Friday, March 26, 2010

U.S. Catholic Bishops' Media Relations Director Addresses Violence in Political Sphere

Two days ago, I wrote,

As I say to the U.S. Catholic bishops in my October 2008 open letter calling on them to denounce the escalating verbal violence in our political sphere, including verbal violence by people claiming to represent pro-life positions, the credibility of the bishops depends on whether they speak out.  Their outspoken rejection of the health care bill obligates them to condemn the kind of violence Bart Stupak is now experiencing.

And because I wrote those words, it’s important that I note a statement that came from the office of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference the following day.  On Thursday USCCB’s media relations director, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, made a statement on the USCCB media blog addressing the violence now roiling our political life in the U.S. (and see Fr. Jim Martin’s excerpts at America blog).

Sister Mary Ann Walsh states that “we need to address th[e] climate” in which crowds are now slinging racist taunts at African-American legislators, vandals are targeting houses and workplaces of lawmakers, and legislators are receiving death threats.

Sister Mary Ann is absolutely right, of course.  And it’s fitting that a nun should issue this statement on behalf of the bishops, given the admirable role American religious women played in the health care debate—and the far less admirable role the bishops played. 

The bishops’ behavior—as a body—throughout the current federal administration hardly leaves them with a strong foundation for issuing credible moral guidance now, as violence frays the ties that bind us in our political and cultural life.

At the same time, if the U.S. Catholic bishops do expect to have any credibility as moral teachers in any area at all, it’s incumbent on them to address the growing violence in our political discourse, and to do so as a body.  And forthrightly.

Much of that violence stems, after all, from people with whom the bishops have made an unholy alliance in recent years—from people who believe that shouting “baby killer!” and threatening physical harm to those who do not share their views about the moral approach to life issues constitutes bona fide pro-life political activism.

It’s interesting, by the way, to note that Sister Mary Ann’s statement completely elides both Mr. Neugebauer’s ugly taunt of Mr. Stupak as a baby killer on the House floor, and the homophobic slurs aimed at Mr. Frank on the same day that racist epithets were hurled at Mr. Lewis. 

Even with these elisions, what Sister Mary Ann says is a start.  It would be heartening now to hear the men for whom she works follow up with a statement of their own, one acknowledging how their partisan pastoral leadership has contributed to a climate of growing recrimination against those who do not toe the line of the political and religious right.  And how their refusal to include lay Catholics in the deliberation process by which their religious and political teaching is formulated undermines their effectiveness as moral teachers, and grieviously harms a church that should incorporate a far greater diversity of moral and political insights than those of one political party—and of the extreme right wing of this party, at that.