Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Alliance of U.S. Catholic Bishops with Fundamenalist Religious Right: Why? James Carroll's Take

Some interesting dialogue developed here a day or so ago when I published a posting about recent indicators that the level of public discourse re: biblical scholarship may be shifting in the U.S., particularly when it comes to the issue of what the bible has to say about sexual ethics and homosexuality in particular.  One of the focal points of concern in the discussion that followed was whether the U.S. Catholic bishops have allied themselves in recent years with the fundamentalist wings of Protestant evangelicalism, and if so, what that portends for the future of the Catholic community in the U.S.

As a follow-up to that discussion, I'd like to offer some testimony by the noted Catholic writer James Carroll.  Back in the fall of 2009--even before the election of Timothy Dolan to the head of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference--Carroll was detecting a "watershed moment" in American Catholicism, as the U.S. bishops have become, for the first time in the history of the church in the U.S., "solidly right wing."

Carroll specifically addresses the decision of the solidly right-wing bishops now running the Catholic church in the U.S. to align themselves with "a know-nothing fundamentalism that once, by every measure of theology and social policy, embodied the Church’s opposite."  Two factors have driven this alignment, he thinks: the appointment by John Paul II of only right-wing bishops over the long years of his pontificate; and the arrival of the religious right, with Reagan, as an "establishment force" in American politics and culture.

And so why have the bishops been so eager to cozy up to a know-nothing fundamentalism that seems to embody the opposite of what Catholicism has long stood for, and has even been historically antithetical and hostile to the Catholic church?  Here's Carroll's take:

That Catholic bishops are genuinely conservative is beyond doubt, but one might also note how their unprecedented alliance with an already powerful political-religious movement nicely solves the bishops’ biggest problem–the bankruptcy of their moral authority and loss of social clout in the wake of the priest-pedophilia scandal. New Protestant allies are happy to let go of old anti-Catholic prejudices, even those confirmed by priestly child abuse, for the sake of advancing their narrow moral agenda. Meanwhile, an equally divided political culture puts bishops in the cat-bird seat when it comes to tipping the scales of close elections or contested legislation, and that unexpectedly pivotal role has rescued them. The self-righteous glee with which they spout ethical absolutes, the fervor with which they threaten excommunication of dissidents, and the chest-thumping with which they mark their decisive influence on urgent legislation all suggest the degree of their relief to be out from under the cloud of contempt in which they were held because of their handling of the sex abuse-crisis. 

It's all about power.  It's about buying, through their alliance with the kingmakers of the religious right, a political and cultural power and influence that the Catholic bishops of the U.S. have forfeited by their abysmal pastoral handling of the crisis causes by sexual abuse of minors by priests.  

In my view, Carroll is absolutely correct in his analysis here, and we've only begun to see all the ramifications of the realignment of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference with the religious right, as Timothy Dolan assumes the presidency of that group.  Except for one thing, as Carroll notes: the abuse crisis is not yet over, by any means.

And we still don't know what will be coming out down the road, to undermine the moral authority of the U.S. Catholic bishops even more seriously than it has already been undermined.

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