USCCB statements on other political topics are harming the campaign for religious freedom

By Phil Lawler | May 04, 2012 3:39 PM

In March the US bishops’ conference (USCCB) announced that “we will not rest” until Congress ensures that religious freedom is protected in the federal health-care reform program. The USCCB followed up that clear and forceful message a few week later with a new, statement announcing a major offensive in defense of religious liberty. These powerful statements seemed to indicate clearly that religious freedom would be the focus—the focus—of the bishops’ political efforts this year.

The USCCB issued a clarion call to the Catholic laity, asking for help with this campaign. Cardinal Dolan called out President Obama; Bishop Lori challenged Congress. The bishops signaled that they would not retreat. The battle lines were drawn. The troops were summoned.

Unfortunately, since that time the bishops have lost their focus, and thus complicated things for the active Catholic laity. The USCCB has done what the USCCB always does: muddied the water, by issuing statements on a host of different political issues—including many of which good Catholics have differing opinions, and on which Catholic bishops have no special expertise.

In the past 10 week, the USCCB and its spokesmen have:

The USCCB has released a full listing of the legislative issues the bishops are tracking during this congressional session. The list includes not only the clearly germane moral questions that Catholics expect to discuss (such are religious freedom, immigration, and the defense of life and family) but also such far-flung questions as farm policy, health care, climate change, mining, copyrights, and digital television.

It is unlikely that any Catholic in the US fully understands (let alone agrees with) the USCCB position on all of these issues. When the USCCB stakes out a position on federal policy regarding digital television, that position obviously does not represent a consensus of Catholic opinion. Most Catholics—including most bishops—are unaware of the political issues involved. The USCCB stance is obviously crafted by a handful of prelates, guided by the conference staff.

However, the USCCB statements on these issues do not come with disclaimers, saying that Issue A is not a high priority or Issue B does not involve a clear-cut moral imperative. On all these matters—some clear, some not at all clear; some matters of unbending principle, some of prudential judgment—the USCCB makes the same claim that the bishops are speaking as moral leaders. Regrettably, this approach squanders the very authority that the USCCB so frequently invokes.

A good general knows that to win a crucial battle he must concentrate his forces. If the US bishops are serious in their desire to preserve religious liberty, and serious about a campaign to stave off the threats posed by the Obamacare mandate, the USCCB must stop issuing statements that distract attention from that cause.

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I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. Curt Stoller says:

    I think the Holy Father hit the nail on the head when he called the present situation “a crisis of obedience.” What does Genesis tell us about our first parents? They were called to obedience to the Father and chose dissent. Jesus chose obedience. Obedience has become a concept in the contemporary world that is basically unintelligible to many. There were protestants in the Roman Catholic Church before Martin Luther. But without the existence of printing presses and secular powers hostile to the Church they all seemed to eventually self-destruct. The spirit of Protestantism, or protest has now infiltrated the Roman Catholic Church. Modernism went underground and has now resurfaced bolder than ever.

    The Holy Father as former Head of the Congregation tasked with discovering dissent is literally an expert on it. He saw the shapes it took, not just in the United States, but in every country in the world. I would challenge anyone to name anyone who is more knowledgeable about disobedience at the intellectual level. Other Vatican Congregations deal with disobedience too, but often disobedience in matters of the flesh. The Holy Father, as Cardinal Ratzinger, dealt with the intellectual rationalizations unpinning every form of disobedience.

    The USCCB is analogous to the World Council of Churches . . . seeking unity through consensus and failing that through watering down doctrine in the interests of sheer group tolerance. Now imagine if the honorable members of the USCCB simply sought to obey the Holy Father. Of course there would still be honest misunderstandings and mistakes. But imagine how unified the American Roman Catholic hierarchy would be? When all talk of collegiality is said and done, it is the Holy Father who is the focal point of unity in the Roman Catholic Church. And that requires obedience.

    But obedience is a dirty word today. Obedience can be abused and has been abused. But the abuse of obedience does not negate the value of obedience.

    The natural sciences deal with regularities in the universe. Laws. We are only alive as human beings because of these regularities and laws. We are only alive because nature ‘obeys’ these laws. Imagine if the earth could suddenly disobey the Law of Gravity? Imagine if the human immune system could suddenly ‘disobey” all the myriad of laws that govern it for the sake of our health. The almost miraculous development of technology rests on the fact that scientists have discovered all these laws that reality obeys. There would be no aeronautical technology if the Wright Brothers hadn’t created a wing that obeyed aerodynamic laws instead of disobeying them. You and I can only fly because commercial aircraft are designed to obey the laws of lift and drag and gravity the way birds do. Before the Wright brothers, people sought to impose their own ideas on nature and that is why powered flight remained just a dream.

    But in the religious sphere, obedience is considered archaic and obsolete. If I write here that all Catholics should obey the Holy Father, many Catholics will roll their eyes and their jaws will drop.
    We think we are too smart for obedience. When I was a theology student I stopped going to Mass at my parish church and went instead to the university chapel. One day my father said to me: Now that you are a student of theology, I guess you are too good to go to that simple Catholic church where you were raised. And it was true. I was a snob. I think there are many Catholic theological snobs out there: people like me: too big for our britches. Disobedience was the first sin. That should give everyone something serious to think about.

    There is a hierarchy of truths, even moral truths. The Holy Father is very clear which values are at the core of the Catholic Faith and which are on the periphery. He can teach and teach, but nothing will happen unless we listen and obey. Radicals like to recite a litany of supposed errors of the Popes. These so-called errors are taken out of context and over-simplified in an attempt to scare Catholics from obedience. I wonder how many Catholics at all levels have fallen for this scam? I wonder if a person who is constantly looking for little loopholes in order to escape from obedience has not perhaps already the left the Church spiritually. If you are trying to dissect papal teachings through various grades of theological certainty and certitude: you are already in trouble. I remember a sign I saw a few days ago: If you only pray when you’re in trouble: you’re already in big trouble. We’re in big trouble.

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