Over the past two weeks, I’ve had extensive discussions with a wide group of Catholic leaders about the state of the Church in the United States. The frustration and impatience among Catholics, which I discussed last February in “Is It Time for a Catholic Tea Party?,” continue to grow.
The occasions for this discussion were the Catholic Leadership Conference held in Philadelphia earlier this month, immediately followed by the Faith & Freedom Coalition Conference and the 15th Annual Partnership Dinner benefiting InsideCatholic, both held in Washington, D.C.
The broad background for this discontent is well known: Lay Catholics cannot understand why, over the past 30 years, more bishops haven’t taken a stronger public stand on Catholic politicians who openly dissent on life and marriage issues.
This level of discontent remained at a simmer until the 2008 presidential campaign and the election of Barack Obama as president — at which point it reached a boil. From parishes around the nation came reports of priests and lay staff making clear their preference for Obama, in some cases arguing openly that their support for Obama was offset by “proportionate reasons,” such as Sen. John McCain’s support for the Iraq War.
When the concerned faithful began to hunt down this “proportionate reasons” argument, they found it in the bishops’ own 2007 document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility.” Stunned Catholics wondered aloud how the bishops themselves could have provided Obama’s Catholic supporters the very argument they needed to rebut any concern about his advocacy for infanticide as a state senator.
In response to the outcry, a record number of bishops issued statements during the presidential campaign either seeking to clarify “Faithful Citizenship” or to correct misinterpretations of the Catholic faith set forth by Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Joe Biden. Yet none of them targeted the grassroots and parish-based campaign efforts of pro-Obama groups, like Catholics in Alliance, using the “proportionate reasons” argument to distract Catholic voters from Obama’s abortion record.
The one bishop to confront this interpretation of “Faithful Citizenship” head-on was Bishop Joseph Martino in Scranton, Pennsylvania, who famously interrupted the speakers to say, “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese. The USCCB doesn’t speak for me. The only relevant document… is my letter. There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable.”
Obama was elected with the help of the self-identified Catholic vote, though weekly Mass-attending Catholics slightly preferred McCain. Some Obama sympathizers publicly applauded his election given the history of racism in our nation, and although they never explicitly called this a “proportionate reason,” it was certainly treated as such.
President Obama’s record has, unsurprisingly, tracked closely to his record as an Illinois state senator. Immediately discarding the Mexico City Policy upon his election, he has undone, or sought to undo, every aspect of the “abortion reduction” policy put in place by the Bush administration.
Most importantly, he found a way around the Hyde Amendment by inserting a massive abortion mandate in his health-care legislation. With the passage of Obamacare and the inability of USCCB lobbying efforts to either defeat it or strip out its abortion funding loopholes, many lay Catholics have come to assume a Tea Party posture of “enough is enough.”
Many of them wonder why Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, is still in the good graces of the USCCB. It was Sister Keehan, after all, who neutralized the bishops’ opposition to the health-care bill and denied the presence of its abortion funding.
Sister Keehan has become a virtual symbol of what is wrong with the Church: There is no accountability, and no consequences for open dissent on the preeminent moral issues. Thus, when it came to light that the Catholic Campaign for Human Development of the USCCB has been funding organizations that openly support abortion and gay marriage, the reaction of the laity was a cynical “more of the same.”
Some of the leadership I spoke with cited examples of overall improvement in episcopal leadership, both in individual dioceses and at the USCCB, and warned of becoming too negative.
Attention to tone is always important, but the simple fact is this: Of the 97 Democrat Catholic members of the House, only 9 voted against a health-care bill containing abortion funding, in spite of the fact that the USCCB and cardinals like Justin Rigali and Francis George spoke out clearly against it. (All 38 GOP House members voted against the bill.)
Something has gone wrong when those who publicly profess the Catholic faith feel no compunction about openly defying its teachings at the urging of their bishops. On top of that, a group called “Catholics United” announces it will spend $500,000 to reelect those same politicians, all Democrats — and not a single bishop makes any comment.
The Catholic tea kettle continues to boil, as the patience of many of the lay faithful is running out.
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On a related point, here’s a brief but informative new article by Leon Suprenant on the challenges of Catholic social justice. I recommend it.