Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Laura Bassett on Growing Behind-the-Scenes Political Influence of U.S. Catholic Bishops

Increasingly, the considerable behind-the-scenes influence of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference on policy-making and legislation at both the federal and state levels is attracting attention in the mainstream media.  This used not to be the case.  There used to be a polite detente in the American media, which required reporters to look the other way as the bishops engaged in overt politicking and overt attempts to assure that their viewpoints be written into policy statements and legislation.

It has to be noted, though, that this detente existed in the past, in part, because the bishops weren't always  as politically aggressive as they have chosen to be in recent years.  They deliberately sought to be kingmakers, make-or-break dealmakers, with the Obama health care legislation, swooping in at the last minute in negotiations about the legislation to hold backroom meetings with legislators to dictate even the precise wording of documents to be presented to Congress.  

And as I've noted in several recent postings, they're now trying to make their weight felt in D.C. through their new initiative to "protect" religious freedom, as Bishop William Lori gives testimony to Congressional committees demanding that the federal government adhere to their definition of marriage as one man, one woman, for life.  Or, as Michael Sean Winters puts the point in a recent posting at National Catholic Reporter defending the bishops' attempt to intervene at a policy-making level with their various "religious freedom" initiatives,  

The Church opposes same sex marriage because, we believe, marriage means something specific, one man and one woman for one lifetime, open to the possibility of pro-creation, committed to a mutual love so stunning it warrants comparison to the love between Christ and His Church.

Strange, isn't it?  "We believe."  And yet, a majority of American Catholics don't believe that civil marriage ought to be restricted solely to heterosexuals.  A majority of American Catholics strongly support marriage equality, because American Catholics in general have been decisively influenced by Catholic teaching about human rights, with its core principles of the equality of all human beings before God, and of the sinfulness of making invidious distinctions about human worth on the basis of gender, race, social status, or sexual orientation.  

And so we Catholics don't believe what our bishops and their media epigones like Winters want to tell the American people "we" believe.  And as Laura Bassett points out in this important article at Huffington Post, the disparity between that the bishops are doing at a political level, as they claim to represent the Catholic people of the U.S., and what the Catholic people of the U.S. actually believe, is eliciting critical questions in more and more quarters about precisely why the leaders of any religious group imagine they should have the right to demand make-or-break veto power over legislation affecting an entire society, in a pluralistic, democratic nation.  When they aren't even representing the views of their own constituency as they claim this "right."

Look for more of this kind of hard-hitting reporting as the bishops continue to step up their political campaigns to "protect" religious freedom, attack marriage equality (and the rights of gay and lesbian human beings), try to dictate provisions of health care initiatives, etc.  Of course, articles like Bassett's will be attacked by right-wing and centrist Catholics as anti-Catholic.

In my view, however, they're right on target and are much-needed.  Given the line of separation between church and state that is fundamental to our democracy, the American public has a right to know what's  going on when any religious community seeks to enshrine its peculiar beliefs and moral principles in the law of the land.  And given the precipitously waning moral credibility of the bishops at this particular moment in history, due to their abominable mishandling of the sexual abuse crisis in their church, the American people will naturally be interested in discovering precisely why, with their moral influence in shambles now, the bishops imagine they have the right to assert exalted new theocratic claims in the political sphere--when they've done so little to clean their own house as they try to clean the house of others.

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