Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Catholic Bishops' Lobby and the Moral Center of Catholicism

Recently, I took note of a back-and-forth between Michael Sean Winters and Tom Roberts at National Catholic Reporter, in which Roberts calls into question a persistent meme of Winters' reporting on behalf of the U.S. Catholic bishops.  Roberts notes that Winters's defense of the bishops depends on asserting and re-asserting that Catholics are under "attack" today in secular culture, and that anti-Catholicism in American culture lingers on and feeds the "attacks" Catholics are experiencing.

Roberts doubts the viability of this meme of anti-Catholic attack when, as he notes, Catholics are "liberally sprinkled" all through "the most powerful quarters" of the nation's political and economic life.  And when the Supreme Court is dominated by (conservative) Catholics.

And now this piece of information comes down the pike, and I think it's going to be even harder for the U.S. Catholic bishops and their centrist spokespersons to keep the victim meme alive: the Pew Forum has just released a report showing that the USCCB ranks number two of all faith-based lobbying groups in D.C., with $26,662,111 (and see Kevin Clarke at America on the Pew report) spent on lobbying activities in 2009.  That's a hefty chunk of change for a victimized little old minority group suffering societal persecution to have at its disposal to try to wheedle and cajole legislators to do its faith-based bidding.

But money does talk: Sarah Posner's reporting at Religion Dispatches today that both those in favor of and opposed to the insistence of the U.S. Catholic bishops that their "rights" and "religious freedom" be respected in the matter of contraceptive health care coverage in Catholic institutions expect Mr. Obama to cave in to the USCCB lobby about this issue.  As she notes, those assisting the bishops with their lobbying continue to threaten the Democrats with loss of Catholic votes in 2012 if the president doesn't do the bishops' bidding.  (As if Catholic voters who haven't yet decided if they intend to vote Democratic or Republican in the next elections are really sitting around wondering where the administration intends to come down on the issue of contraception!)

I suspect this will be very much a pyrrhic victory for the bishops and their centrist mouthpieces.  A fundamental shift--a fundamental reassessment--is going on among American Catholics and the American public re: the bishops' super-funded political lobbying.  As I said yesterday, that shift has everything to do with how both Catholics and the public have come to see the bishops and their moral authority following the revelations of the abuse crisis.

What is increasingly happening is that those who claim to articulate "the" Catholic position--notably, the bishops and their centrist mouthpieces--find themselves boxed in with that claim, as growing numbers of their fellow Catholics push back against the exclusivist claims of the bishops and their friends.  There's a growing sense--and it will continue to develop--that the bishops and their friends no longer occupy the moral center of Catholicism.  That they no longer speak for our tradition's moral center.

While they have (ludicrously and astonishingly) chosen to draw a line in the sand about contraception coverage in health care plans at a time at which a majority of Catholics have long since rejected magisterial teaching about contraception, the moral center of the Catholic discussion with the American public square has decisively shifted to other issues.  It has shifted, for instance, to questions about the human rights of those who are gay--questions the bishops absolutely refuse to address, even as they hype up their insistence that their own "rights" must be respected at all costs

As this shift occurs, and as the bishops and their friends win a "victory" re: contraceptive coverage, they're left increasingly on the margins, talking about not much of anything of any substance at all, maintaining the illusion of their clout even as a majority of their co-religionists simply ignore what they have to say about anything.  Because there's a growing sense among American Catholics (and certainly among the American public) that the empty clout of the bishops and their centrist mouthpieces is bought at the expense of ignoring the really significant moral challenges of our period of history.  Regarding the most significant questions of human rights under discussion in our culture today, including and perhaps notably the question of the human rights of gay persons, the bishops and their friends have, quite simply, chosen the wrong side.

And to that extent, they've made themselves marginal, no matter how many power conversations they manage to wrangle in D.C., no matter how many secret meetings they snag, no matter how many back room deals they cut.  The moral center of the faith tradition on whose behalf they claim to speak exclusively has long since been Occupied by the very constituencies within the Catholic community these power-brokers have tried to cut out of the conversation--indeed, by the people of God themselves.

P.S. Click the graphic if you need to enlarge it to read it.

No comments: