Can the Bishops Win This Battle?

This past September, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, President of the USCCB, sent President Obama a letter that was long overdue. “I write with a growing sense of urgency about recent actions taken by your Administration that both escalate the threat to marriage and imperil the religious freedom of those who promote and defend marriage,” the archbishop wrote. “The Justice Department’s [attack on the Defense of Marriage Act], in addition to other troubling federal decisions occurring recently, prompts me yet again to register my grave concerns.”

Archbishop Dolan’s public overture represents a significant departure from the path of his predecessors. Only yesterday, Archbishop Wilton Gregory was hailing Obama’s election as “a great step forward for humanity.” And Abp. Gregory was not alone: countless Catholic bishops applauded Obama’s victory as the harbinger of another victory they had long sought — government-run “health care for all.” How bitter were the tears that fell after they were betrayed.

The long history of the close relationship between the Catholic bishops and the Democrat Party has been going on for a hundred years. In 1916, James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore and Primate of the American hierarchy, feared that Catholics would be regarded as unpatriotic if they opposed U.S. entry into the European War. So Gibbons assured President Woodrow Wilson that Catholics would proudly serve in World War I (they did), and that America’s Catholic bishops would not oppose U.S. entry into it (they did not).

My father was in graduate school at Catholic University in 1916. A Democrat and leader of “Catholics for Wilson,” he led the cheers outside the headquarters of the Democrat National Committee on election night: “We want Wilson, One time more, We want peace, We don’t want war,” they chanted. Within a month, Cardinal Gibbons set my father straight when they met outside the Post Office one snowy day on campus: “Don’t worry about the war,” the prelate told the youngest graduate student on campus. “You’ve got to have Great Expectations. Don’t you know your Dickens?” Three months later, dad was in the Army.

This historic decision did not come not easily. Pope Benedict XV had assigned Gibbons the task of enlisting Wilson in the pope’s efforts to bring the European war to an early end. It was not to be.Once the war was under way, Gibbons established the National Catholic War Council (NCWC) to aid American Catholics serving in the wars. In 1919, the NCWC became the National Catholic Welfare Council, later the “Conference,” and today, the USCCB.


The Right Reverend New Dealer

The conference has seldom strayed from its alliance with the Democrat Party. During the Roosevelt years, its most famous leader was known as “The Right Reverend New Dealer.” (e.g., “If the Republicans elect their candidate for the presidency in 1944 . . . the most important gains of labor would all be swept away within six months. . . . So long, however, as the present occupant of the White House remains there, no fears need be entertained for the cause of labor or the cause of social justice.” Monsignor John A. Ryan, the Statler Hotel in Cleveland, Ohio, January 1943).

That relationship continued to with the advent of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Since the 1960s, the USCCB, Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals, and Catholic higher education have received tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer funding. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin put the USCC (now the USCCB) on liberal cruise-control, joining with Democrats to advocate a myriad of social welfare programs, all the while receiving increasingly generous outlays of federal funding.

However, it has not been all sweetness and light, and Archbishop Dolan’s recent “grave concerns” did not arise in a vacuum. The bishops’ exultation of 2008 was abruptly punctured by the passage of Obamacare, when they were betrayed, profoundly so, by the party that they had so long supported. But the horse was out of the barn, and with it escaped any hopes that Obama would be the “reasonable” president seeking “common ground” who was hailed as a hero at Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement. Today Obama, and his Democrats represent a dagger aimed at the heart of the Catholic Church in America.

To the layman’s eye, Archbishop Dolan’s election last year as USCCB president reflects a sense among our bishops that some changes might be desirable. But last January, following the lead of his predecessors in years past, Abp. Dolan joined several other bishops in sending members of Congress a legislative “agenda” for the new Republican Congress which, as usual, advocated more government spending.


Rep. Paul Ryan, A Faithful Catholic Layman

But legislation introduced by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Catholic, had taken a different approach. In an April 27 letter to Abp. Dolan, Ryan wrote that “The Church normally and rightly refrains from pronouncing directly on specific legislation—the subject of prudence about which there is a legitimate diversity of choice and judgment—but properly brings to light the moral principles that inform legislative deliberation.”

Eyebrows rose all over town. For years, the USCCB, with little opposition, had promoted its agenda as the “Catholic” position, an approach which opportunistic Democrats have appreciated for two reasons: first, the USCCB’s liberal agenda harmonizes with their own. Regarding the only exception – the life issues – well, pro-abort Catholic Democrats on Capitol Hill carry the bishops’ water regarding health and welfare programs, higher education funding, and support of Catholic Charities USA. Hence so far their bishops will not resort to Canon 915 regarding their support for abortion rights.

Back to Rep. Ryan’s letter: “I offer this letter to provide facts about our Budget to help advance an informed debate in light of social teachings about the well-being of the family, subsidiarity, the preferential option for the poor, and the dignity of the human person.” That statement, which simply reiterates basic Catholic social principles, rings with a tone of authority that bishops do not often hear from a mere layman who does not share their personal, prudential political views.

Rep. Ryan’s letter went on to detail the crisis confronting congress, explaining that “the House Budget’s overarching concern is to control and end the mortal threat of exploding debt.” If the budget is not brought under control, he wrote, “ultimately the weakest will be hit three times over: by rising costs, by drastic cuts to programs they rely on, and by the collapse of individual support for charities that help the hungry, the homeless, the sick, refugees and others in need.”

It is not often that congressmen write such letters. Alas, most Capitol Hill offices ignore mail from outside their district, even if it’s signed by a bishop. But an unfortunate feature emerges from the USCCB bureaucracy’s steady stream of political advocacy: the bishops’ truly authoritative voice on magisterial truths (condemning the objective evils of abortion, contraception, and homosexual acts, for example) tends to be drowned out, and ultimately ignored — until, suddenly, Archbishop Dolan realizes that marriage, family, and life itself are under attack by the USCCB’s former allies.

In a courteous reply to Ryan, Abp. Dolan chose not to attack the Republican budget as the mean-spirited product of callous racists and selfish millionaires. He acknowledged the principles that Ryan and he shared in common, observing that “within the given parameters of such principles, people of good will might offer and emphasize various policy proposals that reflect their experience and expertise.” He then went on to affirm that “we bishops are very conscious that we are pastors, never politicians. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us, it is the lay faithful who have the specific charism of political leadership and decision (Lumen Gentium, 31; Apostolica Actuositatem 13).”

To dispel the confusion, should the USCCB perhaps append “Truth in Teaching” labels to each of its political recommendations? “These views reflect objective, magisterial truths to which all laity must assent”? Or, “These views represent the thoughtful prudential views of USCCB members, but Catholics are free to disagree”?


So I Wrote to Bishop Hubbard

That was in May. In August, I noticed that Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, had written to members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction on Capitol Hill. “It would be wrong to balance future budgets by hurting those who already hurt the most by cutting programs such as foreign aid, affordable housing programs, child nutrition, or health care,” he wrote.

I mentioned Bishop Hubbard’s letter to a friend of mine, a priest who is a canon lawyer. He told me that yes, the laity owe obedience to such teachings. Inspired, perhaps, by Archbishop Dolan, I wrote Bishop Hubbard directly:

Your Excellency, I worked for many years on Capitol Hill, specifically on foreign aid legislation. Many Catholics, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, disagree with your particular prudential views. Nonetheless, speaking for the USCCB, you endorse specific legislative particulars on which good Catholics disagree in the name of Holy Mother Church. In your words, “it would be wrong” to oppose your views.

My question, then, is this: does your public advocacy of such specific legislation constitute a teaching of the “authentic magisterium of their bishops,” like Humanae Vitae, to which the “faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind” (Canon 753; Lumen Gentium 25)? Is a Catholic of good will bound by Canon Law “to adhere with religious submission of mind” to your prudential political views?

Bishop Hubbard responded with a gracious and helpful reply. The USCCB offers “moral guidance on the general direction of proposed legislation” because “the Church is concerned with the temporal aspects of the common good….” (CCC 2420). “The role of the state,” he wrote, “is to promote the common good of all,” and “political authorities are obliged to respect the fundamental rights of the human person… especially of families and the disadvantaged.” (CCC 2237)

In closing, Bishop Hubbard observed that “of course, it is possible for people of good will to disagree over how precisely to protect the rights and welfare of poor and vulnerable people, but the obligation to do so is without questions. Sadly, this question is not a major element of the national debate on deficit reduction.”


The Fight Will Come to Us

It is sad indeed that many critics of federal spending do not focus on the question Bishop Hubbard stresses. After all, scholars like Patrick Fagan of the Family Research Council have provided ample proof that many welfare programs hurt the poor more than they help. In fact, such programs are destructive to the family, they encourage promiscuity and illegitimacy, and they perpetuate poverty across the generations and even cause higher crime rates and lower academic performance among recipients. Why do advocates of budget cuts fear that referring to such studies will paint them as heartless, when the opposite is true?

On matters of principle and prudence, good Catholics can disagree: on principle, should the state promote the common good of all, or provide it? Applying Catholic social principles, which approach will help the poor in foreign lands more —  supporting the annual $500 million “family planning” component of U.S. foreign aid that aims to reduce the population of Third World countries, (including $65 million that goes for abortion)? Or opposing it?

In his speech to the USCCB plenary session last week, Archbishop Dolan confronted not a prudential squabble but a frontal attack on Catholic truths themselves, an attack sustained not only by the government, but by the cultural swill in which it swims. While respecting the laity’s rights regarding political prudence, His letter, and Bishop Hubbard’s, also challenge the laity. How should we respond?

In no way should we ask bishops to support our particular prudential views on political issues instead of theirs. Quite the contrary: in the war on Catholic truth now under way, we need to encourage our bishops in their teaching of the magisterial truths that unite not only all Catholics, but all humanity. Today, the pagan attacks —  many of them bipartisan, by the way –-  focus on a single goal: the destruction of Humanae Vitae. When our priests and bishops preach those hard teachings, we should thank them and encourage them, instead of standing up and walking out in the middle of a sermon or assailing the homilist after Mass. We might then prayerfully and respectfully urge our bishops to enforce Canon 915 regarding the reception of the Eucharist by those engaged in manifest public sin.

When that day comes —  and it will —  our bishops will be attacked like never before. A few years ago, pro-abortion Catholic Patrick Leahy provided a preview of how he would react. Leahy, the chairman, superbia vitae, of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, was asked by a Capitol Hill reporter about Pope Benedict’s approval of the exclusion of some pro-abortion politicians from reception of the Eucharist. In a response that has somehow escaped widespread attention, Leahy took dead aim: “I’ve always thought that those bishops and archbishops who for decades hid pederasts should be indicted,” he responded.

Behold the possible near future: while Leahy exercises his subpoena power, the government will shut the water off to Catholic programs that help the poor. Kathleen Sebelius, whose bishop has already advised her not to receive the Eucharist, has already taken the lead in that pogrom. Catholic Charities, which receives billions in government support every year, will suffer tremendously. And many bishops who publicly oppose single-sex marriage and fear harassment from the IRS will get it.

In fact, the time will come when the bishops will have to decide whether unilaterally to renounce the Church’s tax-exempt status before it is revoked. In recent years, the laity, confronted with the left-leaning excesses of the USCCB and the CCHD, has all too often been to say, “I gave at the office – last April 15th.” Those days will soon be over. We will have to give of our substance.

Before long, the laity will have to arise as never before to exercise the Church’s Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, because the government won’t be funding them any more. Archbishop Dolan and Bishop Hubbard have affirmed not only our rights as laymen, but also our duties. If we, as laymen, urge our bishops to confront head-on the attacks of the Culture of Death with all the tools at their disposal, we must shoulder our growing share of the burden. In a world that Blessed John Paul II saw as “transformed by the incessant spread of religious indifference, secularization and atheism,” the laity and the bishops should be firmly united in mutual respect as we endeavor to pursue the Church’s mission to “restore all things in Christ.”


Christopher Manion served as a staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years. He has taught in the departments of politics, religion, and international relations at Boston University, the Catholic University of America, and Christendom College, and is the director of the Campaign for Humanae Vitae™, a project of the Bellarmine Forum Foundation. He is a Knight of Malta.

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