Friday, October 24, 2008

The Church Of Two Heads

American bishops' compromise stand on political issues is breaking down

Oct. 21, 2008 ( - This campaign season, American bishops have taken a much more assertive role in public debates, openly criticizing some political candidates for their support of abortion and same sex-marriage. Now, in an even more intriguing development, bishops have begun criticizing each other as well.

Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput, who has taken the lead in political debates throughout the year, broke new ground with his candid appraisal of Catholic support for Senator Barack Obama. Archbishop Chaput charged that prominent Catholics who have endorsed Obama, such as Douglas Kmiec (whom he mentioned by name) "have done a disservice to the Church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue instead of fighting within their parties and at the ballot box to protect the unborn."

But Archbishop Chaput is not the only American bishop with strong views on political issues, and within a matter of days, there was a volley from the other side of the US hierarchy. Speaking to E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post, Bishop Gabino Zavala, a Los Angeles auxiliary, said that Catholics who emphasize the abortion issue are mistaken, because "we're not a one-issue church."

If Archbishop Chaput's statement was obviously hostile to the Obama campaign, Bishop Zavala's comments were just as obviously sympathetic to the Democratic candidate's platform. He said that voters should weigh all issues that touch on the dignity of human life, including the ways in which economic policies impinge "on the most vulnerable among us, the elderly, poor children, single mothers."

"Bishop Zavala's desire to speak out with an alternative view is a sign of how much has changed in four years," writes Dionne in his Post column. "Progressive Catholics are now as organized as conservative Catholics were in 2004."

The statement approved by US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Faithful Citizenship, represents a compromise between two increasingly outspoken groups of American bishops: those who want a more aggressive stance in opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and those who prefer to emphasize issues such as poverty, immigration, and the war in Iraq. Faithful Citizenship instructs Catholics to give top priority to the "life issues," but stops short of saying that support for legal abortion renders a candidate unacceptable regardless of his stands on other issues. Each wing of the American hierarchy has cited the USCCB document to support its own views. Conservative bishops note that Faithful Citizenship affirms the moral imperative of fighting against abortion; liberal bishops insist that the document does not call for a "single-issue" approach to voting. Both are right.

In past election years, a compromise like Faithful Citizenship would have been enough to maintain the public peace among American prelates. But this year the arguments among the bishops have been open and obvious. Bishop Zavala May not have intended a direct rebuttal to Archbishop Chaput, but that was the undeniable effect of his remarks.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton outdid Archbishop Chaput when he arrived unexpectedly at a recent parish forum and rebuked the organizers for allowing speakers to misrepresent Church teaching. Abortion cannot be considered as just one among many important political issues, the bishop said: "No social issue has caused the death of 50 million people."

But Bishop Martino did not stop with his insistence on the importance of abortion. He also chided the organizers of the parish forum for handing out copies of Faithful Citizenship while ignoring his own powerful pastoral letter on the urgency of the abortion issue.

Whereas Bishop Zavala tried to advance a particular interpretation of the USCCB document, Bishop Martino distanced himself from Faithful Citizenship. "No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese," he said. "The only relevant document… is my letter."

It seems reasonable to conclude that Bishop Martino is not terribly fond of Faithful Citizenship: not terribly fond of a document that can be cited by both sides in a heated debate; not terribly fond of a statement that leaves the central issue unresolved. For years the US bishops have sidestepped public disputes on political issues by crafting statements that will barely satisfy both sides. Now that compromise is breaking down.


I suspect the best indication that progressive Catholics have made some inroads in the last four years is that a few bishops are finally speaking publicly in favor of the progressive approach to politics. I also suspect another sign of this making inroads is that some bishops have become overtly and publicly hostile to any presentation of this alternative point of view. In Archbishop Chaput's case he publicly attacks Dr. Kmiec, and in Bishop Marino's case he hijacks a public forum on Faithful Citizenship leaving no one in doubt as to where things stand in his diocese.

Two heads, one church, the center apparently no longer holds. I think this situation in Catholicism is just another symptom of the divisive corrosion of rightwing politics. Another gift you might say, of eight years of Bush and the neocons. Roman Catholicism used to be about Jesus Christ. Now it seems we're a single issue Church and that issue isn't Jesus Christ, it's abortion. The times they have a changed. Jesus is just a prop on which to hang political arguments.

Kind of sad really, but maybe if enough of us realize Catholicism no longer speaks with a credible voice about Jesus and His message, we'll be motivated to get back to basics. Maybe more of our bishops will realize that in politicizing the Church they have lost the flock. Maybe more of them will get back to basics, the basics of being real shepherds and not political flacks. I'm really hoping an Obama win will send an unmistakable message. You know the one that says GET THE POLITICS OUT OF THE PULPIT.


  1. I am convinced that if AB Charles Chaput had to go to work everyday to earn his living that he would not be a single-minded single-issue voter. If he had a family to support with children in uniform, or children looking for a job, he also would not be flapping off his mouth to sway voters to vote for McCain.

    I too am hoping Obama will win this election.

  2. Butterfly, I'm not hoping, I'm affirming, sn Obama win. Enough is enough. Enough hate. Enough lies. Enough deception. Enough leadership at all levels that doesnt care about those they are supposed to be leading and serving. Enough is too much.

    That said, I suspect that before it is all said and done, it will get really ugly. If we look to 2004, vote counts charges of election fraud, and all that occurred in that election, I see no reason to expect this one to be any different. This time however, I dont see the democrats backing down the way they did in 2004.

  3. Was that 2000 or 2004? 2000 is the one that rocked me. Interestingly, I was just writing an email about the changes 2000 brought into my life.

    I affirm hope, peace, unity, and justice in this election. On the 35th Anniversary of MLK's I have a Dream Speech, Obama accepted his party's nomination. I choose to take that as a good omen.

  4. It was both elections. 2000 in Florida and 2004 in Ohio. I will never forget 2000. My daughter was a junior in high school, a state decorated debater and heavily into this election.

    As we watched the returns on CNN that night, and Florida was taken out of Gore's list and left hanging, I turned to her and said that I had never seen this happen before, that exit interviews had always been accurate predictors of the results and that's why news outlets could announce winners early. She asked me what it meant, and I said there had to be something very wrong going on in Florida with the actual ballots. Something was rotten in Dade county.

    She sighed, and said "if figures it would be Florida given the governor is another Bush."

    I know for a fact this night added immeasurabely to her latent cynicism with all things political and religious.

  5. Carl, you'll have to try to excuse my habitual using the word "hope" instead of "affirm."

    I agree with you that "I don't see the democrats backing down the way they did in 2004." I would add, the way they did in 2000 as well, as Colleen's and lisa b's comments bring out.

    I think the Obama campaign is very well aware of the republican's trying to steal the election again. I think that the force of the sheer numbers of people voting this year for Obama will disable the republicans from stealing the election.

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