Is the Francis Era Ending the Catholic Bishops’ Cozy Ties to the GOP?

One of the more interesting revelations to come out of the Politico interview with John Boehner concerns the time when Boehner was pushing Rep. Paul Ryan to take the speakership:

Ryan never wanted the job; it took Boehner more than a year to convince him, and there were drastic measures involved. When McCarthy abruptly decided he would not run for speaker, everyone knew Ryan was the only unifying choice. And Boehner knew which buttons to push: The speaker called Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, asking him to pressure Ryan. Dolan obliged, phoning the congressman and piling on more of the “Catholic guilt” Boehner had employed.

There are several remarkable things here. One, was that Dolan was the only “pol” with enough juice to get Ryan to take the job. The other was that a prelate of the Roman Catholic Church would insert himself so directly into the machinations of a specific political party—despite the fact that the USCCB has repeatedly criticized the budgets put forward by Ryan because they would gut safety net programs for the poor.

But this isn’t surprising given the enduring ties between institutional Republicans and the conservative wing of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Dolan and his ilk have been cozy with the leadership of the GOP since the Bush administration, when a number of archbishops and cardinals openly campaigned for Bush. It was in the bishops’ interest to help protect their friends in the Republican “mainstream” from the upstart Tea Party, with which they had few relationships and little leverage.

But this also illustrates the politically perilous position the bishops find themselves in with the Trumpian GOP. Long-time relationships count for less in a party fractured by discord and unable to chart a way forward. Emboldened progressives within the bishops conference like Cardinal Blasé Cupich are bringing issues like racism, gun control, health care and immigration to the fore, which is bound to cause friction with the GOP.

And Trump himself has largely frozen the Catholic prelates out of his inner circle thanks to his co-dependent relationship with evangelicals. As the Rev. Katharine Henderson noted recently in RNS, the only voices of faith Trump hears are a “narrow echo chamber consisting exclusively of conservative Christian evangelicals.”

In the short run, however, the bishops have already gotten exactly what they wanted from Trump: an exemption for anyone who wants it for “religious” or “moral” reasons from the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. This wasn’t due to their lobbying or political prowess, but because Trump was smart enough to latch on to the “religious liberty” issue as a powerful lever with the religious right.

As Hugh Hewitt recently noted in the Washington Post, Trump’s “enduring support among evangelical Christians and Mass-attending Catholics” is due to one thing and one thing only: “religious liberty remains the overarching issue of the day, the alpha and omega of whether Trump gets a nod of approval or at least a pass.”

It will be interesting to see where the USCCB goes politically now that they have their hearts’ desire, with universities like Notre Dame stripping birth control coverage from their students and employees (it will be interesting to see if any South Bend-area Planned Parenthoods or other women’s health centers see an uptick in abortions). The USCCB is, of course, heavily invested in the Masterpiece Cake decision and the question of whether businesses will be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

But beyond that, the bishops’ conference may be in the midst of a political realignment itself, as progressive forces aligned with Pope Francis gain recognition and reopen the “seamless garment” debate of the Bernardin era, arguing that abortion should be discussed alongside social justice issues, not elevated above them.

The vote at the bishops’ upcoming fall meeting for the new head of the high-profile Pro-life Committee (to fill a post held by Dolan) may be an indication of the direction of the conference. It will pit the “progressive” Cupich against cultural warrior Cardinal Jospeh Naumann of Kansas City, a John Paul II bishop who is happy to use abortion to herd Catholics toward the GOP and who had signed on to right-wing conspiracy theories against the Girl Scouts and Catholic Relief Services.

And in another indication that the flashpoints of the Francis era are causing a shift at the USCCB, the conference announced Wednesday that Father Thomas Weinandy has resigned as a consultant from its Committee on Doctrine, effective immediately, after a scorching letter he sent to Pope Francis in July criticizing his papacy was made public.

Weinandy accused Francis of sowing “chronic confusion” within the church by “promot[ing] various doctrinal and moral options.” He also said that Francis was scandalizing believers with the appointment of bishops who “seem not merely open to those who hold views counter to Christian belief but who support and even defend them.” As a result, Weinandy said that the faithful “are losing confidence in their supreme shepherd.”

While asserting his loyalty to Francis, Weinandy claimed that he was speaking for the majority of bishops, who he said were afraid to speak out about “the concerns that your pontificate raises.” He concluded that Francis’ pontificate had “given those who hold harmful theological and pastoral views the license and confidence to come into the light and expose their previously hidden darkness.”

Weinandy, who was formerly the head of the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, is best known for disciplining theologian Elizabeth Johnson for dissenting from church doctrine in her book Quest for the Living God.

The severing of a relationship with a man who accused the pope of fostering “darkness” in the church prompted the USCCB to take the extraordinary step of issuing a statement confirming that the U.S. bishops “always stand in strong unity with and loyalty to the Holy Father, Pope Francis.”

Whether they like it or not, the bishops are being forced to take sides and old allies may find themselves on the outs as the conference responds to political pressures inside and out.