Concerns raised over United States Conference of Catholic Bishops partisanship sparks calls for Vatican investigation
Maria Luisa Paul | Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Sixty years after President John F. Kennedy said to an audience of skeptical Protestant ministers that he was “the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic,” President Joseph R. Biden has become the second Catholic to lead the nation.
His presidency comes at a time marked by increased polarization of politics and society. Just as in politics, the legacy of Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald J. Trump, overcasts religion, claims Faithful America. The Christian grassroots non-governmental organization argues this in a petition, calling for the Vatican to investigate the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) after a National Catholic Reporter editorial decried its “staunch Republican support” and deemed the organization “unable to represent the full range of Catholic teaching and unfit to act in the name of American Catholics.”
On Inauguration Day, Archbishop of Los Angeles and President of the USCCB Most Rev. José Gómez’s released a statement in which he expressed looking forward to working with the Biden administration and prayed that God grant the president the wisdom “to ease our intense political and cultural divisions, and to bring people together with renewed dedication to America’s founding purposes.”
However, some outrage sparked over the archbishop’s promise that there will be areas of “strong opposition” towards the Biden administration’s policies, especially in regards to abortion, which Gómez said “remains the ‘preeminent priority.’” Gómez’s statement sparked the Faithful America petition.
Some, like Most Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades, bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who serves as chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and was part of a working group that advised Gómez, supported the Archbishop’s remarks.
“There were some notes of hope in the statement, I say, but we weren’t going to not say anything about his position on some very fundamental values of our faith, and he [Biden] is Catholic,” Rhoades said to The Observer. “So we talked about abortion and marriage and religious freedom, and I don’t know how we could not talk about it. I mean, we have to be authentic teachers. We’re not going to be silent about the truths that we hold dear.”
Others, like Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, deemed it “ill-considered.”
Rev. Robert Dowd, assistant provost for internationalization and associate professor of political science at Notre Dame, said an investigation is neither necessary nor warranted. He emphasized that the Catholic Church is not partisan.
“The Democratic Party does not get it right, from a Catholic perspective, on everything, and neither does the Republican Party,” Dowd said.
In Dowd’s view, the disagreement over Gomez’s statement is a “matter of tone.”
“I think there are two approaches here. Because we have a Catholic president there are some bishops who think ‘we need to adopt a tough tone and send a signal to other Catholics that his position on abortion is one that cannot be condoned,’” Dowd said. “Other bishops think that, because he’s a conscientious Catholic whose faith is obviously important to him, we should strike a more positive tone, particularly at the outset of his presidency. After all, in many ways Biden’s positions are more in line with Catholic teaching than Trump’s, particularly when it comes to migrants, refugees, climate issues, poverty and inequality.”
Nevertheless, the 21,579 petition signatories — including 28 Notre Dame professors — believe that two issues have pervaded into the USCCB: insularity and partisanship.
The twin deficits
Over his 30 years of teaching, Mendoza College of Business professor emeritus Richard Sheehan often found students’ choice of apparel, especially T-shirts sporting dorm pride, funny and witty.
When it comes to church leaders’ stance, one particular shirt comes to Sheehan’s mind as a metaphor: “On the front of his shirt it said ‘Sex kills,’ and the punchline in the back was ‘Come to Notre Dame and live forever,’” he said.
In Sheehan’s view, the Church’s leadership has fixated on the issue of abortion, neglecting other teachings that encompass the protection of human dignity.
“I think it takes a very narrow perspective as opposed to a more open approach to what matters,” he said. “So that’s kind of the starting point. The underlying issue is the Catholic Church is hung up on sex and on abortion.”
Like Sheehan, Patricia Maurice, professor emerita in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences, said she signed the petition because the she believes the USCCB must both stay apolitical and have a broader vision of Catholicism.
“Catholics should really closely pay attention to the guidance from the Pope,” Maurice said. “And it’s really backing up the Pope and saying that Catholics shouldn’t focus on one aspect. They should focus on all of Christ’s teachings, and look at the broad aspect of Catholic social teaching and Catholic social justice.”
The Church’s emphasis on abortion predates its emergence as a partisan issue, as it only became a significant wedge between the Republican and Democratic parties in the 1980s, professor of American democracy and chairperson of the political science department David Campbell said.
Campbell, who has written on religion and politics, said that even though the Catholic Church had historically kept away from partisan politics, the surfacing of abortion as the “dominant culture war issue” served to link the Church with the GOP in the eyes of the public — a “dangerous position for the Catholic Church,” he said.
“What people are going to remember is the position that’s taken,” Campbell said. “The officials are going to emphasize abortion — which lines up with one party — and many reasonable people will infer, ‘well, that must mean that the Catholic Church is supporting the Republican Party.’”
Consistent with Campbell’s observation, Sheehan said that both the nation and the USCCB had become “much more tribal,” leading some Church authorities to support Trump and ignore some of his controversial policies.
“The focus is on the ends, rather than the means,” Sheehan said. “They’re saying that the ends justify the means, so they’re going to support Trump and push the parishioners in that direction, and that’s inconsistent with Catholic social teaching.”
Mark Roche, professor of German language and literature and concurrent professor of philosophy, said the USCCB’s seeming partisanship was displayed in its lack of criticism towards Republican policies that are inconsistent with the Church’s teachings.
“I haven’t seen a consistent set of Catholic statements independently of partisanship. When the Democratic administration came in, certainly the Church is right to say it disagrees with its pro-choice position, which has increased over the years,” Roche said. “But there are so many issues where the Democratic policies line up very well. And just as we didn’t hear enough criticism of the Republican administration, we don’t hear enough praise of the Democratic position.”
The Fort Wayne-South Bend bishop maintained the Church had been vocal on its criticism of certain Trump policies. Rhoades said that the main problem was that much media attention was given to the USCCB’s statements on abortion rather than on those decrying Trump’s policies regarding the environment, the death penalty and immigration.
Another issue, Rhoades said, was the people’s tendency to “look at everything through the lens of politics or ideology.” While he admitted that some priests were “more ideological,” he explained they did not represent the majority.
In the midst of such polarizing times, Rhoades said the USCCB was committed to furthering the teachings of the Catholic Church while maintaining dialogue with the Biden administration.
“We’re going to continue to speak out on behalf of human life and the dignity of the human person,” Rhoades said. “We’ll continue to fight against funding of abortion and will insist upon defending our religious freedom. So I expect we’ll continue to get criticized by both sides.”
Called to be ‘bridge-builders’
The question of religion and politics is one that will continue reemerging throughout Biden’s presidency, Campbell said, especially as the nation grapples with the fact that “while it’s true that we have separation of church and state in the United States, that is different than saying there’s a separation between religion and politics.”
This issue has become more poignant due to the rise of the “nones,” the name given by social scientists to the growing share of religiously unaffiliated Americans — particularly within younger generations.
According to a Pew Research Center study, about a third of Americans under the age of 30 reported being religiously unaffiliated.
Sheehan says that this wedge could be driven by the church leaders’ views largely in regards to abortion and women’s roles within the institution.
“When I think of the attitude of the bishops, that most of them are probably much closer to my age, I find they’re still living in the 20th century,” he said. “And they are, I think, fundamentally intolerant of anyone that we disagree with [in] their positions.”
For Roche, retaining parishioners is a matter of speaking with more nuance.
“You have to wonder if the secularization thesis is coming to fruition in the United States,” he said. “And I would suggest that it makes all the sense for the churches to ask the question, ‘How can we convey the essence of our faith in such a way as to win people over and not alienate them at the same time?’”
That is the same question that has captured Rhoades’ focus.
“I think young people, and young adults in particular, should be a priority of the whole Church,” the bishop said. “With the growth of the number of those unaffiliated, that was a really serious concern of mine and other bishops.”
Campbell said the young people’s main deterrence is actually partisanship.
“It’s not necessarily abortion itself, that would drive young people away. Young people as a group, are actually a little more pro-life than their parents’ generation,” Campbell said. “However, when you put the specific issue of abortion aside and just talk about religious groups being involved in partisan politics, that’s what drives young people away from religion.”
The political scientist weighed in with a piece of advice to correct this qualm.
“It’s critical that they do everything they can to stay out of the political arena, and in doing so, if they’re going to comment on public policy, that they place just as much emphasis on issues other than abortion,” Campbell said. “So if they feel abortion needs to be part of it, then it needs to be included among a long list and not just made me a headline issue.”
Dowd echoed Campbell in saying that the USCCB must “steer clear of any semblance of partisanship,” as this might lead to further damage of the organization’s credibility. Rather, he said, the Church must focus on bridging the gap.
“I think Pope Francis really calls us to be bridge builders, and that we need to do everything that we can to be bridge builders in a society that has become so polarized,” Dowd said. “We must ask ourselves, ‘How can we bring people closer together? How can we meet people where they’re at, try to find some common ground, and make progress on all the life issues?’”