With only two weeks left in the presidential campaign, it may be time for Catholics to get out for a fortnight of freedom—no less important than the other fortnights for freedom organized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops since 2012. But the fortnight leading to November 8 will have to be organized by the Catholic flock without their shepherds, who have been quiet on the threat to democracy presented by Donald Trump. The likeliest explanation for their silence is the fear of even appearing to endorse Hillary Clinton and the abortion politics of the Democratic Party. But I think there’s more than an anti-pro-choice angle to the bishops’ absence of comment.
The Catholic Church has not been able to fully prove to everyone's satisfaction that it is comfortable with democracy (it is interesting that The New Yorker’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton singles out two Catholics, Fr. Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy, as “the American demagogues from the past century who most closely resemble” Trump). While the anti-democratic sentiment among bishops up through the mid-20th century is not coming back, many in today’s episcopate seem engaged in a strategic (if cowardly) posturing that could lead toward a long-term, silent renunciation of politics. What a few years ago the Italian Church historian Alberto Melloni called the “institutional and constitutional agnosticism” of the Italian bishops now seems to apply also to the bishops in the United States. But the situation in America today is more serious than in Berlusconi’s Italy twenty years ago—because of the differences between Berlusconi and Trump, and the because of the difference in the global importance of Italy and the United States. And now the constitutional agnosticism of the U.S. bishops seems to extend to Trump’s threat not to accept the election results.
This constitutional agnosticism—the apparent indifference of the episcopate toward the basic rules governing a democracy, including the rule of law—isn’t limited to the U.S. bishops. In countries where the church historically has played a role in the transition from authoritarian regimes to liberal democracies, the leadership now seems passive (if not worse) in responding to the damages inflicted by current administrations on the rule of law and healthy systems of checks and balances.
In Italy, for example, the government of Matteo Renzi has proposed a controversial constitutional reform that Italians will vote on in a December 4 a referendum, yet the Italian bishops have decided not to take a position because there are no “non-negotiable values” at stake, just constitutional rules. In Hungary the bishops have been largely acquiescent to the authoritarian gestures of prime minister Viktor Orban and his anti-refugee rhetoric, while choosing to side with the controversial politician in order to rebuke Pope Francis. In Poland, the bishops have coalesced around the government in their rejection of Pope Francis and of any humanitarian response to the refugee crisis.
What’s behind this phenomenon of “constitutional agnosticism”? First is the central role of “non-negotiable values” over the last few years and the muffling of the bishops’ conferences under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This has led the bishops to develop a sometimes-cavalier attitude toward the key issue of the procedural aspect of liberal democracy, as if constitutional procedure and constitutional content were not related; as if liberal constitutionalism was essentially and inevitably leading to opposition of the church on “non-negotiable values”; as if non-democratic regimes were more respectful of “non-negotiable values.” I believe that the focus on “non-negotiable values” and then their collapse (not provoked by Francis, but made manifest with his proverbial candor when he said that he "never really understood the expression ‘non-negotiable values’”) has significantly weakened the voice of the magisterium. This is a legacy of Benedict XVI’s complex teaching on politics, especially in some Western countries where the defeats of the culture wars, the rise of Islam as a domestic political issue related to national security, and the refugee crisis have resulted an inward-looking role for Catholic episcopates. The bishops of Germany and France are among the exceptions, while the indefinite position of the bishops in the United Kingdom on Brexit seems more problematic to me. If populism and neo-nationalism are the defining features of this political moment, it seems to me that some Catholic episcopates have said very little because they know that many Catholics share these populist and neo-nationalist sentiments, and because they fear a wave of populism even within the church and against the clerical elites of the church.
Then there is the political culture of bishops, who are endowed with a monarchical and monocratic power in their dioceses but who work less together as a national conference (and on less important issues) than they once did. As institutions, bishops’ conferences are relatively new, having mainly come into being with Vatican II. But the development of the political culture of bishops, of acting collegially within the church, was in the second half of the 20th century part of the same development of the political culture of countries transitioning to democracy in Europe and elsewhere, of countries decolonizing during the 1960s, and of countries that became democratic after Vatican II (such as Spain). Over the last two decades, however, as the culture of collegiality was weakened for ecclesiological reasons through a recentralization of church governance (see John Paul II’s motu proprio Apostolos Suos, 1998), the democratic ethos of the bishops was also weakened. In this sense Pope Francis’s call to a more collegial and synodal church contains a clear political message that is “counter-cultural” (if we really want to use this term) not only to a world run according to what Francis calls “technocratic paradigm,” but also to the political culture of many Catholic bishops.
It is also interesting to see, in contrast to the weakening of the collegial spirit among the episcopates, the tendency of religious orders to elect their superiors from Latin America, Africa, and Asia—not just the newly elected general of the Jesuits, but also the Salesians, the Dominicans, the Combonian Fathers, the White Fathers, and others. The religious orders govern themselves with a system that is different from the territorial church, more collegial and representative of a more international and internationalist Catholicism; they seem to be less overwhelmed by the culture wars and their failure; they seem to be more aware of the stakes where democracy and elections are concerned, and freer to take a position without being identified with the institutional Church. Just compare the statements of the U.S. bishops on the American election with those of the Paulist Fathers and the LCWR. In Italy, the Jesuits at Civiltà Cattolica have been much more active than the bishops in fostering substantial debate on the constitutional referendum. The global church of Francis—collegial, synodal, less focused on the biopolitical issues, with a bigger role for religious orders—is also a response to politically acquiescent Western Catholicism and its self-awarded medals of counter-culturalism.