Much has been written, in these pages and elsewhere, about how the sex-abuse crisis has undermined the credibility and moral authority of Catholic bishops. Their many failures in addressing that crisis have diminished their ability to bear prophetic witness to the Gospel at a moment when this country is in desperate need of it. The mostly self-inflicted wounds to episcopal authority will not heal overnight, as at least some of the bishops appear to understand. It takes a long time to build trust, and longer still to rebuild it.
Now another crisis could provide an occasion for the bishops to show that they are more than just company men preoccupied with institutional self-preservation—if only they would recognize this opportunity and seize it. The Trump administration’s vicious mistreatment of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, most of them Catholics from Central America, demands a vigorous response from the church’s leadership. That response cannot be limited to carefully modulated expressions of even more carefully qualified disapproval—nor indeed to any mere expression: it must also involve actions. If, in the abuse crisis, the U.S. bishops got in trouble by trying too hard to protect themselves and the material resources of their dioceses, in this crisis they can succeed only by taking risks and making some serious sacrifices.
Among the things they may have to surrender is their cozy relationship with the GOP. Afraid of alienating a party they still want to influence, and grateful to it for its official opposition to abortion, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has so far been unwilling to denounce Trump’s border policies as emphatically as it denounced the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. The latter was treated as an existential threat to the Catholic faith in America, while the former has too often been lamented as if it were just a lapse of judgment, perhaps a little excessive. The circumstances require something much stronger.