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Two starkly different methods of leading were on display at this year’s meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops. One invited Catholics to think and then act; the other demanded adherence not only to a particular line of thinking but to particular political conduct.

The bishops, meeting in Washington, tapped into a commendable tradition with the release of “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” a 48-page document that sharply criticizes the culture’s penchant for more prisons, stiffer penalties and more executions as a way to counter crime.

The effort has the ring and heft of much earlier documents released on the matters of war and peace in the nuclear age and the economy. As in the previous documents, the bishops find themselves outside the mainstream of the culture, building a strong case for approaching the world’s vexing problems from the perspective of the gospels.

During discussion of the pastoral on the justice system, Cardinal Roger Mahony said, “We’re asking people to look at this issue now through a new and different lens than in the past. We’re really asking for a change of heart, a gradual change of heart.”

At the same meeting, the bishops released a much shorter document, “The U.S. Supreme Court and the Culture of Death,” that decries the court’s rejection in June of a Nebraska law banning partial-birth abortions. The ruling shattered any hope of “legal sanity on abortion” and “has brought our legal system to the brink of endorsing infanticide,” the bishops said. I am raising no objection to the statement, just what happened at one point in the discussion.

Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., referring to data showing Catholics nationally voted by a 50-47 margin for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, told the meeting that the figures show that “the majority of Catholic people still do not make abortion a priority.” In other words, those who did not vote for Texas Gov. George Bush are not serious about the abortion issue and Catholic church teaching.

Curtiss’ assessment is not only dangerous in placing the church in unquestioning alliance with a single political party, it is insulting to Catholics and to his fellow bishops. We can only presume the rest of the bishops were serious when, in their instructions to Catholic voters in the document “Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium,” they acknowledged that no one party or candidate would fully embrace the Catholic agenda. For years the bishops have urged Catholic voters to become informed and vote their consciences.

When an archbishop makes such a statement in a public forum, it is no surprise that a priest, Fr. Thomas Vander Woude, in Arlington, Va., would tell parishioner Billie Ingrassia, that she should consider herself unfit to receive Communion because she had two Democratic Party bumper stickers on her car (see story).

Imagine the bizarre spectacle of a 34-year-old priest lecturing a 75-year-old mother of eight and grandmother of 22 on her pro-life responsibilities. Who in this scene should be disciplined?

The incident in Arlington illustrates in the extreme the lack of connection on this issue between the hierarchy and the Catholic population. Are we to believe that Catholics, trusted to puzzle through the matters of war in the nuclear age and the demands of justice in the economic world, suddenly turn stone stupid on the issue of abortion?

The fact is the bishops have boxed many Catholics into an impossible corner, demanding that they concede everything else on the political agenda for politicians’ idle promises on abortion.

Their absolute demands have left no space or time for the slow change of heart.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000