When it comes to certain political issues, there's no group more vocal today than the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They are quick to speak out. And they make sure you know where they stand.
No doubt about it. On abortion, Catholic bishops are against it. On homosexuality, Catholic bishops are against it. On same-sex marriage, Catholic bishops are against it. On contraception, Catholic bishops are against it. And they actively lobby Congress to pass laws supporting their position. Recently, the Conference of Bishops even identified their top priority for 2012 as persuading Congress to overturn President Obama's mandatory coverage of birth control in all health plans. Two years ago, they opposed passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Now, we all understand. These political positions reflect the teachings of the official Roman Catholic Church. In many ways, U.S. bishops are only doing what the Vatican demands. But still, as a Catholic, what I want to know is: Why are the bishops so quick and eager to speak out about issues involving sex – yet remain totally silent on so many other established teachings of the Church?
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The Catholic Church, for example, officially opposes the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment. But when is the last time you heard the bishops decry application of the death penalty? According to the Death Penalty Information Center, as of October 2011 there were 3,199 persons on death row in the United States. Shouldn't that also be one of the bishops' top priorities? Yet, to my knowledge, the bishops have never denied communion to any politician who voted in support of the death penalty, though they did deny the sacraments to Geraldine Ferraro, John Kerry, Joe Biden and other pro-choice Catholics.
Same with the war in Iraq. Pope John Paul II was outspoken in his opposition to the Gulf War in 1991 and the war in Iraq in 2003. "War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations," declared the pope in January 2003, two months before the invasion of Iraq. But, again: American bishops never pressured Congress to vote against the war and never criticized Catholic members of Congress who eagerly voted for it.
And what about working families? No institution has spoken out more strongly on behalf of economic justice than the Catholic Church. In his great encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII recognized the rights of workers to form unions, to engage in collective bargaining and to earn a fair salary: enough to support the worker, his wife and family, with a little savings left over. But when's the last time you heard a Catholic bishop talk about the "living wage"?
In Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII also affirmed what theologians call the Church's "preferential option for the poor." Noting that the wealthy can generally take care of themselves, the pope decreed: "It is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government." And that policy of protection of and preference for the poor has been reinforced by several popes since, all the way up to Benedict XVI.
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How shameful, then, that bishops maintain total silence about the House Republican budget authored by Paul Ryan. This year's Ryan budget, like last year's, is just the opposite of what the Church teaches. It would drastically cut social programs that aid the poor, including medical care provided to the poor through Medicaid. It would also threaten health care for seniors by ending Medicare as we know it – while preserving tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans.
The Ryan plan, in other words, is not preferential treatment for the poor. It's preferential treatment for the rich. But what have Catholic bishops said about it? Absolutely nothing. Not a word. Zip. Nada. Not last year, and not this year. Last November, in fact, Archbishop Charles Chaput told Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats, that bishops just didn't have enough time at their annual meeting to discuss poverty. Besides, volunteered Chaput, he didn't think bishops should be commenting on complex economic matters. That's not what Leo XIII thought.
When I was growing up a Catholic, the nuns had a phrase for those who obeyed some tenets of the Church but not others: "Cafeteria Catholics." Today, the biggest "Cafeteria Catholics" are Catholic bishops.