A popular pastime among Catholic commentators lately could be called "counting the bishops." In the last election, we counted the bishops who spoke out regarding their document on voting, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," or on the qualifications of Barack Obama as a Catholic candidate. With the latest controversy over the upcoming Notre Dame commencement, another count is underway: 68 bishops have criticized the choice of President Obama to receive an honorary degree.
This is a noteworthy trend in the postconciliar Church that doesn’t go back far: Between the late 1960s and the 1990s, it was very unusual for a bishop to address an issue (outside the collective voice of the bishops’ conference) that had either national significance or tacitly challenged brother bishops to greater action.
The exceptions to this rule are few: John Cardinal O’Connor and Bernard Cardinal Law during the pro-life skirmishes of the 1980s; and from the left and right of the Church, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz. There were often consequences for bishops who ignored the code of collegiality — isolation or, sadly, retribution.
The reticence of bishops to put aside collegiality started to diminish during the 2004 presidential campaign. Many prelates began going public to defend Archbishop Raymond Burke, then from St. Louis, who was being hotly criticized for his comments to the St. Louis Post Dispatch that presidential candidate John Kerry "should not present himself for communion." More than 20 bishops made statements that supported Archbishop Burke’s position, and among them some familiar names: Chaput, Wenski, Aquila, Smith, Olmsted, Sheridan, Saltarelli, Harrington, Hughes, Boland, Finn, Gracida, Gossman, and Myers. (One significant preview of what lay ahead in 2004 was Bishop William Weigand’s warning to Gov. Rick Davis in January 2003 not to receive communion.)
The bishops’ growing willingness to speak individually has blunted the power of official statements issued by the USCCB. The commitment to collegiality had given greater authority to conference statements, but often at the cost of sending a forthright and prophetic message about the growing acceptance of abortion. The latest document, "Faithful Citizenship," is an example of how a "compromise statement," representing all the bishops, can contain language which is confusing at best and, at worst, subversive of pro-life aims.
Now that "counting the bishops" has become a factor in determining the direction of the Church, it will be necessary to count those who do not speak. Or, at least, it is important to consider the meaning in the silence of those bishops. The 2008 election did produce one episode that suggests what the silence means for some bishops.
The Sunday before the election, Mass was held by the bishop of a major Midwestern city, one of the key war zones between McCain’s and Obama’s Catholic supporters. (It is not necessary for me to reveal the name of the bishop.) After Mass, the bishop held a question-and-answer session, which became quite heated when he did not answer questions about the priority of life issues to the satisfaction of some present.
One of those dissatisfied waited to speak with the bishop after the session was over. She asked him why his comments sounded so out of line with the many bishops who had spoken publicly to underscore the importance of voting pro-life. The bishop replied testily, "Well, there are many of us who are not speaking out," then turned and walked away.
In other words, there were bishops in the 2008 election who purposely did not speak out, and who did not agree with those who did. Their silence implied consent to the way Catholic teaching was being construed by Obama supporters like Doug Kmiec and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
What does this tell us about the silence of the remaining bishops on the upcoming commencement at Notre Dame? Certainly there are those who agree with the 68 who have gone on the record against his selection. Perhaps they think the issue has been sufficiently flogged, especially with the public statement by USCCB President Francis Cardinal George.
But how many simply disagree with those bishops and think Notre Dame is doing the right thing by honoring President Obama? Is this the meaning of their silence? Do the majority of U.S. bishops agree with Notre Dame? If so, that may well be one of the reasons Notre Dame’s officials felt free to issue the invitation in the first place.