In a few days, the American bishops of the Catholic Church will be holding their annual fall meeting in Baltimore. High on the agenda is how Catholic bishops can better communicate Catholic teaching on social justice both in the Church and in the public square. It is understood that the priority issue of social justice is the protection of innocent human life—from the entrance gates of life to the exit gates, and at every step along life’s way. The most massive and brutal violation of justice is the killing of millions of children in the womb.
In recent months, an unusually large number of bishops have been assertive, articulate, and even bold, in their public affirmation of the demands of moral reason and the Church’s teaching. Some estimate the number of such bishops to be over a hundred. Critics of these bishops, including Catholic fronts for the Obama campaign, claim that bishops have only spoken out because prominent Democrats stepped on their toes by egregiously misrepresenting Catholic teaching. Why only? It is the most particular duty of bishops to see that the authentic teaching of the Church is safeguarded and honestly communicated.
Not all bishops covered themselves with honor in the doing of their duty. Ignoring their further duty to protect the integrity of the Eucharist and defend against the faithful’s being led into confusion, temptation, and sin by skandolon, some bishops issued statements explaining why they had no intention of addressing the problem of public figures who claim they are Catholics in good standing despite their consistent rejection of the Church’s teaching on the defense of innocent human lives. Some such bishops took the position that publicly doing or saying anything that addressed that very public problem would be viewed as controversial, condemned as politically partisan, and misconstrued by those hostile to the Church. Therefore, they explained, they were doing and saying nothing except to say why they were doing and saying nothing. Such calculated timidity falls embarrassingly short of the apostolic zeal exemplified by the apostles whose successors the bishops are. Fortunately, these timorous shepherds seem to be in the minority among the bishops.
Others seem to have taken to heart in this Pauline Year the counsel of Paul to Timothy: “Fight the good fight . . . I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
After the election, some Catholics with itching ears who are manifestly embarrassed by the Church’s being out of step with the new world of “the change we’ve been waiting for” have gleefully pointed out that the assertiveness of the bishops had little political effect. In the presidential and other races, Catholics voted for pro-abortion candidates. So what? It is not the business of bishops to win political races. It is the business of bishops to defend and teach the faith, including the Church’s moral doctrine. One hopes they will keep that firmly in mind in their Baltimore meeting.
The reading for Mass on the day following the election was Philippians 2, in which St. Paul prays that the faithful “may be blameless and innocent children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.” That is as pertinent now as it was in the first century, and will be until our Lord returns in glory. It is the business of bishops to help equip the faithful to let the splendor of moral truth shine through their life and witness as lights in the world. If, on occasion, that coincides with political success, it is to be viewed as an unexpected, albeit welcome, bonus. It is a grievous degradation of their pastoral office, as well as a political delusion, for bishops to see themselves as managers of the Catholic voting bloc.
Earlier this year, the bishops issued “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” It was, as I wrote at the time, a fine statement in almost every respect. But its elaborate attention to nuance and painstaking distinctions made it a virtual invitation for the Catholic flaks of Obama to turn it upside down and inside out. The statement was regularly invoked to justify voting for the most extreme proponent of the unlimited abortion license in American presidential history.
That unintended invitation to distort, eagerly seized upon by those with a mind to do so, was especially evident in the statement’s treatment of a “proportionate” reason to support pro-abortion candidates. The bishops must do better next time. To be sure, any statement must be carefully reasoned, as Catholic moral theology is carefully reasoned. Yet an episcopal statement is not an invitation to an academic seminar but, above all, a call to faithfulness. The task is to offer a firm, unambiguous, and, as much as possible, a persuasive case on the basis of revelation and clear reason.
The events of these months have once again exposed deeper problems in the leadership of the bishops, although certainly not of the bishops alone. To cite an obvious instance, only 25 to 35 percent (depending on whose data you believe) of the 68 million Catholics in this country regularly attend Mass. That means that, except for a few bishops who have larger media access, bishops are being heard by only a minority of their people. Moreover, many parish pastors and priests are embarrassingly eager to avoid controversy, and others are openly disdainful of the Church’s teaching and/or its implications for public justice. Some bishops are tremulously intimidated by their presbyterates. Such bishops and priests need to read again, and with soul-searching prayer, Paul’s counsel to Timothy.
There are deeper problems. In the last four decades, following the pattern of American Protestantism, many, perhaps most, Catholics view the Church in terms of consumption rather than obligation. The Church is there to supply their spiritual needs as they define those needs, not to tell them what to believe or do. This runs very deep both sociologically and psychologically. It is part of the “success” of American Catholics in becoming just like everybody else. Bishops and all of us need to catch the vision of John Paul II that the Church imposes nothing, she only proposes. But what she proposes she believes is the truth, and because human beings are hard-wired for the truth, the truth imposes. And truth obliges.
It is not easy to communicate this understanding in our time, as it has not been easy in any time. In the twentieth century, the motto of the ecumenical movement was “Let the Church be the Church.” The motto was sometimes betrayed by that movement, but it should be courageously embraced by the bishops meeting in Baltimore. The bishops must set aside public relations and political calculations, and be prepared to surrender themselves anew to the task for which they were ordained, to uncompromisingly defend and communicate the faith once delivered to the saints.
Which brings me, finally, to another and related matter that will surely be discussed in Baltimore and deserves to be on the agenda. The Campaign for Human Development (CHD) is an annual collection in parishes, usually on one of the last two Sundays in November. It used to be called the Catholic Campaign for Human Development but the Catholic was dropped, which is just as well since it has nothing to do with Catholicism, except that Catholics are asked to pay for it. Some bishops no longer allow the CHD collection in their dioceses, and more should not allow it. In fact, CHD, misbegotten in concept and corrupt in practice, should, at long last, be terminated.
Ten years ago, CHD was exposed as using the Catholic Church as a milk cow to fund organizations that frequently were actively working against the Church’s mission, especially in their support of pro-abortion activities and politicians. Now it turns out that CHD has long been a major funder of ACORN, a national community agitation organization in support of leftist causes, including the abortion license. ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is under criminal investigation in several states. In the last decade CHD gave ACORN well over seven million dollars, including more than a million in the past year. It is acknowledged that ACORN, with which Sen. Obama had a close connection over the years, was a major player in his presidential campaign. The bishops say they are investigating the connection between CHD and ACORN. They say they are worried that it might jeopardize the Church’s tax-exemption. No mention is made of abusing the trust of the Catholic faithful.
What most Catholics don’t know, and what would likely astonish them, is that CHD very explicitly does not fund Catholic institutions and apostolates that work with the poor. Part of the thinking when it was established in the ideological climate of the 1960s is that Catholic concern for the poor would not be perceived as credible if CHD funded Catholic organizations. Yes, that’s bizarre, but the history of CHD is bizarre. The bishops could really help poor people by promptly shutting down CHD and giving any remaining funds to, for instance, Catholic inner-city schools. In any event, if there is a collection at your parish this month, I suggest that you can return the envelope empty—and perhaps with a note of explanation—without the slightest moral hesitation.
After this week’s elections, we must brace ourselves for very difficult times, keeping in mind that difficult times can be bracing. As for the meeting of bishops next week: Let the Church be the Church, and let bishops be bishops.
Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things.