Political priorities of US bishops may surprise you

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori processes during the Fortnight for Freedom Mass July 3 at the "Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America." (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori processes during the Fortnight for Freedom Mass July 3 at the "Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America." (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

by Thomas Reese

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Progressive Catholics and many in the media accuse the American bishops of caring only about abortion, gay marriage and "religious freedom," and not speaking out on issues of justice and peace. I have argued that such accusations require more nuance. In fact, the bishops often speak out on other issues, but for some reason they do not get the press attention that bishops get when they talk about abortion and religious freedom.

To test this theory, I went through press releases that were issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops since the first of the year to see how often the bishops actually speak on different topics. The review of almost seven months of press releases is revealing. (I acknowledge that a review of the press releases in 2016 might present different results, but I leave that to others.)

The bishops issued only seven press releases that were devoted solely to abortion, four of them in January when there was a major pro-life march in Washington, D.C. Two of the releases called for prayer, marches and advocacy. Another January release applauded the reestablishment of the Mexico City policy of denying government funds to overseas organizations that sponsor abortions. The other January release welcomed the passage of H.R. U.S. House of Representatives bill 7, "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act of 2017," and hoped the Senate would take it up.

Other abortion related press releases involved withholding funding from Planned Parenthood and the U.N. Population Fund. Finally, there was a release that called very disturbing the pledge by the Democratic National Committee chair to only support pro-abortion candidates.

The bishops also issued 11 press releases on health care legislation, most of it very critical of the Republican bills that cut back on Medicaid or reduce insurance subsides for low-income people. While the releases acknowledged that the bills provided critical life protections for the unborn, they said the bishops did not feel that there were sufficient conscience protections for those in health care. But most of the firepower was directed at the bills' impact on the poor.

Only two releases dealt with gay marriage, one a general defense of marriage as between a man and a woman, while the other expressed disappointment that President Donald Trump did not rollback the Obama executive order forbidding "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" discrimination by federal contractors.

Another six press releases dealt with freedom of religion. Many of these expressed gratitude to the Trump administration for reversing actions of the Obama administration on transgender students, HHS mandates, or denial of funding to religious social welfare organizations because of their position on gay marriage or bioethical issues. Others urged congressional support for the  Conscience Protection Act of 2017 and Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2017, which would protect conscience rights and funding of religious social welfare organizations.

That adds up to seven press releases on abortion, two on gay marriage, six on freedom of religion, and an additional 11 on health care where conscience issues were sometimes tangentially mentioned.

During the same time, the bishops issued 12 press releases on foreign policy, 20 on immigration, five on environmental issues, and five on other issues of justice or the poor. Additional press releases responded to terrorist attacks, but these were pastoral rather than political.

A simple headcount of press releases does not support the view that the bishops are only speaking out on abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom. Immigration and refugees were clearly a priority of the bishops when they criticized executive orders and other actions detrimental to refugees, so-called Dreamers (people qualifying for Deferred Action for Child Arrivals) and other immigrants.

Passionate rhetoric

Critics of the bishops might respond that even though the bishops issue press releases on immigration and other issues affecting the poor, their passion is in the culture wars.

To test this theory, I went through the press releases again looking at the rhetoric used on various issues.

Surprisingly, the rhetoric on abortion was relatively low key while the language on healthcare for the poor and immigration was very strong. I admit that this judgment is somewhat subjective, but perhaps some examples will show what I mean.

On abortion, the press releases speak of respect for the dignity of the human person, life as the most fundamental human right, and abortion as a "violent act." The language got stronger when referring to "coerced sterilizations and forced abortions" in China, which were judged to be "unspeakable abuses." Another press release attacked the Democratic National Committee chair's pledge to support only pro-abortion candidates, calling the pledge "very disturbing" and an "intolerant position."

When talking about abortion in the healthcare legislation, references to the unborn were almost always included in the same sentences as the poor, as in expressing their concern for "the most vulnerable among us, including the unborn and those experiencing deep poverty." In fact, the denial of funds to abortion providers was the only thing that the bishops liked in the Republican health care bills. "By restricting federal funding for abortion, its providers, and the purchase of plans that cover it, the bill would have finally resolved a grave moral failing rooted within the very structure of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)."

In the press releases on gay marriage, government policy was judged to be "troubling and disappointing" and "deeply flawed."

The language on religious freedom went to another level. Remedial legislation is "essential" to protect the "our first and most cherished freedom," against "unjust discrimination," "pressing restrictions," "government-imposed burden on our ministries," and "political whims." The bishops speak of "our great dismay" and complain that "widely held moral and religious beliefs … have been maligned in recent years as bigotry or hostility."

Another press release welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court's decision striking down "harmful provisions" of the "pernicious Blaine Amendments," which were enacted in "a time of intense anti-Catholic bigotry."

Nor did the bishops think that the proposed healthcare bills provided adequate conscience protections for those involved in the healthcare industry. Early in the year these concerns were made in passing, but as the year went on the bishops became more adamant as Republicans appeared to ignore their concerns.

In May the bishops' conference began to speak of "vital conscience protections" and the need to "honor all human life and dignity from conception to natural death, as well as defend the sincerely-held moral and religious beliefs of those who have any role in the health care system." By June, the bishops are still complaining that the bill fails "to put in place conscience protections for all those involved in the health care system, protections which are needed more than ever in our country's health policy."

The bishops are clearly concerned about conscience protections in healthcare, but the rhetoric escalates when talking about the legislation's impact on the poor. The bishops express "deep concern" regarding "serious flaws" and "serious deficiencies" in the Republican bills and their impact on "those experiencing deep poverty." In March, the bishops accuse the legislation of creating "unacceptable problems, particularly for those who struggle on the margins of our society." They complain that the bills do not address "problems like rising costs and premiums, as well as impediments to immigrant access."

In April, the bishops continue to object that "the bill will harm poor and vulnerable people." They find the bill "deeply disappointing" with "serious flaws, including unacceptable modifications to Medicaid that will endanger coverage and affordability for millions of people." The bill will "severely impact many people with pre-existing conditions while risking for others the loss of access to various essential coverages." The legislation "as it now stands, creates new and grave challenges for poor and vulnerable people, including immigrants."

In June, the bishops again emphasize the "many serious flaws" in the House bill, including "unacceptable changes to Medicaid." The bishops complain that the Senate bill "retains many of the fundamental defects of the House of Representatives-passed health care legislation, and even further compounds them" by providing "even less to those in need" resulting in a "detrimental impact on the poor and vulnerable." In sum, "At a time when tax cuts that would seem to benefit the wealthy and increases in other areas of federal spending, such as defense, are being contemplated, placing a 'per capita cap' on medical coverage for the poor is unconscionable."

Complaints continued in July, when the bishops "reacted strongly" and called the legislation "unacceptable" because "restructuring of Medicaid will adversely impact those already in deep health poverty." "To end coverage for those who struggle every day without an adequate alternative in place would be devastating," concluded the bishops. "The American Health Care Act legislation from the U.S. House of Representatives and the Better Care Reconciliation Act from the Senate were seriously flawed, and would have harmed those most in need in unacceptable ways. In the face of difficulties passing these proposals, the appropriate response is not to create greater uncertainty, especially for those who can bear it least, by repealing the ACA without a replacement."

Refugees and immigrants

The bishops used very strong language in pointing out the problems with the Republican healthcare proposals, and they also let loose in defense of refugees and immigrants.

The bishops say they are "disappointed," "disheartened," "deeply troubled" and "deeply concerned" about the president's actions on immigration and refugees. They complained of "fear and intolerance" and "bigotry," and asserted the "moral urgency for comprehensive immigration reform that is just and compassionate."

The bishops describe the president's actions as "devastating," "dire," "alarming" and "injurious," which needlessly put the lives of people "in harm's way," and "make migrants, especially vulnerable women and children, more susceptible to traffickers and smugglers." They complain that the president's executive order "virtually shuts down the refugee admissions program." The "Executive Order has generated fear and untold anxiety among refugees, immigrants, and others."

The administration's actions "needlessly separate families, upend peaceful communities, endanger the lives and safety of the most vulnerable among us, breakdown the trust that currently exists between many police departments and immigrant communities, and sow great fear in those communities."

Refugees and immigrants, which include "severed families" and "traumatized children," were defended by the bishops as "vulnerable" "victims" having "inherent dignity," "fleeing persecution," in "darkness of isolation," "who suffer at the hands of merciless persecutors." They speak of "Jesus, Mary and Joseph as migrants and refugees."

The bishops are "gravely concerned" that refugees "would then be sent back to a country where religious persecution and persecution against ethnic minorities remains an ongoing threat." They even use the term genocide.

In their foreign policy press releases, they express concern for Christians and others suffering persecution and harassment in Syria, Iraq and Egypt. They speak of "horrendous attack," "unspeakable evil" and "the innocent blood of defenseless Christians." But they plead also for all victims of war in the Middle East: "May no effort be spared in guaranteeing humanitarian assistance to those wounded by this terrible conflict, in particular those forced to flee and the many refugees in nearby countries."

The bishops also "expressed concern" for the House Republican budget proposal with its "harmful and unacceptable cuts to Medicaid" and to "important programs like SNAP that provide essential nutrition to millions of people." "Reducing deficits through cuts for human needs — while simultaneously attempting a tax cut, as this proposal does — will place millions of poor and vulnerable people in real jeopardy. Congress should choose a better path, one that honors those struggling in our country." 

On the environment, the bishops complain that a March executive order "rescinds and weakens numerous environmental protections, and effectively dismantles the Clean Power Plan." They also called president's decision not to honor the U.S. commitment to the Paris agreement "deeply troubling," but the rhetoric on environmental issues was low key in comparison to their words on religious freedom, healthcare and immigration.

Looking simply at the language used, one would have to conclude that the bishops are passionate about religious freedom, healthcare for the poor, and immigration.

Despite their passionate words, the bishops do not get that much attention when they speak on healthcare for the poor and immigration.

Looking at the spokespeople

A final factor I looked at was who was quoted in the press release.

On abortion, it was almost always the well-known Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who is also chair of the bishops' pro-life committee. People in red hats stick out in a crowd. Dolan, from the media capital of the world, is known to be a good communicator.

On healthcare, the most common spokesperson is little-known Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. In three press releases that also dealt with conscience rights, he was joined by Dolan and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

Likewise, on religious liberty, Lori was a frequent spokesperson, but he was often joined by Dolan and/or Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, chair of the USCCB Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. Only twice did a press release on religious freedom only have one spokesperson.

On immigration, the most common spokesperson was little-known Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the Committee of Migration.

Likewise, on the environment and other justice issues, the spokesman was often Dewane.

The choice of spokespersons may be one explanation of why the bishops' positions on and immigration, environment and justice get less attention than their views on abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom. Dolan, Chaput and Lory are archbishops of major Eastern archdioceses and are better known in the media than relatively unknown bishops of smaller dioceses like Vasquez and Dewane. For reporters, as with the church, cardinals trump other prelates, and archbishops trump simple bishops.

In defense of the bishops' conference, the spokespersons are almost always the chairs of committees that deal with the topic of the press release. But the U.S. bishops have always elected a cardinal as chair of the pro-life committee, while the justice and peace committees seem to be neglected today by high ranking prelates. While Vasquez and Dewane may be hard working and competent, they do not have the media status of a cardinal.

In conclusion, the number of press releases and the rhetoric used in the releases does not support the contention that the bishops only care about abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom, but the choice of spokespersons does give a higher focus to these issues. Like the bishops themselves, the media is obsessed with rank. Sadly, the strong language of the bishops on immigration, refugees and health care for the poor does not get the attention it deserves. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a columnist for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.]

Editor's note: Sign up to receive emails, and we will notify you when new Faith and Justice columns are out.

A version of this story appeared in the Aug 25-Sept 7, 2017 print issue.

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