|Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops|
An unusually blunt letter from the U.S. Catholic bishops’ president to President Barack Obama marks a new stage in the deteriorating relationship between the bishops and the administration.
Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said recent government actions “escalate the threat to marriage and imperil the religious freedom of those who promote and defend marriage.”
Archbishop Dolan, in his letter dated Sept. 20, strongly protested the Justice Department’s action submitting a brief in a federal court case attacking the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act — federal legislation that defines marriage as a relationship between a man and woman. He took special exception to administration claims that support for DOMA was “rooted in prejudice and bias.”
“The administration’s failure to change course on this matter [DOMA] will … precipitate a national conflict between church and state of enormous proportions and to the detriment of both institutions,” the archbishop warned.
Archbishop Dolan pointedly noted “strong sentiment” expressed by more than 30 bishops at a meeting of the administrative committee of the bishops’ conference just before his letter was sent. But the range of the bishops’ “grave concerns” extends beyond defending traditional marriage against pressure for same-sex marriage.
In early October, with an eye toward the 2012 elections, the U.S. bishops re-released “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” their 2007 document on the role of Catholics in civic life. With it comes a new introductory note. An excerpt:
Although [“Faithful Citizenship”] has at times been misused to present an incomplete or distorted view of the demands of faith in politics, this statement remains a faithful and challenging call to discipleship in the world of politics. It does not offer a voters guide, scorecard of issues, or direction on how to vote. It applies Catholic moral principles to a range of important issues and warns against misguided appeals to “conscience” to ignore fundamental moral claims, to reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters, or to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological, or personal interests. It does not offer a quantitative listing of issues for equal consideration, but outlines and makes important distinctions among moral issues acknowledging that some involve the clear obligation to oppose intrinsic evils which can never be justified and that others require action to pursue justice and promote the common good. In short, it calls Catholics to form their consciences in the light of their Catholic faith and to bring our moral principles to the debate and decisions about candidates and issues.
The moral and human challenges outlined in the second half of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship remain pressing national issues. In particular, our Conference is focused on several current and fundamental problems, some involving opposition to intrinsic evils and others raising serious moral questions:
◗ Continuing destruction of unborn children through abortion and other threats to the lives and dignity of others who are vulnerable, sick, or unwanted;
◗ Renewed efforts to force Catholic ministries — in health care, education, and social services — to violate their consciences or stop serving those in need;
◗ Intensifying efforts to redefine marriage and enact measures which undermine marriage as the permanent, faithful, and fruitful union of one man and one woman and a fundamental moral and social institution essential to the common good;
◗ An economic crisis which has devastated lives and livelihoods, increasing national and global unemployment, poverty, and hunger; increasing deficits and debt and the duty to respond in ways which protect those who are poor and vulnerable as well as future generations;
◗ The failure to repair a broken immigration system with comprehensive measures that promote true respect for law, protect the human rights and dignity of immigrants and refugees, recognize their contributions to our nation, keep families together, and advance the common good;
◗ Wars, terror, and violence which raise serious moral questions on the use of force and its human and moral costs in a dangerous world, particularly the absence of justice, security, and peace in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East.
In this coming election and beyond, we urge leaders and all Catholics to share the message of faithful citizenship and to use this document in forming their own consciences, so we can act together to promote and protect human life and dignity, marriage and family, justice and peace in service to the common good. This kind of political responsibility is a requirement of our faith and our duty as citizens.
Underlining the seriousness with which the bishops view the situation, Archbishop Dolan later announced the creation of a new ad hoc committee of the bishops’ conference dealing with religious liberty issues, with additional staff at the organization’s Washington headquarters. Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., was named chairman of the new committee.
Tension has existed between the bishops and Obama since before his 2008 election as president. Initially it focused on his well-publicized support for legalized abortion. Obama, for his part, lived up to his billing, selecting a pro-choice Catholic, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, as his running mate and, after his election, peppering his administration with other prochoicers, including Catholics like Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, whom he chose as secretary of Health and Human Services.
Since taking office, Obama has continued to pursue the pro-abortion line, greatly expanding federal funding for abortion and including abortion coverage in his new health care program.
But Obama also has moved beyond abortion and been an outspoken advocate on homosexual issues, though up to now stopping short of outright endorsement of same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, he ended the “don’t-ask, don’t-tell” policy against openly gay people in the military. Speaking at a gay-rights gala in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1, the president delivered what The Washington Post called a “rah-rah message” of support for homosexual causes.
Other presidents and their administrations have managed to disagree with the Catholic Church on issues without provoking the kind of head-on confrontation Obama and his administration seem bent on creating on the eve of a reelection contest many think the president might lose. So why the difference now? Two explanations stand out.
One is that the president and his people consider gays part of their base constituency while more or less dismissing the Catholic bishops as a threat to his reelection.
As a political calculation, this could well be right. Gay activists are now politically organized, militant, and on a roll, while the electoral influence of the Church hierarchy appears to have dropped over the years. That decline was illustrated by a recent finding that only 16 percent of American Catholics recalled having even heard about the most recent of the issue-oriented political responsibility statements — the closest approach to a Catholic voter guide — published every four years by the bishops; and three-fourths of those who said they’d heard of the document also said it had “no influence at all” on how they voted in 2008.
‘Most secular’ presidency
The second explanation — a more basic one — is Obama himself.
Speaking in September at Georgetown University, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, Archbishop Dolan’s immediate predecessor as head of the bishops’ conference, referred almost casually to the chief executive as a “secularist.”
Obama was raised and educated as a secularist, Cardinal George said, and although the president had embraced liberal Christianity at the time of his marriage, his mindset and values remain firmly set in that mold.
The result, the cardinal added, is an administration that is “the most secularist administration in history.” As the nation may be witnessing, that doesn’t leave much room for concern about what the Catholic bishops think about abortion, gay marriage, or much else.
In announcing the bishops’ religious liberty committee, Archbishop Dolan called its establishment “one element of what I expect to be a new moment in the history of our conference. Never before have we faced this kind of challenge to our ability to engage in the public square as people of faith and as a service provider.”
“If we do not act now,” he said, “the consequence will be grave.”
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.