Don't Blame the Pope!

"When our bishops misbehave, we can fire them," a Protestant friend wryly observes. He has in mind, of course, the concerted effort by U.S. Catholic bishops to nationalize health care. Yes, Catholic bishops serve for life. The people in the pews can’t fire them, and it’s a good thing. After all, the Church is not a democracy.

But the Catholic Church isn’t a theocracy, either. So when our bishops beat the drum for socialized medicine — and they have, for years — they unnecessarily alienate many people, and not only Catholics. After all, the church has always taught that the laity, not the clergy, should take lead in practical political matters. So why do our bishops ignore Catholic experts, as well as common sense? Why do they give aid and comfort to Speaker Pelosi and her disastrous bill, demanding only that it be "abortion neutral"?

When bishops play politics, they enter a hog wallow for which they are ill-equipped. But there they are, and the damage that their "reform" would cause demands a candid appraisal. After all, if the bishops insist on playing politics, they invite political analysis. As a Catholic layman, in the Christian spirit of charity and truth, I offer this brief survey of some key aspects of the bishops’ political involvement that are often overlooked.

First, comes clericalism. The bishop’s duty is to teach the faith — even the unpopular moral precepts — boldly, in and out of season. But every bishop is a citizen, and, like the layman, he has the right to his private political opinions as well. There are many issues where good Catholics (and bishops) can disagree. The problem arises when a bishop attempts to elevate his personal opinion on such an issue to the level of authoritative church teaching. That oft-condemned attitude constitutes an abuse of the prelate’s authority and confuses not only the faithful, but the public as well. Case in point: our bishops now call their radical version of "reform" a "moral imperative." They take care to dress up their ideology with religious language, as though no good Catholic — or good person! — could possibly disagree. This manipulation of Catholic teaching to advance a particular ideology ill serves — and even perverts — the Church’s mission to "go and teach all nations"; it scandalizes good Catholics; and, bluntly put, it advances socialism, which the Catholic Church has always condemned

Then there’s history: Over the past century, America’s Catholic bishops have increasingly identified the church with a particular political party — the Democrats. For instance, when Pope Benedict the Fifteenth attempted to bring an end to World War One, America’s leading prelate, Cardinal James Gibbons, supported President Wilson, admonishing Americans to embrace "obedience and devotion to our country," meaning Wilson’s government and Wilson’s War. Cardinal Gibbons forged an alliance of the American Catholic hierarchy with the Democrat Party that has only become stronger with time.

During the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, The Rev. John R. Ryan, a key advocate of "social justice" in the bishops conference, was so zealous a supporter of FDR that people called him "Monsignor New Deal." Since then, and especially since the 1960s, the bishops have continued to move left with the Democrats, and become cheerleaders for a number of left-wing causes. While they constantly advocate higher spending and taxes in program after program, they never bring up such unpleasant topics as "Thou Shalt Not Steal."

And of course there’s tradition. Like most Catholics their age — like me — most of today’s American bishops grew up in Democrat families.

Then there’s selective morality: while our bishops beat the drum for their favorite political agendas, they ignore moral absolutes which the Pope repeatedly admonishes bishops to address. Bishops are consecrated to teach even unpopular Church teachings that many in the culture oppose or ignore. One of those authoritative moral teachings identifies contraception an intrinsic evil, like abortion. Yet, while bishops insist that the final health care bill be abortion-neutral, I have never seen them lobby Congress to oppose the billions of taxpayer dollars the federal government spends on contraceptive programs designed to reduce poor Third World populations — including many predominantly Catholic countries — in the name of “development.” Why the silence?

Then there’s money: During the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, Catholic universities quickly declared independence from the Vatican so they could get the newly-available federal funding. Catholic Charities, USA, quickly followed, and now receives over $2 billion a year from the taxpayer. In the 1990s, Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, Barack Obama’s favorite Catholic bishop, complained that donations from the pews were declining, but never acknowledged the possibility that left-wing politics in the pulpit might be to blame. In contrast, Catholic charities, universities, schools, and hospitals today receive more from the government than ever before — billions of dollars a year. Politicians in Washington, where everything is "tit for tat," undoubtedly expect the beneficiaries of their largesse to respond accordingly.

Then there’s bureaucracy. The Catholic bishops conference boasts a burgeoning staff of committed leftists who pass out millions of the faithful’s donations to radical groups and causes. In a classic case of Realpolitik, the bishops’ bureaucracies have modeled their organization chart to reflect those of the government agencies that fund them, as well as the left-wing politicians whose programs they support (and who in turn support them). Meanwhile, other Catholics on Capitol Hill observe that the bishops’ staff concentrates it lobbying efforts on the congressional left — period.

Then, alas, there’s the scandals. When the clerical abuse scandals broke into the open in 2002, the only bishops that quit were those directly involved in abuse or blackmail. The rest insisted that they stay on, even though the majority of bishops had enabled abusers in their dioceses. Their prolonged state of denial produced the greatest scandal in the history of the American Catholic Church, yet many prelates still in office today refuse to retire, no matter how deeply involved they were.

Then there’s Church Law. A bishop weakened by the scandals would feel mighty uncomfortable doing his job by following Canon Law and condemning the public scandal of Catholic politicians who support abortion. Could it be that these Catholic politicians — including Biden, Pelosi, Durbin, Leahy, the Kennedys, Kerry, and countless others — might shut the water off and stop funding the bishops if they did their job?

And last, just in case, there’s Congress. Specifically, Catholic Senator Patrick Leahy, sent a shot across the bow of any bishop who might be thinking of barring Leahy from receiving the Eucharist (as Canon Law requires). The mere prospect of a subpoena from the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee is enough to chill the spine of any bishop who still has one.

ObamaCare would be dead as a doornail if the bishops stopped supporting it. But they persist, heatedly rejecting (but not addressing) complaints detailing their leftist bias. All believers should pray for our spiritual leaders, to be sure. And, in this season of Lent, we are often reminded that this world is indeed the Vale of Tears. Nonetheless, the sad truth remains: if our Catholic bishops are successful in their campaign for national health care, there will be a lot more tears.

Christopher Manion Archives