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Thu Nov 8, 2012, 10:48 PM


What Now? Bishops' Edition

by Michael Sean Winters | Nov. 8, 2012

As the results of Tuesday’s elections sink in, and bishops’ secretaries double check the flight reservations for their bosses headed to Baltimore for the annual plenary meeting next Monday, the bishops themselves must survey the political landscape and ask themselves how they can best manage the always tricky fault lines between politics and religion in American culture.

First and foremost, the bishops must ask themselves how political engagement does or does not advance the lived communion of Catholics. Bishops are not called to be culture warriors, but shepherds. Bishops are not called to be political surrogates, but pastors. It is difficult enough in this increasingly secular culture to preach the Gospel without tainting that preaching with the kind of aggressive partisanship that was on display in some episcopal pulpits. To be clear, and I think this is important, there were only a handful of bishops who, in the last few weeks, crossed the line. Bishops Jenky, Morlino, Paprocki, Ricken and Sheridan were the exceptions not the rule. But, they garnered the lion’s share of media attention and anyone who knew nothing about the Catholic Church except what they read in the papers would assume that these men were speaking for the whole Church. They were not. Unfortunately, there is no currently acceptable mechanism for other bishops to point this out. They are loathe to criticize one another in public. But, when the bishops go into executive session next week, and the doors to the ballroom at the Baltimore Marriott close, someone on the episcopal bench needs to stand up and make two points. First, their outbursts make it much harder for Cardinal Dolan and the other leaders of the USCCB to do their job. They have to work with whoever is elected president and you can forgive the president’s advisors for wondering why they should bother talking with the bishops while some of their number are comparing him to Hitler, others warn that a vote for Obama puts one’s soul in jeopardy, etc. The second question is easier: How’d that work out for you? Bishops Jenky and Paprocki are in Illinois. Bishops Morlino and Ricken are in Wisconsin. Bishop Sheridan is in Colorado. Blue states all. The people in the pews were not listening or, more likely, they thought it was none of the bishops’ business to tell them, in such explicit terms, how they should cast their ballots.

The fact that same sex marriage was approved in two states, and likely a third, and that an effort to ban it was turned back in a fourth state, should also garner some attention from the bishops. This was the first time that same sex marriage has been approved at the ballot box instead of in a courtroom or a legislature. I do not believe that this represents the threat to traditional marriage that many claimed. No-fault divorce killed ideas about traditional marriage in this culture over the past fifty years. Most Americans view marriage not in sacramental terms but in contractual terms, and contracts can be broken. And, as well, many advocates of same sex marriage approach the issue in terms of simple fairness, and they are not entirely wrong. I think the issue of fairness should have been engaged ten years ago, and the leaders of the Church should have backed civil unions. But, that ship has sailed. It is true that Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington State are among the more liberal states in the country, but this issue ages out demographically. Every penny spent trying to fight same sex marriage is good money going after bad.

Looking at the exit polls, the issue that dominated this election, as most elections, was the economy. Religious Liberty was not on the list. Why is that? There are a couple of reasons. First and foremost, most people do not actually feel any threat nor do many Catholics think the contraception mandate is a big deal. It is, in fact, a big deal. Better to say, the lack of adequate conscience exemptions is a big deal. Legal precedents are consequential things. But, the bishops, generally, listen overmuch to conservative Catholic voices. The other day, while speaking with a young friend, he asked, “Why are all Catholic intellectuals lawyers? They reduce everything to a legal question, and then to an ethical question!” This is a very, very profound point. I will not do my whole “stop reducing religion to ethics” rant here, but it should be beyond obvious that our Catholic ethical teachings are rejected by many in this culture in part because Catholic conservatives present them as self-evident, de-link them from their source in our dogmatic teachings about the person of Christ, and from the event of the Incarnation and, just so, end up invoking their own authority, or the authority of the bishop, instead of the authority of Jesus Christ. Let’s be honest here. Throughout this campaign, to a paraphrase a friend, many on the Catholic Right did not preach Christ, and Him crucified, but James Madison and him justified.


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