Episcopal Vacancy

The U.S. Catholic bishops, who meet June 17-19 in San Antonio, must find a way to inspire as well as to lead an increasingly polarized and alienated flock. Sadly, long-standing divisions within the church have been exacerbated by the recent actions and imprudent words of too many bishops.

It is not apparent that the bishops as a group are fully aware of the damage that has been done both to the unity of the church and to its ability to effectively engage the larger culture. To begin with, there remains the widespread perception that the bishops have learned little from, and shown even less honest regret over, clergy sexual abuse. That is unfair, but such suspicions are kept alive by the defensive, sometimes hostile way in which many bishops deal with the media. Nor is the laity’s or the larger public’s skepticism on this score helped by the lack of financial transparency in many dioceses. In the aftermath of the abuse crisis, one might expect a degree of modesty and humility from bishops when they criticize the errors or failures of others, especially from leaders of a church that has lost a third of its baptized members. What we too often hear instead is strident and self-righteous “prophetic” rhetoric. Too many bishops, in a misplaced effort to emulate the heroic example of John Paul II, seem to imagine that they are battling a new kind of totalitarianism, rather than the more subtle temptations present in any free society.

Such unfocused assertiveness was most conspicuous in the effort waged by some bishops, goaded by political conservatives, to convince Catholics that they could never in good conscience vote for a prochoice presidential candidate. Not surprisingly, a majority of Catholics were unpersuaded by that argument, one that mistakenly cast the presidential election as a referendum on abortion. Moreover, even many Catholics who did not support Obama resented the notion that bishops were trying to tell them whom they could vote for. Nor were most Catholics, including many who oppose legalized abortion, comfortable with threats to deny Communion to vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden and other prochoice Catholic politicians.

The election of Obama and Biden, and the support they received from Catholics, seemed to exasperate a number of bishops. The newly elected president and his supposed plans to institute a radical “antilife” agenda were denounced by one bishop after another at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ November 2008 meeting in Baltimore, where political compromise was condemned and America caricatured as a “culture of death.” An expensive nationwide USCCB campaign to avert the illusory threat of Obama pushing the Freedom of Choice Act through Congress followed. In rightly opposing the president’s decision to expand federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, not enough bishops noted that the new policy forbids the cloning of embryos, an important victory for those who recognize the immorality of creating human life solely for the purpose of destroying it for scientific research.

When the University of Notre Dame invited President Obama to deliver this year’s commencement address, the political animosity among Catholics that has been assiduously cultivated by some for years seemed to reach critical mass, and the damage from the fallout will take months, if not years, to measure. More than eighty bishops denounced the university. “We are at war!” declared Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese in Missouri. (Such words are especially worrying after the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Kansas.) Bishop Finn darkly warned that the church’s most dangerous enemies were not its public antagonists, but Catholics who “attack the most fundamental tenets of the church’s teachings.” This suspicion regarding the loyalty and goodwill of other Catholics seems to be increasingly prevalent in the bishops’ conference.

Some conservative Catholics are now demanding that the University of Notre Dame be formally censured or disciplined by the bishops. Given the moral seriousness of Obama’s speech there and the positive response it received from Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a kind of model for civil discourse, perhaps the bishops will listen to cooler heads. Last November, Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Rapid City, South Dakota, urged his fellow bishops to eschew a prophecy of denunciation for “a prophecy of solidarity with the communities we serve and the nation we live in, which needs healing. We must be, and be seen to be, pastors as well as faithful teachers.” Too few bishops heeded Cupich then. Will more listen now?

No one imagines that the profound differences among Catholics will be resolved easily or soon. In many ways, the church is divided. Catholics, however, look to the bishops to help heal the wounds of division, not deepen them.     June 9, 2009