Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Motes & Planks

I am a Catholic, and just as I am in politics, I am on the left-wing of the Church. It's a lonely position out here. There aren't many of us around, at least not in my neighborhood. As I've often observed, many of the best have already left. The Council of Vatican II which ended in 1965, was for my generation an event of glorious empowerment for the people in the pews, an event that ushered in real intellectual probing and excitement about a host of subjects from theology to Scripture studies to social justice. It was for me and perhaps millions of others our defining moment as Catholics. Indeed, but for the Council and my continued faith that its ideals may someday prevail, a faith sorely tried most of the time, I would not be a Catholic at all. But I have to confess, the Catholic bishops are bringing me to the brink.

Ever since Vatican II, the church has been oh so steadily retrenching. I sometimes think that many Catholics would be perfectly content to revert back to the "good ole days" of pray, pay, and obey, when the world was black and white, and Father knew all the answers. Exactly the days I don't ever want to see again in the Church. I'm not so sure the American bishops don't want it this way, however. During the long pontificate of John Paul II, the only bishops he appointed in the U.S.--and presumably elsewhere--were nice, safe, don't-rock-the-boat theologically conservative duds whose chief qualification for the episcopate was a disposition to obey Rome without murmur on everything and the ability to pass the theological litmus test. And a key component of that test was the question of abortion. Everybody knows where the church is on that: no way, no how, for no reason whatever.

The bishops have been fairly visible lately. Some of the more vocal ones all but endorsed John McCain in the presidential election, arguing that the abortion issue trumped all the others in the election. The rigid one-issue approach to elections has been tried before, and not only failed but has been counter-productive, as the National Catholic Reporter pointed out. Certainly common sense and urging from the left and center didn't stop some bishops from fulminating about abortion and the election. The bishop of St. Louis told his people that voting for Obama endangered their eternal salvation. If this is true, a sizeable number of Catholics decided to risk hell itself during this election. Fifty-four percent of Catholics voted for Mr. Obama., including the Hispanic voters, the so-called "future of the American church," who were overwhelmingly for him.

None of this should have come as any great surprise. As New York Times columnist Peter Steinfels observed:

Many Catholics may understandably feel that the bishops are talking out of both sides of their mouths: Catholics are not supposed to be single-issue voters, but, by the way, abortion is the only issue that counts. The bishops do not intend to tell Catholics how to vote; but, by the way, a vote for Senator Obama puts your salvation at risk. Catholics are to form their consciences and make prudential judgments about complex matters of good and evil -- just so long as they come to the same conclusions as the bishops.

Come now the 250 or so bishops at their annual conference in Washington, D.C. and the prelates almost to a man, according to various accounts (see here, here, and here) rose up to castigate Obama and the prospect of a Democratically-sponsored abortion rights bill. (Not a good idea, in my opinion. Why is this necessary? I don't think there's any point in mollifying the pro-abortion radicals in the party at the cost of alienating the vast, vast majority of people who are in the center on this issue.) Although it's widely believed that such a measure will not and could not pass, just the prospect of such a thing got the bishops up in arms. They were also having none of the "common good" approach to the abortion question. Advocates of this approach say that, rather than focusing on outlawing abortion, i.e., overturning Roe v. Wade, the singular and manifestly unsuccessful approach the bishop's have employed ever since the decision in 1973, the goal should be to reduce abortions by strengthening the social and economic safety net to enable more women to bring their pregnancies to term. This is the plank in the Democratic party platform. And progressive Catholics across the board support this strategy.

But to judge from the frenzied response of the bishops, you would think that the party had endorsed pedophilia . . . wait a second: aren't these the same guys who basically did that very thing for years and years--repeatedly reassigning priests accused of pedophilia or taking no action at all on complaints, something that happened right here in Oklahoma--until they got caught with their pants down, and the whole nasty scandal broke in 2002? (Of the many web sites documenting this scandal among the best are the Boston Globe site, Religious Tolerance site, and Wikipedia. The bishop's own report (USCCB) is here.) Aren't these the same guys who postured and pontificated about how they were going to "reform" their dioceses to eradicate and prevent these despicable crimes from ever happening again, and who--certainly not all but many among them--have stonewalled investigations, sequestered church records, and employed legions of lawyers to avoid accountability for allowing priest abusers to run rampant for decades across the country? Isn't this the same pack of self-righteous dispensers of moral guidance who have escaped justice themselves? You can read in horrifying and repulsive detail about the extent of these crimes, many of which are still in litigation at this web site. There you will discover that aside from the sacrificial lamb Bernard Cardinal Law, who was forced to leave the diocese of Boston and landed a more cushy job in Rome, and the three bishops who either resigned or were indicted for being pedophiles themselves, not a single one of these American bishops has lost his job for their subordination of crimes and their gross malfeasance in moral leadership. Not a single one of these guys has paid the price for his crimes. They're still eating off their china, drinking fine wines, being chauffeured around in their limousines, conferencing in their swank hotel, and preaching to the rest of us what's right and what's wrong.

These are the people who pretend to prescribe morality for the rest of us? I have observed more than once that it's relatively easy to oppose abortion. You don't risk any political ramifications with a friendly administration in power. Even now, with an incoming administration that's pro-choice, standing against abortion runs no real political risk. But what you don't see is these bishops risking the wrath of the government or their steady source of income from the pews by standing up forcefully against the widely and uncritically accepted American agenda: preservation of the empire and untrammeled, near-pathological individualism. You don't hear them preaching against the war in Iraq or against the obscene military budget of the US or the gross inequity of income distribution in this country. You don't hear them forcefully advocating for universal health care or railing against our country's budget priorities. No, they are not going to rock the boat against the administration. Indeed, as long as the government postures against abortion even though it doesn't really do anything about it, the bishops keep their peace.

Jesus, a guy who knew about honest and love of neighbor, said: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" (Mt 7:3) Precisely so! The hypocrisy of these guys is just astounding.
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