This past week brought into sharp focus the Catholic Bishops’ increasingly uncompromising stance on reproductive issues, and their silence on others. The bishops released a memo reaffirming their rejection of the “radically flawed” compromise on insurance coverage of contraception proposed by the Obama administration. As Dan Maguire noted, Bishop Robert McManus forced Anna Maria College to withdraw its invitation to Victoria Kennedy, Sen. Edward Kennedy’s widow, to give the school’s commencement address. And Xavier University, a Jesuit school in Ohio, announced that it will drop contraception from its employees’ health insurance coverage.
Notably, if not surprisingly, there was no public response I have seen from the bishops or their culture war allies on the release of documents exposing the crass racial and ethnic wedge strategies being pursued by the National Organization for Marriage with tons of funding from Catholic coffers. NOM itself is doubling down and trying to turn the exposure into yet another excuse for crying persecution.
Last week, syndicated columnist Bill Press railed against the bishops’ narrow public focus on abortion, contraception, and marriage equality, and their seeming abandonment of the church’s longtime public advocacy on behalf of economic justice. He called the bishops’ silence on the Ryan Republican budget “shameful.”
The Ryan plan, in other words, is not preferential treatment for the poor. It’s preferential treatment for the rich. But what have Catholic bishops said about it? Absolutely nothing. Not a word. Zip. Nada. Not last year, and not this year. Last November, in fact, Archbishop Charles Chaput told Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats, that bishops just didn’t have enough time at their annual meeting to discuss poverty. Besides, volunteered Chaput, he didn’t think bishops should be commenting on complex economic matters….
It seems like the bishops are following the advice given to them by Robert George, reigning intellectual godfather of the Catholic Right and, among his many affiliations, the chairman emeritus of the National Organization for Marriage. According to a December 2009 profile of George by the New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick, George was invited to address “an audience that included many bishops” at a conference in Washington that spring.
He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on “the moral social” issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear.
To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops’ “making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care – “matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,” as George put it.
So, to recap: Legal protections for a same-sex couple and their children? Access to contraceptive health care for women? Enemies of the gospel – and those who disagree are enemies of freedom. But no such line in the sand on the death penalty, or a living wage, or the preemptive war in Iran that Catholic candidates Gingrich and Santorum are demanding. No need to make a fuss about the shredding of the safety net to fund even more tax breaks for the ever-wealthier.
These priorities are, as Press noted in his column, a long way from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical that recognized workers’ rights and affirmed the “preferential option for the poor.”
Noting that the wealthy can generally take care of themselves, the pope decreed: “It is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.”
When I was growing up a Catholic, the nuns had a phrase for those who obeyed some tenets of the Church but not others: “Cafeteria Catholics.” Today, the biggest “Cafeteria Catholics” are Catholic Bishops.