From Thomas J. Reese, S.J., senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, DC., and former editor in chief of America, one of his typically astute analyses of the U.S. bishops’ approach to the political sphere.
Bishops Plan for Dealing with a Democratic Washington
’On November 10, less than a week after the presidential election, the U.S. Catholic bishops will meet in Baltimore to try to figure out what they will do now that Catholic voters helped put Barack Obama into the White House. Catholics gave Obama 54% of their vote, despite the instructions of some very vocal bishops who said that Catholics could not vote for a pro-choice candidate.
Some bishops said that abortion was the most important issue in the election and that no other issues outweighed it. These bishops clearly signaled their preference for McCain, without mentioning his name. A few bishops went farther and said that Catholics voting for Obama would risk their immortal souls.
But voters in key states like Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Virginia rejected the voting instructions they received from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton and the two Virginia bishops. Did these bishops sway any voters? Was there a backlash against the bishops? Or were they simply ignored? Whatever the case, episcopal authority took a major hit during the election.
Some media outlets claimed that 50 or more bishops signaled that abortion was the only issue worth considering in the election. I do not trust these numbers. Most bishops were silent or simply repeated what was in to their 2007 document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The document said that abortion “is not just one issue among many,” but it also said, “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters.” This nuance was lost on partisan campaigners.
This division between the vocal, partisan bishops and the silent, nonpartisan bishops will be a major issue at the Baltimore meeting. The silent bishops are upset that the vocal bishops were perceived to be speaking for all of the bishops, while the vocal bishops blame the silent ones for the Democratic victory. This argument will take place behind closed doors lest the bishops scandalize the faithful with their divisions. It is not likely that this division, which has divided the bishops for years, will be resolved this week.
Some bishops will want to denounce any liberal Catholic politician (Nancy Pelosi) or lay organization that dared to usurp the bishops’ function as interpreters of church teaching. Funny how conservative politicians and groups are never reproached for their interpretations of what is negotiable or nonnegotiable in church teaching. But most bishops feel that she was sufficiently rebuked and they should move one.
Some conservative Catholic commentators and groups are even calling for a rejection of Faithful Citizenship, the document that was approved by the bishops only a year ago by a vote of 221-4. But the bishops recognize that rejecting a document that they overwhelmingly passed a year ago would make them look foolish and confused. And most bishops like the statement, which was vetted by numerous committees and discussions.
Meanwhile, the bishops will have to decide whether they will engage with the Democratic Congress and president or whether they will sit out the next four to eight years. History shows that the church, including the Vatican, is pragmatic and realistic in dealing with governments. In the real world, they know that you deal with the government that is, not with the government you want.
What will the bishops’ 2009 agenda be with the Democrats? Here are some items they will undoubtedly stress:
Preferential Option for the Poor. The bishops will want to make sure that the new administration’s programs take care of not just the middle class but also the poor. Whether it is the stimulus package, the energy plan, trade policy, the withdrawal from Iraq or the environment, the Catholic measure of legitimacy is how programs affect the least among us, not just in the U.S., but around the world. The bishops are to the left of Democrats when it comes to programs to help the poor.
Abortion Reduction Programs. While the bishops will continue to support constitutional protection for the unborn, they will also ask Obama to fulfill his promise to enact social and economic programs that will reduce the number of abortions by empowering pregnant women to choose life. This would include things like health care, daycare, job training, adoption services, and financial assistance, all of which the bishops have supported in the past. Passage of a significant abortion reduction bill would make it more difficult for conservatives to label the Democrats as the party of abortion. The bishops will not support birth control programs, but that will not keep them from supporting other programs.
Limits on Third Trimester Abortions. The bishops could also offer to sit down with the Democrats to see if they can agree on language that will restrict third trimester abortions. Obama said he supports such restrictions as long as there is a “health of the mother” exemption. The debate will be over the legal language for the exemption. The bishops will not accept language that is so sweeping that the restriction is meaningless.
Conscience Clause. The bishops will also communicate to Washington their desire that Catholics and Catholic institutions, such as hospitals, not be forced to do things they consider immoral. This so-called “conscience clause” will require careful and open-minded dialogue and ultimately some compromises on both sides.
Freedom of Choice Act. The bishops will strongly oppose passage of the “Freedom of Choice Act,” which aims to restrict a state’s ability to limit abortions. Passage of the FOCA will mean that the next presidential election will be as divisive as this one and will force some of the silent bishops to become vocal.
Foreign Policy. On most foreign policy issues, the Vatican and the bishops will prefer Obama to Bush. The church will continue to speak out for refugees, victims of war and the poor as well as for disarmament, reconciliation and peace.
The bishops should neither become partisan nor withdraw from the public square. They should be faithful to Catholic social teaching as articulated in Faithful Citizenship while working for results in the real world.’ --Thomas J. Reese, S.J.
James Martin, SJ