In March the US bishops’ conference (USCCB) announced that “we will not rest” until Congress ensures that religious freedom is protected in the federal health-care reform program. The USCCB followed up that clear and forceful message a few week later with a new statement announcing a major offensive in defense of religious liberty. These powerful statements seemed to indicate clearly that religious freedom would be the focus—the focus—of the bishops’ political efforts this year.
The USCCB issued a clarion call to the Catholic laity, asking for help with this campaign. Cardinal Dolan called out President Obama; Bishop Lori challenged Congress. The bishops signaled that they would not retreat. The battle lines were drawn. The troops were summoned.
Unfortunately, since that time the bishops have lost their focus, and thus complicated things for the active Catholic laity. The USCCB has done what the USCCB always does: muddied the water, by issuing statements on a host of different political issues—including many of which good Catholics have differing opinions, and on which Catholic bishops have no special expertise.
In the past 10 week, the USCCB and its spokesmen have:
- weighed in on the federal budget;
- filed an amicus curiae brief against the Arizona immigration law;
- called for US intervention to prevent new fighting in South Sudan;
- supported a ban on landmines;
- urged comprehensive immigration reform;
- insisted that budget cuts must not harm programs for the poor;
- recommended federal programs to expand affordable housing;
- warned against invasion of Iran;
- expressed their preferences on agricultural approprations;
- called for an end to the embargo on Cuba;
- decried budget cuts again;
- discussed the merits of the H2-A visa program;
- supported full funding for the food-stamp program;
- affirmed the Child Tax Credit;
- underlined the need to curb nuclear weaponry; and
- repeated the call for immigration reform.
The USCCB has released a full listing of the legislative issues the bishops are tracking during this congressional session. The list includes not only the clearly germane moral questions that Catholics expect to discuss (such are religious freedom, immigration, and the defense of life and family) but also such far-flung questions as farm policy, health care, climate change, mining, copyrights, and digital television.
It is unlikely that any Catholic in the US fully understands (let alone agrees with) the USCCB position on all of these issues. When the USCCB stakes out a position on federal policy regarding digital television, that position obviously does not represent a consensus of Catholic opinion. Most Catholics—including most bishops—are unaware of the political issues involved. The USCCB stance is obviously crafted by a handful of prelates, guided by the conference staff.
However, the USCCB statements on these issues do not come with disclaimers, saying that Issue A is not a high priority or Issue B does not involve a clear-cut moral imperative. On all these matters—some clear, some not at all clear; some matters of unbending principle, some of prudential judgment—the USCCB makes the same claim that the bishops are speaking as moral leaders. Regrettably, this approach squanders the very authority that the USCCB so frequently invokes.
A good general knows that to win a crucial battle he must concentrate his forces. If the US bishops are serious in their desire to preserve religious liberty, and serious about a campaign to stave off the threats posed by the Obamacare mandate, the USCCB must stop issuing statements that distract attention from that cause.
Reprinted with permission from CatholicCulture.org