It hasn’t taken long for the blame game to begin. Some angry Catholics are already blaming bishops and pastors for “not doing enough” in the lead up to the Nov. 6 election. Despite the fact that the bishops waged an unprecedented campaign to oppose infringements on religious freedom and initiatives promoting gay marriage and abortion, Catholic leaders are being told by some disappointed Catholic activists that the election’s outcome is their fault.  

The Church needs to set an example of civil discourse in its own house if it hopes to win the hearts and minds of its own fractious flock as well as the respect of society as a whole.

On the other side of the aisle, bishops are being criticized for being “too political,” with other Catholic commentators quick to declare that the bishops were too confrontational and partisan and now must face a rapidly changing landscape on the gay marriage issue as well as a rejuvenated Obama administration that could conclude it owes nothing to the bishops for the next four years.  

The bishops can be forgiven if they once again feel that they have been reduced to pawns in a much larger ideological battle that brooks no criticism in victory and learns no lessons in defeat. 

That said, it may be time to take stock regarding the 2012 election. 

First, the voice of the Church is needed in the public square. From treatment of the poor to the treatment of the unborn, from suicide to immigration, the Church has a message that must be heard, in good times or in bad. While the Church lost on same-sex marriage and the death penalty, for example, it was heard on the DREAM act (in Maryland), and on physician-assisted suicide (Massachusetts). As teachers, the bishops would be remiss if they silenced their voices on issues of critical concern to our society. 

Second, the Church must look carefully at how it makes its voice heard. While some of those who are most inclined to follow the bishops’ lead were cheerleading a more activist stance on the part of bishops, there needs to be a careful study on the extent to which this stance alienated others. For decades the U.S. Church has insisted — against the claims of many anti-Catholics and the hopes of some Catholic ideologues — it does not tell Catholics whom to vote for. To the extent that bishops are perceived as crossing this line by their own people, fairly or unfairly, there is danger of a backlash.  

The Church’s leaders should be encouraged to look for a bolder and more articulate public witness on the part of its lay Catholic leaders. This is the appropriate sphere for the Catholic laity, but such witness is highly dependent on a solid Catholic formation in the faith. As we have noted in other editorials, this inevitably means that sound adult faith formation is of critical importance if we want Catholics to speak out knowledgeably on the issues of the day, and if we want Catholics to respond appropriately to those Catholic politicians who publicly reject Church teaching on life issues or social teaching. Such formation is an urgent catechetical priority. 

Third, the Church is increasingly plagued by the same culture of vituperation and outrage that is plaguing secular society. This is a hard truth, but virtually every pastor and, we would wager, every bishop, is seeing evidence of it in their inbox weekly.  

The Church needs to set an example of civil discourse in its own house if it hopes to win the hearts and minds of its own fractious flock as well as the respect of society as a whole.  

However much we wish the bishops could impose civility on their flock, the best we may be able to hope for is that bishops and Catholic communicators model such discourse in the conflicts that will inevitably come. 

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor