The USCCB is meeting in Baltimore this week (12-15 November) for its annual Fall General Assembly. The bishops won’t be singing alleluias in their hotel corridors.
Despite strong attacks on him, by highly politicized bishops, President Obama has been reelected.
Despite urgent appeals to voters, and threats of mortal sin and refusing Communion to those who disagreed with them, the bishops lost on state referendums on same-sex marriage in Maine, Minnesota, Maryland, and Washington State.
To the bishops great dismay, a majority of American Catholics voted for Barack Obama and gay activists won every referendum.
In Missouri and Indiana, though expected to win, those Republican senatorial candidates, who took the strongest positions on abortion, were also defeated.
This week our bishops will hear addresses by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of USCCB, and Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, apostolic nuncio to the United States. They will vote on several action items, including their strategic plan and documents on preaching, the Sacrament of Penance, and challenges to the teaching ministry of a bishop.
So what now? It is not whether a person is a Republican or a Democrat. Certainly a bishop, like any citizen, has the freedom and the right to hold and express a political position. Bishops have the right — the responsibility — to speak out about contemporary moral issues.
These things being said, there are some fundamental Catholic issues that our bishops must open their eyes, minds, and hearts to. Simply condemning those who disagree with them is not only counterproductive; but it is wrong.
I am 100% pro-life: across the board. Nevertheless I think we must talk about abortion, and about the best way to diminish and eliminate abortion. And as an older historical theologian I know as well that despite the attempts of the Vatican and our bishops to silence open discussion of the morality of abortion, questions persist about precisely when human life begins and our Catholic tradition has been far from univocal on this point. The question is not yet settled. Serious reflection and dialogue are the appropriate Catholic response.
I had a friendly discussion with a bishop, not so long ago, who worries about Islamic fundamentalists imposing their values on civil society. That could be a danger, I said, but then suggested that many of our bishops are trying to do exactly the same thing. He was not amused……..
This week our bishops want to reassert their teaching authority. Good teachers must also and always be good learners. Our bishops seem to overlook, however, that strong currents in the Catholic tradition of moral thinking have always emphasized that moral and civil law are not and should not be synonymous. This teaching goes way back to Thomas Aquinas. A religious community can hold moral positions that it regards as strong and even absolute, without seeking to force a multicultural, pluralistic society to adopt its religiously-based moral judgments.
Note for example…..Catholic moral tradition has long held things like adultery or prostitution to be intrinsically evil, but it has not advocated forcing civil society to change or adopt laws to enshrine in civil law the Catholic understanding of these practices. The attempt to make abortion the exception to all rules of prudential judgment–to make it the fundamental moral issue trumping all other moral issues–flies in the face of Catholic tradition itself.
Same-sex marriage? A majority of Americans and American Catholics now support it. It is a civil reality; and I don’t hear many people saying it should become the eighth sacrament.
Artificial birth control? That issue was resolved fifty years ago. Let’s move on.
Women’s ordination? The number of women bishops and priests continues to grow. The whole scale ignorance of our bishops about the history of Catholic women exercising ordained ministry in the Catholic Church is appalling. They would flunk my introduction to Catholic theology class.
Yes indeed……our American Catholic Church continues its pilgrimage along the tracks of Catholic life. Right now, however, our bishops are more the antiquated caboose than the engine.