By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: It ain’t easy being a bishop. As proof, just consider the avalanche of wildly conflicting advice descending upon the Catholic bishops of the United States as they gather Nov. 10-13 in Baltimore, most of it focused on abortion, the 2008 elections, and where the bishops go from here.
Some analysts, especially those of a more liberal bent, are spinning the election of Barak Obama as a “repudiation” of what they see as an overly strident and partisan tone from the bishops, especially on abortion. A few ardently pro-life Catholics, meanwhile, actually believe that what they call “silence and treachery” from the bishops on abortion helped pave the way for Obama’s success. Pro-lifers who fault the bishops for being too subtle are planning to wear Obama masks outside Baltimore’s Marriott Waterfront, where the bishops are meeting, with signs reading, “I couldn’t have been elected without you.”
High-profile Catholic commentators have been similarly, and perhaps predictably, all over the map.
Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, for example, has suggested the bishops follow the lead of “pragmatic pro-lifers,” who do not necessarily support criminalization of abortion but rather social policies to reduce the actual number of abortions. Meanwhile, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, writing on his First Things blog, has counseled the bishops in Baltimore to avoid “calculated timidity,” and to bear in mind that “it is not their business to win political races” but rather “to defend and teach the faith, including the church’s moral doctrine.”
Fr. John Jay Hughes, a noted Catholic writer based in St. Louis, has offered yet another perspective. Since the prospect for legislative or judicial progress under Obama – i.e., overturning Roe v. Wade – is virtually nil, Hughes suggested earlier this week, the challenge is to win the argument for life on the cultural level. In other words, the bishops should focus on changing hearts and minds, not, at least for now, the law.
Still others are counseling the bishops to focus on other matters where Catholic social teaching and the President-elect seem closer to a meeting of minds, such as immigration reform, poverty relief, peace-making, and environmental protection.
Complicating things further, as the bishops gather in Baltimore, is that the conflicting voices don’t come just from outside the conference. The bishops themselves “aren’t of one mind,” as Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, vice-president of the conference, put it in a mid-October interview in Rome with NCR.
To be clear, there’s no disagreement among the bishops on the core teaching that abortion is a grave moral evil. How to translate that into concrete pastoral and political choices, however, is another matter. Russell Shaw, former spokesperson for the bishops’ conference, offered a rough-and-ready taxonomy this week by dividing the bishops into three categories:
•t“Hardliners,” who want to deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians and who believe that under canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, pro-choice legislators and judges (and, possibly, ordinary Catholics who vote for them) have excommunicated themselves;
•t“Compromisers,” who support a less confrontational approach to politicians who don’t follow church teaching, in hopes of finding common ground and avoiding impressions that the bishops are overly partisan;
•tA largely silent majority who are just trying to keep their dioceses going, and who hope that polarizing national debates like this one will somehow go away.
Here’s a very practical illustration of the tough choices bishops will have to navigate over the next four years: Should the next Vice-President of the United States, Joseph Biden, a pro-choice Catholic, be turned away from communion at Catholic parishes, or barred from speaking at Catholic colleges? Even bishops equally opposed to abortion may reach very different conclusions on such matters. (It’s worth noting in this regard that after Biden took communion in Tallahassee, Florida, on Nov. 2, Bishop John Ricard of Penscola-Tallahassee sent a letter which did not bar Biden outright from communion but appeared to suggest that he should not present himself for the sacrament.)
Facing tough questions and competing views, both inside and outside the conference, one option for the bishops in Baltimore would be to simply dodge the question and play for time – perhaps in hopes that as the wounds of the election heal, it will be possible to approach the issue more rationally.
For a brief period on Friday and Saturday it seemed that choice might prevail. Religion News Service quoted a spokesperson for the bishops to the effect that, previously announced plans to the contrary, they wouldn’t discuss abortion and politics. Sr. Mary Ann Walsh told RNS the feeling was that whatever needed to be said on abortion, especially in the wake of public statements from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Biden claiming that church teaching wasn’t clear, had already been said in numerous statements both from the conference and from individual bishops.
By mid-day Saturday, however, it became clear that taking the issue off the table wasn’t going to work, as a growing number of bishops who were arriving in Baltimore pressed for a discussion. One prominent bishop, for example, told a reporter on background that it would be “cowardice” if the conference didn’t tackle abortion and the elections during one of the public sessions.
In the end, the bishops will actually take up abortion and the elections no fewer than three times in Baltimore: during their regional meetings, during a public session, and once more in executive session behind closed doors.
Agreement to talk, however, hardly signifies consensus on what to say. One bishop put the prospects this way: “This may be a rather bloody time from some of the things I am hearing,” he said. “But sometimes the talk is hotter than the reality, since we are a senate of gentlemen!”
Almost certainly, one focus will be the bishops’ “Faithful Citizenship” document, which was adopted one year ago as the conference’s principal statement on the 2008 elections. At the time, the document was widely hailed for bringing together the pro-life and the “peace and justice” constituencies. It underscored the full range of Catholic social concerns – including poverty relief, racism, and war – but assigned a clear pride of place to the defense of unborn life.
“The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many,” the statement said.
Controversially, however, the document also acknowledged at least the theoretical possibility that a Catholic who fully accepts church teaching on abortion could nevertheless vote for a pro-choice candidate – despite, rather than because of, that stance – on the basis of “proportionate reasons.”
In the wake of Obama’s success among Catholic voters, some critics now blame “Faithful Citizenship” for blurring the church’s emphasis on abortion.
“Its elaborate attention to nuance and painstaking distinctions made it a virtual invitation for the Catholic flaks of Obama to turn it upside down and inside out,” Neuhaus wrote. “The statement was regularly invoked to justify voting for the most extreme proponent of the unlimited abortion license in American presidential history.”
Shaw agreed, calling broad consensus statements from the bishops on political matters “of questionable value,” noting that some pro-Obama Catholics “mined” the document to support their choice.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver told RNS that the document “didn’t and doesn’t work because it’s been applied by different people in very different ways.”
The U.S. bishops have issued guidance to Catholic voters prior to every presidential race since 1976. In light of these reactions to “Faithful Citizenship,” however, it seems an open question whether that tradition will continue. (That’s not a decision they have to make, however, this week in Baltimore.)
Another tension between “hardliners” and “compromisers” that could surface at Baltimore concerns a parish collection set for late November by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a church-affiliated charity intended to support the working poor. Neuhaus has called upon the bishops to “shut down” the campaign, asserting that it has funded pro-abortion activities over the years, that its resources go entirely to non-Catholic agencies, and that it was a major contributor to ACORN, a network of community-based groups that backed Obama.
Barring something dramatic in Baltimore, it seems for now the Nov. 22-23 collection will go ahead as planned. On Nov. 3, the bishops’ conference issued a press release from Bishop Roger Morin, auxiliary bishop of New Orleans and chair of the conference subcommittee on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, urging church-goers to contribute.
“In the name of all of the Catholics in the United States, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development fights poverty and challenges injustice,” Morin said.
On at least one front, the bishops seem poised to make a collective statement with implications for the abortion debate: They will vote on, and probably approve, a new “Order for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb” in both English and Spanish. Assuming that the bishops adopt it and the Vatican gives its okay, the text will be added to the official “Book of Blessings.” Conference materials describe the blessing as intended “to support parents awaiting the birth of their child, to encourage in the parish prayers for and recognition of the gift of the child in the womb, and to foster respect for human life within society.”
Whatever happens over the next few days, one thing at least seems crystal clear: Nothing the bishops could possibly do in Baltimore – including, to be sure, doing nothing – is likely to satisfy everyone.