An Answer to Archbishop Chaput

Archbishop Charles Chaput has published a March 22, 2010 column in his archdiocesan newspaper, entitled “A bad bill and how we got it.”

In his column, he blames Catholic organizations for breaking ranks with the bishops and “undercutting the leadership and witness of their own bishops.”  In particular, he criticizes the actions of the Catholic Healthcare Association.

However, he has nary a word for how the bishops have damaged their own public credibility, leadership, and witness, and the role that may have played in this situation.

First, there is the issue of the “Republican Captivity” of some bishops.  Archbishop Chaput illustrates this process by including Republican party talking points in his comments, such as the inferred claim that most Americans oppose the legislation.  I’m not sure what competence bishops have in assessing public opinion, but I also don’t know what role that should play in what is supposed to be a moral critique of the proposal.

During the Republican Ascendency, 2000-2008, many US Catholic bishops were effusive in their praise of the Republican party, and in particular, its glorious leader the Tyrant-Emperor George Bush II.  Leading bishops such as Cardinal George of Chicago and Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia praised President Bush as “the most pro-life president ever.”  How this statement could be made about a president waging unjust wars, characterized by flagrant disregard for civilian casualties, is beyond my understanding.  I suppose we could say that George Bush II was anti-abortion, but that is not the same thing as being pro-life, as Pope John Paul II so eloquently explained in his seminal encyclical, Evangelium Vitae.

So the first problem with the bishops’ witness on pro-life issues is that some of them do not appear to be good faith actors in this debate.  They are visibly and persistently partisan Republicans, and that damages their public witness to the cause of protecting life for all people, from the moment of conception to the time of natural death.

Then we have the continued fallout from the clergy sexual abuse crisis.  The general attitude at the bishops’ conference is that “OK, we’re sorry, we’ve reformed, let’s get on with things.”  That’s an understandable attitude from their viewpoint, and surely, Christian forgiveness is due them for their public repentance and their efforts to reform their systems to ensure such problems do not happen again, but it betrays an aristocratic disdain for how things work in the real world.  As someone said to me recently, “How can they expect us to trust them after they betrayed us so terribly?”  Indeed, this is the question of the hour and it bears directly on how the bishops’ criticism of the pro-life problems of the health care bill was received, or not received as the case may be.

It was a major spiritual and moral mistake to leave bishops in office who were guilty of what amounts to criminal assistance to the sexual abuse of children.  It amounted to putting the protection of individual bishops ahead of the good of the entire Church and the spiritual welfare of American Catholics.  In doing so, the Vatican announced that its “preferential option” was for the bishops, not for the common good of the Church.  The continued presence of Cardinal Law, as an important voice in the Vatican congregations that choose, form, and supervise bishops, is a constant reminder of the blindness of the clerical culture to the actual consequences of its decades of corruption and sin in this issue.

So here again, the bishops and the Vatican have undercut and diminished their own authority and moral witness. They did that to themselves, and should not be surprised at the continuing consequences of their grave collective failure to protect children from sexual abuse.

As the nation faced the tremendous challenges of war under the Republican Ascendency, once again the US Catholic bishops failed in their moral duty on a pro-life issue.  Only one US bishop issued an ecclesiastical declaration forbidding participation in the unjust war on the people of Iraq. The Most Reverend Michael Botean very clearly stated that killing in an unjust war is the moral equivalent of abortion. The rest of the bishops effectively praised the war with their faint condemnation of it. Few bishops did much catechizing about the issues of just/unjust war, and the bishops’ conference has more often than not simply ignored the on-going wars as moral issues. Indeed, many of them, such as Burke, then of St. Louis, now of the Vatican, actually were quick to marginalize the issue of war as a pro-life issue.

Fr. Charles Emmanuel McCarthy has eloquently and at great detail explained the moral case against the bishops’ ambivalence on the Iraq War issue, in his essay “Moral Law and the Iraq War: A chronically misleading episcopal witness.” If the bishops themselves are going to give such a leading example of moral relativism in the cause of life, how can they expect others to not take some clues from their moral laxity and apply that elsewhere?

I don’t know whether the health care bill will turn out to be good or bad in a practical sense, nor whether it will be good or bad for the cause of pro-life.  Since one of the major drivers of abortion is financial desperation, and medical bills for the uninsured are a leading cause of financial desperation, the situation from a practical pro-life viewpoint may not be as bad as Archbishop Chaput suggests. Only time will tell.

Whatever the future brings, I think it is very clear that the bishops have no one but themselves to blame for the on-going loss of their moral and teaching authority. 

Sixty years ago, it might have been enough for them to say, “We’re the bishops, what we say goes, get used to it”, but this isn’t 1950.  Servant leadership above all demands that leaders walk their talk, and exercise authority in authentic ways, and avoid even the least appearance of corruption, partisanship, and bad faith.

And alas for all, such servant leadership is in scarce supply these days, anywhere we look, and especially at the Catholic Church.

The apparent inability of the US Catholic bishops to understand these issues, and deal with them, is one of the historic tragedies of these times. The examination of conscience is one of the most basic Catholic spiritual exercises. I think it is about time that the bishops took a break from focusing on the minutiae of liturgy, and did some serious individual and collective examination of their conscience concerning their actions in these major areas of their failures as bishops.

After all, what good will the “most perfect English translation of the liturgy” do if our churches are increasingly empty?

In the meantime, I recommend to all the rest of us that we pray earnestly for our bishops and use every opportunity that comes our way to speak truth to them and help them to understand how they create their own problems and damage the church.


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