dropping their dollars into church collection baskets, they were funding a political attack on their gay sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. I suspect that most Catholics around the country imagined that these dollars were going to be used to support schools and church buildings, clothe and shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, tend to the sick, and so forth.

Faithful Catholics need to be critically aware that bishops have used and will continue to use money they donate to the church for purposes other than those for which they believe they’re giving. One of the ongoing revelations of the crisis of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic church is that bishops have used—and continue to use—millions on millions of dollars donated by good Catholics who believe they are giving for all the reasons outlined in the previous paragraph but who find, instead, that their donations have been used to beat up survivors of clerical abuse who seek a hearing from the church, to hire aggressive lawyers to threaten survivors with hardball court battles, to pay off families and buy their silence, and to influence the media and criminal justice system to back off from investigation of the abuse crisis and its cover-up.

As many Catholics have become aware that their donations are being used for such purposes, they have been rightly outraged. As they ought to be. And they ought to be equally outraged, it seems to me, to discover that they are now contributing to a national Catholic political cause many of them do not support—to put gay folks in our place as second-class citizens and defective human beings, to show gay people that we do not count and ought never to expect to count, and to remove rights from us.

The American Catholic church needs to have a national conversation about its bishops’ continued use of church funds to pursue ends of which lay Catholics, the funding base of the church, do not approve. And about which they do not even know, since no laws require that the church provide comprehensive, accurate accounting of the monies it takes in and how it expends those monies.

Meanwhile, as the Catholic bishops find money to fund attacks on a vulnerable group of brothers and sisters, they continue to close churches and curb charitable programs in many of the dioceses that sent money to Maine in recent months. As Timothy Kincaid notes at Box Turtle Bulletin yesterday, on 16 July, the archdiocese of St. Louis ponied up $10,000 for the attack on gay citizens in Maine.

But on 22 June, less than a month before, the St. Louis archdiocese eliminated four positions at Catholic Charities, Missouri’s largest provider of social services. As it did so, the archdiocese announced that it had to cut jobs to downsize.

As Timothy Kincaid notes, “Choosing exclusionary politics over care for the poor does not yield itself to many PR successes.” Indeed. Nor should it, because it’s a lamentable betrayal of gospel values, one that radically undermines the attempt of the church to proclaim God’s love to the world. This kind of behavior makes the church’s proclamation of the gospel message sound exceedingly hollow.

Some defensive Catholics leading the charge in these aggressive political battles are trying to raise the tired old ghost of anti-Catholicism (see here, here, and here), with claims that the secular media and progressive organizations are piling on as the bishops make their voice heard in the public square—in a way that the media and progressive groups would never do if any religious group other than Catholics were under consideration. What’s baffling about that charge—beside its tiredness, and the expectation that it will find legs even now, as new revelations of the bishops’ complicity in covering up sexual abuse of children by priests continue to roll forth—is how oblivious it is to the primary reason that many Americans, including large numbers of Catholics, are disgusted with the behavior of the U.S. Catholic bishops, and unwilling to listen to them as moral teachers.

The bishops have, on their own and with no help from anyone else, done a very effective job of stirring up critical scrutiny of their activities and resistance to their role as moral standard-bearers. And it seems very unlikely to me that the willingness many bishops have just exhibited in the Maine case to place exclusionary politics over care of the poor is going to help their case.

It need not be anti-Catholic to note this. In fact, Catholics concerned about the future of their church ought to be intently concerned about the huge gap that has opened between what the church wants to teach, and how many of its leaders are now behaving—particularly in the political arena and with their handling of the abuse crisis, and particularly re: their gay brothers and sisters. It is very difficult to talk about respect for human rights and concern for a culture of respect for life, when those spouting such rhetoric target hurting people, to make their lives even more miserable.

It is exceedingly difficult to talk about love, salvation, being a sacramental sign of God in the world, and communion when everything one does in the case of a group of vulnerable human beings belies the core meaning of each of those terms. The bishops are doing a splendid job of undermining their authority as moral teachers. They need not turn to the old canard of the anti-Catholic media in an anti-Catholic culture to explain why they find their role as moral authorities questioned and contested.

And what the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., announced yesterday is not going to help the bishops regain the moral high road one little bit. The Catholic archdiocese of D.C. announced yesterday that if D.C. does not suspend its non-discrimination laws as it entertains a same-sex marriage bill, the archdiocese will be forced to shut down Catholic Charities.

Though the bill states that religious groups will not be required to perform or provide space for same-sex weddings, the archdiocese is concerned that it will be expected to offer same-sex partner benefits to Catholic employees if the bill passes. The Catholic archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is demanding that it have the right to discriminate, and it’s willing to play hardball politics with the lives of tens of thousands of D.C. citizens living on the economic edge to obtain that right.

Not a pretty picture. But one consistent with the bishops’ behavior in the case of Maine recently, and throughout the health care debate, in which the bishops have used abortion as a make-or-break issue to hold health care reform hostage, regardless of what a majority of Americans think or want in this matter.

It seems that the more the bishops erode their authority as moral teachers, the more intent they are about using vulnerable groups as political pawns in ugly games designed to bolster their faltering authority. And to issue threats and to try coercive tricks rather than to engage in respectful dialogue with those whom they seek to convince that Catholic principles deserve a hearing.

There is little wisdom and a shocking dearth of charity in this behavior. And the only way I can see it changing anytime soon is if ordinary Catholics everywhere demand better of church leaders by withholding donations and other support from the church until the bishops begin to act like something approaching good and faithful shepherds for a change.

Update, 11:35 A.M.: Interesting to read now what Andrew Sullivan posted on his Daily Dish blog around the time I was posting my piece above:

The hierarchy's growing fusion with fundamentalist Republican politics is becoming harder and harder to ignore. They can turn a blind eye to state-sanctioned torture, and to the suffering of those without healthcare, but when it comes to ensuring that gay couples are kept stigmatized or that non-Catholic women can't have access to abortion in a secular society, they come alive.

Andrew Sullivan notes that he's struck by the emphases of the American hierarchy in recent months. In the discussion of health care reform, there seems to be far more preoccupation with preventing those who obtain health coverage through a government plan from getting an abortion, even if they pay for it themselves, than on the core principles of Catholic teaching about health care as a human right.

Andrew's correct, I think. And in the process, the bishops are eroding their authority as moral teachers even more decisively than they've already eroded it, through their handling of the clerical sexual abuse crisis.