Preeminent?

The Bishops Miss the Mark on Faithful Citizenship
Bishops listen to a speaker during the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore Nov. 12, 2019. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Two stories of political significance emerged from the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last month. The first was the election of the USCCB’s first Latino president, Archbishop José H. Gómez of Los Angeles—an immigrant to the United States from Monterrey, Mexico.

Gómez is often described as a pastorally minded conservative, but he’s also a forceful advocate for immigration reform. At his first press conference as president-elect of the USCCB, he spoke out about the Supreme Court debate on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, urging that a way be found to let Dreamers stay in the United States. That shouldn’t have been a surprise. Two days after Donald Trump won the presidency, Gómez held an interfaith gathering at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to express solidarity with all those who now feared deportation and demonization. “Tonight we promise our brothers and sisters who are undocumented, we will never leave you alone,” he said.

But if Gómez’s election gave him a “megaphone,” as Thomas Reese, SJ, put it, to speak out about cruel and inhumane immigration policies, the bishops left no doubt that abortion remains their top concern. The language they approved for a letter that will supplement their quadrennial statement about elections, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, states this unequivocally: “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.” It’s an interesting statement. By those criteria, it’s not clear why the climate crisis isn’t just as urgent—a habitable planet is a precondition for “life itself,” and in the decades ahead the “number of lives destroyed” by flood, famine, and fire could be catastrophically high.

Catholics are not called to be single-issue voters but to serve the common good in all its complexity.

It’s true that the bishops later cite Pope Francis’s Gaudete et exsultate, noting that “equally sacred” are “the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.” But the bishops voted down Cardinal Blase Cupich’s suggestion to include the rest of that paragraph from the encyclical, which warns against those who say that “the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause” and concludes: “We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.” The bishops lamely protested that there wasn’t enough space for such additions.

What seems more likely is that the insertion of “preeminent” and the rejection of Cupich’s amendment indicate the bishops’ obstinate resistance to Francis’s approach to politics, one less reliably sympathetic to the Republican Party and the priorities of American conservatives. Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon, basically admitted as much: “We are at a unique moment with the upcoming election cycle to make a real challenge to Roe v. Wade, given the possible changes to the Supreme Court.” Sample might as well have cut an ad for Trump. By pointing to one issue as “preeminent,” the bishops, as Francis might put it, are replacing consciences more than forming them. Catholics are not called to be single-issue voters but to serve the common good in all its complexity. So page through Faithful Citizenship if you must, but then turn to Laudato si’, Evangelii gaudium, Gaudete et exsultate, or Francis’s homilies—or simply read the gospels and pray about what this political moment truly demands of you.

Published in the December 2019 issue: 

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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