The Bishops Are Back, for Now, Thanks to the Party and President They Opposed
By David Gibson Politics Daily November 15, 2009
When the nation's 300 or more Catholic bishops gather for each November for their annual fall meeting, there's always a hearty show of clerical camaraderie, much of it deeply-felt, but some of it a charitable mask on the rivalries that are inevitable in any group of strong-willed fellows.
Through the recent years of abuse scandals and a Catholic credibility crisis, however, the meetings could be glum affairs as the bishops were united mainly by a shared defensive posture toward their critics and often divided among themselves about how to move forward.Not anymore.
When the hierarchy convenes in Baltimore on Monday for its four-day confab, the bishops can bask in the glow of rediscovered political clout that has come about largely because of their lobbying successes in the critical health care debate. That sway was clearly demonstrated last weekend during last-minute negotiations on abortion funding in the House health care bill. Representatives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) were deeply involved in the talks, and able to bring their influence to bear on both sides.
As Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, leader of an unexpectedly large and assertive cohort of about 40 pro-life Democrats (many Catholics), was negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on an amendment to bar any health care funding of abortion, his last check-in was with the bishops to see if the language would pass ethical muster. They gave the okay, the amendment passed, and so did the bill. (Perhaps Bart should reread the Constitution in order to understand just who he actually represents.)
At the same time, Arizona Republican John Shadegg was leading an effort to have anti-abortion Republicans withhold support from the Stupak amendment -- something they would normally back -- knowing that without the Stupak funding ban the entire bill would go down to defeat, perhaps dooming all Democratic hopes for health care reform this year and delivering Republicans a major victory.
Shadegg's maneuver made sense in raw political terms, but not to the bishops, who want universal health care but without abortion funding. "Few people here were amused," said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the bishops' Pro-Life Activities office and a key player in the talks.
Nor, in the end, were the bishops disappointed. Chicago Cardinal Francis George, president of the USCCB, called House Minority Leader John Boehner to express his displeasure at the Shadegg manuever and Boehner soon released a statement telling Republicans they had better vote for Stupak. The amendment passed with 176 GOP votes and 64 Democratic "yes" votes. Only Shadegg voted "present." (It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if the Repubs had voted against Stupak.)
But health care reform isn't the only arena where the Catholic hierarchy is flexing its muscle, and with success.
In the District of Columbia, the Archdiocese of Washington has led opposition to a gay marriage bill and raised the specter that the social services it provides to tens of thousands of needy resident could be jeopardized if the bill is not amended to include religious exemptions.
In Maine, the Catholic Church--bolstered by $180,000 in donations from bishops in 45 other dioceses -- poured resources and clout into an effort to pass a ballot initiative earlier this month overturning a gay marriage law. The church-backed ballot measure passed, 53-47 percent, despite the fact that gay rights advocates expected to defeat the initiative in Maine, which is one of the nation's most secular state. The bishops were also seen as instrumental in passing Proposition 8 in California a year ago, which barred gay marriage.
In New York, the Catholic bishops last summer successfully thwarted a bill that would have lifted the statute of limitations on sex abuse claims against religious groups. The bill, which was designed to target the Catholic Church, was initially thought to have a good chance of becoming law.
Moreover, some rising stars in the hierarchy seem eager to push back against criticism -- real or perceived -- from those they see as opponents.
Earlier this month New York's new archbishop, Timothy Dolan, who was warmly welcomed by the media as well as by Catholics when he brought his friendly approach to the city last April, launched a full-throated attack on The New York Times for what he said was the anti-Catholic slant to the newspaper's recent coverage. Calling anti-Catholicism as much a "national pastime" as baseball, Dolan published his jeremiad on his new blog because, as he noted, The Times refused to publish his critique in its pages.
Many Catholics cheered Dolan. "The revelations in 2001 of decades of priest scandals revealed the existence of a corrupt clergy across the nation, and the Catholic Church watched a now middle-aged generation of believers slip away from the pews," Joseph Bottum, a prominent Catholic conservative, wrote in an approving column in The New York Post. "In the midst of all this, how could an archbishop of New York not need to pick some fights?" (And that is the issue. The USCCB has substituted political fights for pastoral concerns under the guise of pastoral concerns. This works well for the right, but alienates a whole lot of 'others'.)
Also this month, the bishop in Rhode Island, Thomas J. Tobin, engaged in an increasingly contentious public feud with Rep. Patrick Kennedy that had Tobin publicly questioning Kennedy's Catholic faith because of the Democratic congressman's support for health care reform. Coming less than three months after the death of Kennedy's father, Sen. Ted Kennedy, which occasioned an outpouring of support for the dynasty of liberal Democrats, Tobin's broadside was especially bold."
Are our bishops on the march?" asked Jeff Mirius, president of Trinity Communications, a leading outlet for conservative Catholic commentary. Mirius believes the answer is that such "militancy" is in fact reaching a tipping point in favor of a more outspoken hierarchy.
Yet even as the bishops have reason to feel good about their elevated profile in the public square -- something that would have seemed unlikely just a couple years ago -- they have plenty of reasons not to get overconfident.
For one thing, the health care bill now moves to the Senate, where the path to passage could be even rockier and where the bishops have fewer go-to allies among the Democrats. That potential weakness points to the fact that the bishops' current clout largely comes from the good fortune of having Democrats in power who are willing to give the church a seat at the table, as well as a president who is seeking to broaden the party's base and defuse the culture wars by giving players like the bishops a voice in negotiations. (PO is also widening the culture gap with in the Church itself because only the conservative bishops are really raising their voices, leaving the left unrepresented and the center forced to mitigate the excesses of the right.)
Conversely, the health care debate showed how little pull the Catholic bishops often have with Republicans, contrary to the popular impression that they are political bedfellows. For example, while the bishops successfully pressured the Republican leadership to get behind the Stupak amendment they were completely shunned in trying to convince the GOP to support the health care bill -- despite the fact that the bishops say health care is a longstanding priority. Just one Republican, Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao of Louisiana, a former Jesuit seminarian, voted for the overall bill. (When the bishops no longer have the clout of the Catholic hospital system and Catholic Charities to threaten with, they will find out just how much clout they actually have. Maybe that's why their is never a peep out of them about the obscene levels of defense spending.)
Contentious issues on tap for next year, such as immigration reform, will further test the bishops' influence with the GOP as they will have to wrangle Republicans to get on board.
Moreover, the bishops are also facing a number of internal challenges, many of which will be on display during the meeting in Baltimore. They include debates over reforms of the liturgy, how best to enforce Catholic identity, and a lengthy new document aimed at promoting straight marriage and discouraging contraceptives. There will also be much talk about a controversial Vatican investigation of American nuns, as well as debates among themselves, in closed sessions and over cocktails, about their own problems with polarization, which emerged this year in debates over health care, for example, and the contrasting responses of bishops to Ted Kennedy's death.
The clergy sexual abuse scandal also haunts the hierarchy, much as they would like to put it behind them.
Last month the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, became the seventh Catholic diocese in the United States to file for bankruptcy protection due to claims by abuse victims. And on Dec. 1, the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, will be forced by court order to unseal 12,000 pages of documents relating to its dealings with sexually abusive priests. Many of the documents date from the tenure of retired Cardinal Edward Egan, and are expected to reveal embarrassing details about the church's actions.
Yet the political relevance of the bishops remains the leading indicator of their stock's value for the wider public, and how their stock performs may depend on how willing they are to accept the compromises necessary to affect legislation.
On health care, at least, the Catholic hierarchy has shown significant flexibility, allowing extensive sex education and contraceptive funding components to stay while they focused on abortion. The bishops also made it clear that while they would like to see undocumented immigrants provided for in the health care package, they were willing to drop that demand because it would sink the entire health care reform effort. If the bishop's line in the sand on abortion leads to the defeat of health care in the Senate, for example, the backlash could be quick and broad. (No kidding.)
The other factor in the resurgence of the bishops is, oddly enough, the success of Barack Obama -- the politician that so many of them fiercely opposed both during last year's election and up through Obama's controversial appearance at Notre Dame last May. Some of the hierarchy's most prominent bishops have also been among Obama's most outspoken critics, and many have repeatedly threatened Catholics with a variety of sanctions if they supported Obama or the Democrats.
The irony is that if Catholic voters had listened to the bishops then, the election might have gone for John McCain and the very issues that the bishops are keen on promoting, and that have put them front and center -- health care and immigration reform, poverty and abortion reduction -- wouldn't even be on the table.
And that means that if the bishops continue to take a harsh line with Obama and the Democrats, there is the possibility that the Catholic leadership could wear out its welcome with the very politicians who have helped give them a bully pulpit.
(The problem is that some of these bishops are so enamored with the bully pulpit and the attention they receive, they will never give up this pulpit for the quieter pastoral one. They will sink their own ship because they are dictators answerable to no one, not politicians which eventually have to answer to their constituents.)
With the November USCCB meetings beginning today, there was some interesting news over the weekend. The Archdiocese's of Milwaukee and South Bend were given appointments. Milwaukee will be led by Bishop Listecki formerly of LaCrosse WI, and South Bend by Bishop Rhoades, formerly of Harrisburg, PA. Both of the them raise red flags that should be of concern to thinking Catholics.
Bishop Listecki, while at LaCrosse, managed to set new records for keeping priests accused of abuse in ministry. Listecki determined that 64% of the priests accused of sexual abuse in LaCrosse were innocent. The national average was 10%. Additionally, he requested all allegations be reported to him directly rather than the police and refused to comply with Police requests he change this policy:
LETTER TO THE EDITOR FROM EAU CLAIR POLICE CHIEF TO EAU CLAIRE LEADER-TELEGRAM CONCERNING BISHOP LISTECKI
The Catholic Diocese of La Crosse regularly publishes the following notice in the The Catholic Times newspaper: "Anyone wishing to make a report of an allegation of sexual abuse should send that report to Bishop Jerome E. Listecki." I believe the wording of this public notice is misguided.
A similar notice published by the Diocese of Superior states, "Any current incidents of sexual abuse of a minor by anyone must be reported to civil authorities." This notice sends the correct message.
Members of the Diocese of La Crosse need to know that sexual abuse is a crime and should always be reported to police before notifying the organization where the crime occurred. Church leaders will be notified at the appropriate time by investigating authorities. I am not questioning Bishop Listecki's motives, and I believe he is well-intentioned. However, proper procedures shouldn't rely on our trust in this or any future bishop. I exchanged letters with the bishop about my concerns. He disagrees with my suggestion to change the notice.
This simple change would demonstrate that the diocese supports an impartial investigation and ensure that the church could not cover up the matter even if tempted to do so. One reason the Catholic Church has a sex abuse crisis is because it handled these matters internally without notifying civil authorities. Sadly, many church leaders were more interested in the reputation of the church than the welfare of victims.
Until the diocese adopts a policy of public transparency, the loss of trust in the church will be hard to rebuild. Crimes involving the abuse of children are of the highest priority, and these matters must be handled promptly, professionally and in the light of day by public agencies designed to do so. JERRY MATYSIK Chief, Eau Claire Police Department
One of the messes in Milwaukee left behind by Archbishop Dolan is a slew of unsettled abuse cases. Listecki is not just a Canon Lawyer, he is also a civil attorney. SNAP has already called for a demonstration in order to point out Listecki's unique approach to vetting abuse allegations.
Bishop Rhoades presents a different kind of red flag. He is the hand held protege of Cardinal Keeler and owes his entire career to Keeler. This process is known as clerical grooming and according to Richard Sipe is another symptom of the cancer effecting the clerical system. Rhoades is both very traditional and very conservative. He has a good track record for encouraging seminarians and takes a personal interest in them. This can be honestly pastoral or something else entirely.
Pastoral or not, this process of hand holding favored seminarians through their entire ecclesiastical life is a form of nepotism and is likely to be repeated by the protege. It favors one 'son' over all the other 'sons' and is patently unhealthy for the priesthood, irrespective of whether it results in a sexual relationship. It is however, endemic to how promotion works in the Church. Benedict has engaged in this same process with Msgr Ganswein his personal secretary and "keeper of the gate". It is by far and away the best method for insuring your own pet theological bent keeps being expressed.
In my opinion both the Archdioceses of Milwaukee and Fort Wayne/South Bend will have interesting times ahead of them. Bishop Rhoades says he wants to start a new day with Notre Dame in spite of the fact he was one of the bishops who previously castigated Fr. Jenkins for Obama's appearance at Notre Dame. That's in the past he says.
The future remains to be seen.