Obama, the Bishops, and the Politics of 'Usurpation'

by Joe Feuerherd

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George Weigel, favored intellectual of the Catholic right, has a short memory but some powerful insights in a post-Obama-at-Notre Dame column posted yesterday at National Review Online.

“What was surprising, and ought to be disturbing to anyone who cares about religious freedom in these United States, was the president’s decision to insert himself into the ongoing Catholic debate over the boundaries of Catholic identity and the applicability of settled Catholic conviction in the public square,” writes Weigel.

“…never in our history has a president of the United States, in the exercise of his public office, intervened in such disputes in order to secure a political advantage,” says Weigel. He concludes: “What the bishops of the United States have to say about this usurpation [emphasis added] of their authority will be very interesting to see.”

Weigel’s political point, if not his analysis of causes, is spot on.
In what amounted to a Sunday afternoon national television address to the nation’s Catholics, President Obama went right over the heads of the US Bishops – particularly the 80-plus who spoke out against his appearance at Notre Dame. The president spoke persuasively to the silent majority of American Catholics who favor results (fewer abortions) over rhetoric (overturn Roe v. Wade).

Meanwhile, leading Vatican officials continue to send positive signals about the relative moderation of Obama’s agenda on life issues, while embracing the president’s initiatives on all manner of international concerns.

In economic lingo, the president has disintermediated the US Bishops -- cut out the middlemen between the faithful at home and the hierarchy in Rome.

Weigel says this strategy amounts to a “usurpation” of the bishops authority. Not so. The strategy results not from presidential usurpation, but from the bishops’ stepping into deep partisan political waters and drowning. As individuals and as a collective, the bishops’ are simply not equipped to play this game, as was amply demonstrated by the entirely predictable positive reaction the president’s Notre Dame speech.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen it before. Weigel, in fact, chronicled much of it in his biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope.

In the 1980s, the then liberal leadership of the US Bishops Conference dealt with another charismatic and politically astute president, Ronald Reagan, as he went over their heads and spoke to American Catholics on a whole range of issues where the US church and the administration differed. The bishops’ wrote a pastoral letter on war and peace as Reagan placed intermediate nuclear weapons in Western Europe; the president sponsored anti-communist proxy wars in Central America while the bishops opposed human rights abuses in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala; the bishops’ letter on economics was critical of US capitalism while the administration practiced “Reaganomics.”

All the while, the Reagan received a sympathetic hearing from Vatican officials, even as the administration quarreled with US Catholic leaders.

The Reagan strategy of disintermediation was both brilliant and politically successful. The “Reagan Democrats” who emerged as a result – largely blue-collar Catholics – shaped American politics for a generation. Obama, or at least his advisers, sense a like moment. And given the hard heartedness and political ineptitude of the nation’s bishops, similar success seems likely.

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