How reactionary has the Catholic hierarchy become? Let me count the ways:
• Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence “respectfully” tells Congressman Patrick Kennedy to refrain from receiving communion, a harbinger of what every pro-choice or pro-gay-marriage Catholic politician faces.
• Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of Washington threatens to cancel Catholic provision of services to the homeless and poor if the D.C. City Council passes a law giving equal rights to gays.
• The Vatican, uneasy with the relative liberalism of American nuns, launches an intimidating investigation of U.S. religious orders of women, which, when criticized by Maureen Dowd, prompts New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan to complain of anti-Catholicism in the New York Times.
• In October, Rome violates a generation-long tradition of inter-denominational respect to invite disgruntled conservative Episcopalians to join a special new wing of the Catholic Church. Hostility to gays and rejection of equality for women trump theology, tradition, and even courtesy.
• Last week, more than a dozen of the most influential U.S. Catholic bishops (including Dolan and Wuerl) join far-right-wing Evangelicals like James Dobson in “ The Manhattan Declaration: A Call to Christian Conscience.” Its co-author Chuck Colson (of Watergate fame) describes “a hierarchy of issues,” but the Catholic Church now has an issues hierarchy.
• On Capitol Hill this month, the Catholic bishops make clear their readiness to scuttle the entire package of health-reform legislation if they do not get their way on abortion restrictions. Health-care reform hangs in the Senate by a thread, which the bishops prepare to cut.
All of this defines a watershed moment. The Catholic Church is more than its hierarchy. Polls show that most Catholic laity dissent on multiple moral questions. But the bishops define the public face of Catholicism–and that face is now marked by a scowling moralism. In days past, the immigrant Church was defined by its core commitment to serve workers, the poor, and the marginal. Catholicism was a powerful partner in the New Deal, Labor, War-on-Poverty, and Civil Rights coalitions, and though there were always conservative bishops (like Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York), the Church did not make doctrinal or ethical conformity a precondition of its participation in the struggle for equal justice. That is why, across the 20th century, it was a force for progressive social change. That is over.
For the first time in its history, the American Catholic hierarchy is solidly right wing. There is not one liberal voice among its members. The bishops are at home with the heirs of a know-nothing fundamentalism that once, by every measure of theology and social policy, embodied the Church’s opposite. This realignment is the consequence, within Catholicism, of the conservative appointments made to the episcopate over 27 years by Pope John Paul II, but it also reflects the broader, post-Ronald Reagan phenomenon of the arrival of the Religious Right as an establishment force in American politics.
That Catholic bishops are genuinely conservative is beyond doubt, but one might also note how their unprecedented alliance with an already powerful political-religious movement nicely solves the bishops’ biggest problem–the bankruptcy of their moral authority and loss of social clout in the wake of the priest-pedophilia scandal. New Protestant allies are happy to let go of old anti-Catholic prejudices, even those confirmed by priestly child abuse, for the sake of advancing their narrow moral agenda. Meanwhile, an equally divided political culture puts bishops in the cat-bird seat when it comes to tipping the scales of close elections or contested legislation, and that unexpectedly pivotal role has rescued them. The self-righteous glee with which they spout ethical absolutes, the fervor with which they threaten excommunication of dissidents, and the chest-thumping with which they mark their decisive influence on urgent legislation all suggest the degree of their relief to be out from under the cloud of contempt in which they were held because of their handling of the sex abuse-crisis. But that crisis, the sources of which have yet to be addressed, is not over.
For the first time in its history, the American Catholic hierarchy is solidly right wing. There is not one liberal voice among its members.
Many Catholic lay people “of a certain age” are profoundly alienated from the bishops’ worldview and understanding of the Church, but, because of firm clerical control over the institution and the tendency of the secular media to define “the Church” in strictly clerical terms, there is little they can do to affect either. Catholic young people, meanwhile, are indifferent to what the bishops say and think (only 15 percent of college-age Catholics attend Mass regularly). Given the current tilt of Church power, such Catholics are, for now, unwilling hostages of the reactionary hierarchy.
What’s new is that, given the polarity of American politics, the whole nation is their hostage, too. It remains to be seen, though, if the bishops’ embrace of uncompromising extremism will do anything, over the long term, but leave them isolated with their new friends on the fringe, more discredited than ever.
James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.