More than 300 Catholic bishops will convene next Monday for a national meeting to elect a new president of their conference. While the new Pope has made a remarkable start advocating for a “church for the poor” and has warned against a fixation on a few hot-button issues, the bishops’ agenda in Baltimore reads as a primer in why the Catholic hierarchy in the United States risks losing its once powerful social justice voice. The bishops will vote on a statement about pornography, but the decline of living wage jobs, attacks on workers’ rights and growing threats to the environment—all moral issues addressed by traditional Catholic teaching—will not be up for discussion. The bishops will make time to hear a report about their advocacy efforts to oppose same-sex marriage, which an increasing number of Americans and most Catholics now support, but no reports are planned about income inequality or persistent unemployment. If the bishops left their hotel in Baltimore – where nearly 1 in 4 people live in poverty – they could follow Pope Francis’ lead during his visit to a favela in Brazil, where he listened to the stories of real people and challenged government leaders to address systemic injustice and growing inequality. But there are no indications that the bishops will scrap their formal agenda.
Their diminished voice on social justice stands in stark contrast to a time when bishops were at the forefront of debates over the role of government, the economy and war. During the Cold War, a Time magazine story about the nuclear arms race – “The Bishops vs. The Bomb” – was emblematic of a time when Catholic leaders drew public attention for a broader “pro-life” ethic beyond abortion. In 1986, U.S. bishops released “Economic Justice for All,” a national pastoral letter that offered a departure from Reagan-era “trickle down” economic theories, anti-government ideology and blind faith in free-market orthodoxy.
But over the past several decades, many Catholic bishops made strategic alliances with right-wing Christian evangelicals, partisan strategists and conservative intellectuals as a narrow culture war agenda began to eclipse the Church’s advocacy on a broader range of moral issues. When the University of Notre Dame invited President Obama to give the 2009 commencement address, Catholic bishops protested and their strident condemnation set the tone for the hierarchy’s still prickly relationship with the administration. In recent years, the U.S. bishops’ conference has battled contraception coverage in Obamacare, opposed the Violence Against Women Act and this week reiterated their opposition to the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) because of fears that legislation will “redefine marriage” and pose a grave threat to religious liberty.
Catholic leaders pouring more resources into fighting the cultural tide on issues of sexuality obscures the fact that traditional Catholic teaching on the economy is left of most Democrats in Congress. New Deal reforms championed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt even owe a debt to Catholic bishops, who asked a populist Catholic priest whose thinking on social inequality was widely read in the decades following World War I to develop a bold plan for progressive social change that included minimum wages, public housing for workers and insurance for the elderly and unemployed. Time magazine described Msgr. John Ryan as the “Right Rev. New Dealer” and “U.S. Catholicism’s most potent social reformer.” Where is this Catholic leadership today?
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Inspired by Pope Francis, some moderate bishops are encouraging their peers to embrace his message. In America magazine, a national Catholic magazine edited by Jesuit priests, San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy challenged his fellow bishops to put more institutional muscle behind their advocacy for economic justice. “In recent years, the conference of bishops has labeled abortion and euthanasia as the preeminent issues in the political order, but not poverty,” McElroy said in a blunt interview with Vatican Insider. “This had the effect of downgrading the perceived importance of poverty as a central focus for the Church’s witness.”
Pope Francis is using his global pulpit to urge church leaders not to become grim scolds only defined by what they oppose. Bishops do deserve credit for pushing humane immigration reform and for defending vital anti-hunger programs against Republican attacks. But too many in the hierarchy are still hunkered down in a defensive crouch. The Pope’s positive message of mercy, justice and “good news” for the poor is straight from the Gospels. Let’s hope American bishops start taking a page from the Francis playbook.
John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former assistant director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. You can follow him on Twitter @gehringdc. The views expressed are solely his own.