Last night was not a good night for the nations Catholic bishops. They have spent most of the last year arguing that Catholics--and people of faith generally--should prioritize three key issues in this election: abortion, same-sex marriage, and the conscience rights of Catholic institutions. These issues were highlighted in a large number of communications from individual bishops as well as a two-week Catholic teach in that was described as a Fortnight for Freedom.The bishops have little to show for their efforts. The Catholic vote, to the extent that such a mythical beast exists, voted narrowly for Obama and I suspect the administration now feels little pressure to negotiate further with the bishops over the terms of the HHS mandate. Despite spending millions in opposition, the bishops were unable to prevent referendums supporting same-sex marriage from passing in Maryland and Washington, nor were they able to mobilize enough support to enact a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in Minnesota. The one bright spot for the bishops appears to be a narrow win against physician assisted-suicide in Massachusetts.Earlier in the year, it looked like the outcome might have been different. While health care reform had divided the bishops and the Catholic health care community, the HHS mandate brought them together with other leaders of Catholic institutions in opposition. What seems clear in retrospect, however, was that this was an alliance among Catholic insiders that had little resonance among the Churchs rank and file, particularly younger Catholics who do not have the same sense of attachment to these institutions as their elders.
What struck me in observing the bishops this year was their narrowness of vision. Whatever its defects, this election has brought us some important substantive debates about the role of government, economic inequality and social mobility, and U.S. foreign policy. Within the Catholic bubble, however, none of this appeared to be very important. The only issues that Catholics were meant to consider were abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and the conscience rights of Catholic institutions.Virtually no one outside the Catholic bubble--liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat--saw the election in this way. Indeed, one might argue that it would be grossly irresponsible for any Catholic--or any citizen for that matter--to conceive of their civic responsibilities in such narrow terms. Merely repeating over and over that something is the most important issue does not make it so. It is the mark of a sectarian pressure group rather than a community with a robust understanding of the common good.This election has implications for the Church beyond the resolution of public policy issues. There is a rising generation in this country that is coming into its own. It is younger and tolerant, even welcoming, of diversity. It has been deeply shaped by a decade of war and the longest economic downturn in this country since the Great Depression. It is skeptical of large institutions, whether private or public. We also know that this generation is drifting away from organized religion, Catholicism included. What does the Church have to say to them?Ive been marking the 50th anniversary of Vatican II by taking some time to re-read the Council's documents and some of the theologians--such as deLubac and Congar--who shaped them. What emerges from these writings is a passionate conviction that the Church is the bearer of a message of universal salvation for humanity. In Jesus Christ is revealed both the fullness of our humanity and the inner heart of a God who is a communion of persons. All of creation is meant to be brought within that Gods embrace.Is this the message that this rising generation is hearing from us? Is that the message that our engagement in the public square conveys to all Americans whether Catholic or not? Can the Church, while holding fast to what must be held, find a way of expressing her convictions in a way that speaks to the deepest aspirations of this generation for meaning, purpose and community? Or will we be seen merely as an increasingly irrelevant group of reactionaries, clinging to a past that is slipping through our grip even as we tighten our fingers? The future of the Church in the United States may depend on how we answer those questions.