Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bart Stupak and the Catholic Bishops: "Very, Very, Very Engaged"

Several days ago, when I gave a thumbs-down to the way in which Michigan Representative Bart Stupak has involved himself in the health-care debate, I wrote,

Stupak is carrying water for the U.S. Catholic bishops, who are doing incalculable harm to American society as well as to the church by their behind-the-scenes arm-twisting and bullying tactics.

And so I’m interested read the take of Newsweek’s Lisa Miller on the “righteousness” of a new generation of politics-playing U.S. Catholic bishops (h/t to Dennis Coday at National Catholic Reporter). 

Miller notes the make-or-break role into which the bishops have worked themselves vis-à-vis a health care reform bill, and the determination of a new generation of JPII “activist” bishops to involve themselves directly in the political arena, circumventing (and outright ignoring) the views of American Catholic laity about issues as they jump into the political arena to dictate “the” Catholic position.

Miller concludes:

This strategy has worked, to a point. I spoke last week to Rep. Bart Stupak, the Catholic Democrat from Michigan who, at the 11th hour, attached an amendment to the House health-care bill restricting the use of government funds to any health-care plan that includes abortion. The bishops, he says, were "very, very, very engaged" in the framing of the amendment. Through last summer and fall, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "was working with my staff." But as the House headed toward a vote, "I asked them to come by, to make sure we were on the same page. After that first meeting, I said, 'I'm not moving forward until you know what I'm doing.' We had to coordinate forces. They'd ask us about members. I'd say, 'I've talked to this one but not to that one.' " The bishops, in other words, were counting votes.

And so back to my point: one of the reasons I give Stupak’s involvement in the health-care debate a thumbs down is that he is carrying water for “activist” U.S. Catholic bishops.  He is a functioning as a political front man for a powerful behind-the-scenes religious lobby that does not intend to entertain public discussion of the positions this lobby is forcing on the nation as a whole—not even within the community of faith the lobby represents.

As my posting several days ago notes, this way of playing politics does incalculable harm to the nation as a whole, since it’s an undemocratic, theocratic way of doing business that it inimical to American democracy.  It allows a single religious group—and a minority within the religious group, at that—to dictate public policy for a pluralistic secular society.

And this way of playing politics is harming the church.  The bishops have not succeeded in convincing either a majority of Americans or a majority of American Catholics to buy into their hard-line position on abortion, because they have refused to permit respectful, open discussion of the complex issues involved in the abortion debate, either among American Catholics or in the church’s interchange with the public square.

An ethic imposed from the top down, with no discussion, with no ground-laying work to make that ethic understandable to those expected to buy it, is hardly an ethic that will compel assent.  It’s hardly an ethic worthy of the name “ethic,” since it’s extrinsic, imposed, not freely chosen by an understanding mind and a willing heart.

In trying to strongarm the American public and force the public to accept a single understanding of abortion, and to conform to one religious group’s strictures about abortion, the bishops are not promoting a convincing consistent ethic of life in American culture.

They are throwing their weight around, to the detriment of both church and society.  One can be pro-life and anti-abortion and approach these issues in a very different way. 

But that way would require respectful attention to the laity, respectful attention that the church of John Paul II and Benedict adamantly does not wish to cultivate.

Look for more of this behavior from the bishops, particularly in issues affecting gay and lesbian citizens.  And as it rolls forth, look at who the cheerleaders for this behavior are, and ask yourself if this is the best the Catholic church is capable of right now in American society.  And if this bullying behavior will serve the best interests of the American Catholic church in the long term.