by Jason Surmiller | In some ways it is difficult to blame the bishops for their current stance. Their political power conveyed a sense of respectability. In decades past, they could promote their policies, notably through the Democratic Party which became a conduit to support and further the goals of the bishops, such as the building up of unions across the Northeast and Midwest. (image: Carlisle Indian School, Carlisle, Pa. Class in English or penmanship from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)
To start the year off, the New York state legislature passed the most regressive anti-life law in the history of the U.S. Its governor, Andrew Cuomo, a self-proclaimed Catholic, supported and shepherded the legislation and gleefully proclaimed its enactment. Furthermore, many in the legislature enthusiastically applauded when the law was enacted. Unhappily, many of those people call themselves Catholic. As horribly sad as this situation is, what makes it infinitely more heartbreaking is that the bishops have been relatively silent on the matter. Cardinal Dolan has now spoken about the situation after being challenged, but he apparently has no real plan to confront public officials who support the law. For example, he has refused to ex-communicate the Governor or even entertain the idea that Cuomo is a public heretic despite Cuomo publicly denying the Church’s teaching on abortion.
To be fair to the cardinal, major political figures who support abortion have rarely been censured. For instance, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House from California and the leader of the Democratic party, is still considered a Catholic in good standing both in San Francisco and Washington D.C. If Dolan did censure or excommunicate Cuomo, he would blaze a new trail in relations between the Catholic Church and the state. This would require an awesome amount of courage because, in large part, he cannot expect the support of his brother bishops. In fact, some would probably openly oppose him and even denounce him. There are examples of strong church leaders like Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who stated that U.S. Senator Dick Durbin should not receive communion; yet Paprocki and a few others are the exception. This begs the question: why aren’t the bishops speaking out and trying to bring politicians, like Cuomo, back to the fold? To venture a guess, it is because they do not want to lose the standing in American public life that they have gained over the last century and a half.
The formation of the Catholic bishops’ political mindset began in the late 1800s with Archbishop John Ireland of Minneapolis and his goal to Americanize the Church. He, along with many of his brother bishops, hoped to strip the parish churches of their ethnic identity and persuade their followers to become fully American. The bishops realized that until this happened, Protestant America would look at Catholics as immigrant outsiders, best barred from the country. In order to assuage the Protestants, the bishops knew they needed to develop American Catholics by breaking the ties between the new arrivals and Europe. Also, the Church had to come out in full force supporting American ideas such as freedom of speech and religion.
In time, the bishops were successful in becoming more American, championing American political values, and largely ending the phenomenon of ethnic parishes. In many ways the average Catholic looked like a Protestant. Along with Catholics emulating Protestants, a continuing wave of Catholics immigrating to the U.S. allowed the Church to develop real political power through the ballot box. Unfortunately, during the rise of the Church in the second half of the twentieth century, it did not seem to be concerned with the teachings of Christ. This, in part, led the Church to cover up the sex abuse crimes of its priests. With these crimes finally coming to the surface along with more and more Catholics leaving the Church in part due to disruptions following Vatican II, the bishops have experienced a precipitous loss of political power. Apparently, in response to this, the bishops have decided to quiet their voices and have refused to oppose publics officials as a way to restore some of that long-lost authority.
In some ways it is difficult to blame the bishops for their current stance. Their political power conveyed a sense of respectability. In decades past, they could promote their policies, notably through the Democratic Party which became a conduit to support and further the goals of the bishops, such as the building up of unions across the Northeast and Midwest. Yet, the bishops’ reach did not stop at the political realm. Culturally and socially they were able to set up committees to censor movies and support blue laws. Popularly, people from across the country tuned in to watch Archbishop Fulton Sheen give lectures about the Faith; he even won an Emmy. It was not uncommon to have a priest or saint as the protagonist in a major motion picture like “A Man for All Seasons.” The strongest manifestation of the Church’s influence was that even Protestant politicians came calling for the Catholic vote.
This authority, however, only works when Catholics remain faithful and look to their bishops for direction in religious and secular matters. Unfortunately, Catholics have stopped coming to Church. By and large, the Catholic laity have refused to listen to the bishops in recent years largely because of the scandals. Additionally, the Church has had a hard time keeping people in the pews. News stories come out on a weekly basis reporting on the Church’s massive loss of parishioners. As of today, the Church is scrambling to understand why and implementing evangelization efforts that are not likely to work. In light of this, Church leaders are searching for new ways to maintain their influence in America. Unfortunately, the path the bishops have chosen to influence Catholic politicians—who for all intents and purposes have rejected Catholic moral teaching—is to placate them. Secularly, this makes sense. If you want a place at the table, you cannot publicly bash politicians and throw them out of the Church. If the bishops do, they will lose their place.
The problem for at least the last twenty years, if not longer, is that the Republicans and Democrats have not been listening to the Church. At best, politicians pay lip service to the bishops’ concerns and then work for groups that can actually get them elected. Ironically enough, the bishops excommunicating politicians would most likely have no real effect on political realities. Politicians would then be able to go to their voters claiming they had stood up to the regressive, out-of-step Church. Little if anything would positively happen. Yet, an important goal of publicly calling out politicians would be served: the Faith of the Church would be loudly proclaimed, and no one, Catholic or otherwise, would be confused about the Truth. Additionally, albeit unlikely, a politician might be reconverted to the truth as a result of the bishop’s action.
It is not just the scandals that have destroyed the credibility of the Church (as bad as they are on their own), but it is now politically homeless. First, the Democratic Party has simply rejected much of what the Church holds dear. It has made abortion a non-negotiable plank of their party and supports social issues which have always been opposed by the Church. Sadly enough, the Democratic Party has recently further distanced itself from the Church. Last year, Senators Kamala Harris and Mazie Hirono questioned a judicial nominee’s membership in the Knights of Columbus, implying Knights should not sit on the federal bench. While the Republican Party is, at least ostensibly, pro-life, its economic and immigration policies are not supported by many bishops—although the party itself has not been uniformly in agreement on these matters and such policies are a prudential question open for debate among Catholics. It is no small wonder that in the past few elections the Catholic vote has effectively split between the two parties. What appears to be the most telling sign is that both parties are only making half-hearted attempts to win the Catholic vote. This is most likely because they realize there is no longer a unified Catholic voting block. This is largely true because the bishops no longer influence their people and fewer and fewer Catholics even go to Church.
Despite the gravity of the abortion issue, the Catholic bishops of New York and a great majority of bishops around the U.S. refuse to meaningfully speak out against the different heresies making inroads into the Church. The bishops fear that if they taught more forcefully they would lose their standing in American public life. Perhaps, in the back of their minds, they believe repudiating the political gains made over the past 150 years will revive the charge that Catholics do not fit in. Yet, by doing this, the bishops would finally let go of the pretense that Catholicism has real political power. Only a short time ago, a politician had little hope of winning in New York, Chicago, or Detroit without the support of the local archdiocese, but those days are gone. However, this may not be a bad thing. Catholic entanglement with political power has distracted the Church from its true mission to win souls for Christ and build up the Kingdom. By refocusing on their primary duty, the bishops would better meet the spiritual needs of the faithful while attracting new adherents. A clear and confident religious message will invariably grow the Church and eventually have a salutary effect on civic life and culture—all without compromising any principles.
In the end, the whole point—for the bishops and the whole Church—is to gain more souls for Christ whether or not it means losing respectability in elite circles. To deny people the truth is a hateful thing, and to allow people to languish in error and refuse to offer them a way to salvation is the same as condemning them to hell. The bishops need to remember that their concerns should not only be for earthly things but primarily for heavenly rewards. In the end, it does not profit the bishops to gain worldly acclaim while so many under their care are losing their souls.
Jason Surmiller recently graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas with a Ph.D. in Humanities, History of Ideas. He is a faculty member of Ursuline Academy of Dallas and an adjunct instructor at Brookhaven College. His first book, European Fascism and the Catholic Church in America: Power and the Priesthood in World War, from IB Tauris is coming out in March 2020.