As the bishops of the United States gather this week for their annual spring meeting and retreat, I invite them to ask themselves some questions that pertain to their place in the public square. I hope they will be honest with themselves about the answers to these questions because some of us believe that our country and our culture desperately need the voice of the church, and especially the insights of her social doctrine, at this moment in history, and that hope is endangered by the bishops' inability or unwillingness to consider honestly if their public stance is effective and if it is true to the fullness of the Gospel. In other words, I pose these questions not as someone who hates the church, but someone who is worried that her leaders have gone down a wrong side street in many ways, been pulled further to the right than they seem to realize themselves, and are less and less relevant to the culture they are called to evangelize. After each set of questions, I shall offer a brief lesson.
Since you formed an Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, have your actions furthered that cause or harmed it? Has the Fortnight for Freedom achieved anything tangible or has it been a colossal waste of funds? Who has made money from all those expenditures? Which consultants and which PR companies? Were the promises for success or goals for your various religious freedom campaigns, those coming from your own staff, were these born out by the facts? When the Republican Governor of Georgia vetoes a religious liberty bill, do you think that marks the success of your efforts or not?
Do you think that the video prepared by the Knights of Columbus and highlighted on the USCCB website is well done? Do you think the decision to highlight former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in that video, for no apparent reason, will make it more likely or less likely that you will be able to get a fair hearing from her should she be elected next November? Do you think the contraception mandate is really like the beheading of Christians in the Mideast, or do you think the equation of the two qualifies as emotional blackmail?
Will you denounce Donald Trump's anti-Muslim statements and proposals with the same vehemence with which you denounced the Obama administration's contraception mandate? Or do you think the requirement of filing a form to register your objection to the mandate is an equal or greater infringement of religious liberty than being barred entry to the country in the first place? Have you participated in a public event with Muslim leaders to highlight their concerns?
The lesson? You are bishops, not constitutional scholars, and you have been listening to a group of people with a partisan and/or ideological ax to grind on this subject. You lead a church that means something different by "freedom" from what the founding fathers meant, no matter how many times you say otherwise. You need a different strategy, more like that employed by the leaders of the Mormon church in Utah, which reached out to LGBT groups and negotiated an agreement on religious liberty issues and protections against discrimination for the LGBT community. You need to shut down the ad hoc committee or provide it with different leadership.
As I mentioned yesterday, some of you seem constitutionally incapable of saying the words "gay" or "lesbian" even in the midst of a massacre that was directly aimed at gay people. What is up with this? Do you see that referring to gay people as "people who experience same sex attraction" is not only a clunky and bizarre phrasing, in the wake of the attacks Sunday morning, it was offensive? Do you see that it seems you are afraid to mention the word, as if saying it were a kind of communicable disease? Does such a reluctance reflect the respect and dignity for the human person the Church celebrates?
Do you think it is polite to refer to people in the manner that they refer to themselves? Do you still call Presbyterians and Lutherans heretics? Would you appreciate being called papists? Idolators? Does your hesitancy reflect concern about certain theories about LGBT issues you have been sold by some conservative groups and, if so, is this reluctance to call gay people gay not an example of putting ideology before people which the pope has denounced as the source of great evil and many barriers and injustices in our world?
Do you realize that even Donald Trump yesterday understood it was morally necessary to express specific concern for the LGBT community? Do you also realize that when you have ceded the moral high ground to Donald Trump, even for a minute, it is time to rethink your entire life?
Do you think your ability to relate to the LGBT community is helped or hindered by the fact that so many anti-LGBT leaders, and indeed some of the loudest voices among the bishops, are themselves conflicted about their sexual identity?
The lesson here is to be quiet lest you keep embarrassing yourselves. Ask around within your diocese and find a way to meet with some gay and lesbian people on a regular basis, find out how God is already active in their lives, what their lives are like, and ask them how you think the church should speak about them and their lives. Read some real literature on the subject, starting with John Boswell's seminal study Christianity, Homosexuality and Social Tolerance.
Are you aware that 61 percent of all Catholics in this country under the age of 18 are Latino? Are you aware that there is abundant polling data indicating that Latinos are, quite understandably, terrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency given the fact he has repeatedly promised to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants? Which of you bishops have explicitly denounced Trump's proposals with the same energy that was once mustered to fret about John Kerry in 2004? Have you spent as much time denouncing the Obama administration's deportation raids as you have the contraception mandate, and if not, what does that say about your priorities?
Do you recognize that Latinos are not only worried about Trump the person, but about the fact that he received more primary votes than any Republican candidate in history? Do you realize how frightening it is to Latinos to realize that millions of Americans warm to Trump's hatred of them? What percentage of those millions of immigrant-hating Americans are Catholic?
What have you done to reassure the Latino community? Have you help a press conference with Latino leaders? How have you communicated to the Latinos in the pews that you care as much about them as you do about other issues? Do you think there is any future for the Catholic church in the United States without Latinos? What steps are you taking to prioritize pastoral focus on the immigrant population? Is this a focus of the bishops' conference? Has the conference staff maintained the wide swath of bipartisan relationships that characterized its work for decades and, if not, what signal does that send to the Latino community about your priorities?
The lesson? Bishops need to make fighting for comprehensive immigration reform their number one priority until it is accomplished. They need to instruct their staff to put pressure on Republicans in Congress and not to take at face value their promises to deal with this issue in lame duck sessions, promises your staff was only too ready to believe in the past. Bishops need to reassess their spending of time and resources, how they train priests and lay leaders, the shape of Catholic education, all with a view towards welcoming Latinos into our church structures at every level.
How many people have left or been fired since Msgr. Brian Bransfield was elected General Secretary of the conference last November? Does this exodus reflect well or poorly on his leadership? You voted at the last meeting to increase the amount you pay to the USCCB each year. Do you have confidence that money will be well spent? Do you realize the extent to which the fifth floor of the conference is a "Francis-free" zone? Do you think it is appropriate for staff to demand that they see the text of a talk to be delivered by a bishop in advance? Does this not reflect a misunderstanding about who works for whom?
The lesson? The conference is crashing and burning before your very eyes. It appears likely to get worse before it gets better. No one seems willing to step up to the plate and face the facts, or has the time and energy to wrap their head around the problems. Here, the lesson remains to be seen.
Those are the questions I have this morning, and they are not only my questions. I invite our bishops meeting in Huntington Beach to reflect on them at their meetings this week.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]
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