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Bishops and the politicians: a bad mix

The recent claims by powerful Catholic Republicans that their party best represents the church’s views should come as no surprise. Such claims are a sad, if predictable, end to the kind of political manipulation some of the nation’s bishops have accommodated, if not encouraged, during the past 20 years.

If, as a group, the bishops now find themselves squirming uncomfortably, they have only themselves to blame.

We’re talking, of course, as we do every presidential season, of how, during the last two decades, many U.S. bishops have aligned themselves with a narrow band on the political spectrum -- those forces seeking a complete overthrow of Roe v. Wade. These choices have left them compromised in the political arena.

But the point is worth repeating for the millions of voting Catholics who take seriously church teaching and can’t help but wonder about the Republican claims. It isn’t even a subtle strategy. Politicians who espouse an antiabortion stance, regardless of other positions they might take, get special treatment from the bishops. One needs only to look through diocesan newspapers to see which politicians are getting the best photo opportunities.

We’re not suggesting the bishops back off from opposing abortion or teaching forcefully on the issue. Nor do we suggest that their teaching should not have public consequences.

But their handling of the antiabortion issue in the political arena has been so inept that they have accidentally or deliberately given the impression of supporting the Republican Party.

Some in the church who have been most active at the highest levels in the antiabortion campaign will admit privately that the hierarchy has been terribly used. They won’t say it openly, but they should. It would help restore some credibility.

Some prelates have put themselves in the company of figures and movements on the extreme religious right, accepting their literature and “voter guides” for distribution in their parishes.

During the last 20 years, the bishops squandered enormous amounts of political capital on the bet that Republican antiabortion candidates would overturn Roe v. Wade and they got precious little for it. At the same time, the bishops all but abandoned forceful advocacy on other issues. In the tumble of real world politics, you can’t have it both ways.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a pro-choice Republican, put it bluntly in a recent pre-convention interview. Addressing the notion that another strong antiabortion plank in the Republican platform could signal a rollback of pro-choice fortunes, Specter simply pointed out that although Republicans have been in control of both houses of Congress since 1994, little has happened to change abortion laws. The Republican National Convention itself makes the point: All the hard-line conservatives, those who were the staunchest antiabortion proponents, were kept offstage this year. The Republicans want to win an election.

The tragedy of the bishops’ misjudgment is compounded by the fact that they have failed not only in the political arena. They have failed to persuade their own people. Surveys consistently show that on abortion, Catholics, proportionally, think and act no differently than other groups.

One of the gravest errors of the bishops’ strategy has been their failure to consult widely and publicly with women, particularly, and men in the church.

Twenty years ago, the bishops showed a different measure of pastoral wisdom on other issues on which they took strong public positions. On the matter of war and peace in the nuclear age, for instance, the American hierarchy spent years consulting experts on all sides, factored in a considerable body of church teaching condemning the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons, considered just war teaching and finally fashioned a bold, prophetic statement. It did not satisfy everyone, but it gave Catholics and the wider culture a language and a point of view that, it could be argued, has influenced the thinking of average Catholics and the debate on the state’s use of force.

Had the bishops, in advancing their position on war, favored Democratic candidates or cozied up to far-left groups to the exclusion of other interests, they would have suffered the same loss of credibility and influence that has occurred in their antiabortion campaign. No single party owns the church’s positions.

Persisting in this failed strategy on abortion will diminish the bishops in their pastoral roles and will lead only to a continuation of the kind of head-butting standoff that leaves everyone angry, frustrated and weary of the issue.

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2000