The political faction of the Catholic Church known as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is facing a major problem. Though it was never meant to play a political role, for historical reasons, it has allowed itself to do what all individual Americans find themselves compelled to do: choose a side. It has fallen into one of the two cultural-political grooves Americans are expected to follow and identify within a binary world of opposition between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.
Since the church’s traditions stretch back two millennia, a majority of US bishops feel that they logically belong on the conservative side. But having once been instructed to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, Christian prelates have a Biblical precedent for avoiding a partisan political stance. Moreover, for nearly two centuries, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority effectively marginalized the Catholic Church as a potential political force. Even though it stands as the largest single Christian denomination, the Catholic hierarchy in the US has traditionally deferred to the dominant worldview of Protestant nationalism in an officially secular nation whose coins nevertheless proclaim that in God they trust and whose flag, when pledged to, represents “one nation, under God.”
Quoted by AP, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City expressed what he formulates as a paradox that Biden must account for: “It can create confusion. … How can he say he’s a devout Catholic and he’s doing these things that are contrary to the church’s teaching?”
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There are two simple answers to the archbishop’s question, one secular and the other theological. On the secular side, Biden can claim to be “a devout Catholic” because the US Constitution protects freedom of speech. On the spiritual side, traditional Catholic theology actually holds conscience in higher regard than ecclesiastic law.
Like most hypercompetitive Americans, bishops clearly believe in the virtue of asserting one’s power, which in US culture means committing to pushing one’s influence always a bit further than seems natural. But in the more ancient Catholic tradition, bishops are meant to be guides of the flock, supporting the effort of the faithful to live up to the ideals of the Christian community. The community is neither a military organization dedicated to violence nor a profit-focused enterprise out to crush its rivals. One contemporary American theologian, Marcel Lejeune, calls the Catholic community “a difficult mess, wrapped up in grace. More like a family.”
Catholic Bishops are not expected to play the role of theologians. They neither make nor enforce the law of the church, known as canon law. They are specifically called upon to teach, but neither to legislate nor to judge. Pope Benedict XIV, in a 1740 encyclical on the duties of bishops, described them “as tender parents of the lambs,” the faithful who compose their flock. Bishops may teach and preach, but not overreach. Canon 383 states that “a bishop should act with humanity and charity toward the brothers and sisters who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church.”
So why, in the name of charity, do a majority of US bishops want to publicly shame Joe Biden? USCCB President Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles complains that “our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender.”
The Washington Post reports that once Biden’s election was confirmed, the USCCB created “a special working group to address issues surrounding the election of a Catholic president who in some cases promotes policies in conflict with Catholic teaching and the bishops’ priorities.” Perhaps realizing that the reconciliation of a church’s pastoral teaching and the democratic practices of the surrounding secular society may require more complex reflection than the bishops are capable of processing or tolerating, “the working group was disbanded, and the topic moved to the USCCB’s doctrine committee.”
Archbishop Naumann complained that Biden’s public position “can create confusion.” Michael Sean Winters, author of “God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right,” commented on the bishops’ stance: “What it showed is that most of the speakers are confused in ways that are unique, and common, to ideologues.” Michelle Boorstein, writing for The Washington Post, adds this remark: “The USCCB is akin to an industry group of equals and has no authority over bishops themselves; only the Vatican does.” Moreover, as theology professor Steven Millies has observed, “What we’re seeing now is an effort to please donors who want a church which will wage a culture war.” In short, the American way.
Winters documents how the Protestant American right not only captured God but enlisted the Catholic hierarchy in support of their Republican God. For most of the 20th century, working-class American Catholics tended to be Democrats. At the same time, because of their low social status, second-generation Catholic immigrants were disproportionately attracted to the military and law enforcement. This eventually created an identification within the Catholic community with the militaristic values of US nationalism and the enforcement of laws dictated by an essentially white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant power structure.
John Kennedy’s election in 1960 troubled many people in the traditional power pyramid who were relieved to see him die in Dallas. Still, Kennedy’s election demonstrated that Catholics could have a role to play among the ruling elite. That may have been a factor in the new strategy of the Protestant right — formerly indifferent to the question of abortion that appeared to obsess only the Catholic Church — as they began to court the Catholic electorate. Protestant fundamentalists strove to show their solidarity with Catholics by not only embracing the “pro-life” cause but even turning it into the principal casus belli of the new culture wars designed to permit the Republicans to dominate politics and orientate policy toward the neoconservative norm that became dominant in the 1980s, infecting the Democratic Party as well.
The absurdity of the Catholic hierarchy’s commitment to the positions of the Protestant fundamentalists’ worldview is best demonstrated by that same hierarchy’s indifference to the Vatican’s consistent opposition to nationalistic militarism and the scandal of war. If the sacrifice of human life constitutes the basis of their moral stance, abortion cannot even begin to compete with the loss of life and utter destruction wrought by American wars. And yet the bishops have never demonstrated the slightest concern with imperial slaughter.
Most recently Pope Francis asserted that “in recent decades every single war has been ostensibly ‘justified’” by its proponents. At the same, he asserts that “it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’”
The two most authoritative theologians and philosophers in the Catholic tradition — St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas — both insisted on the authority of the individual’s conscience and the difficulty of justifying war. As T. Hoffman points out, “Aquinas argued that the binding character of conscience, whether erring or not, means that acting against conscience is always evil.” Even if the bishops think Biden is wrong, it is presumptuous of them to judge his conscience. As for war, Biden could be held to account as the major Democratic promoter of George Bush’s clearly unjust and illegal invasion of Iraq. But that has never troubled the American bishops.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.