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Archbishop Dolan’s Letdown, and Job One

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 27, 2012

What’s wrong with this picture? The leader of the American hierarchy, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, said in an interview that he was “terribly let down, disappointed and disturbed” by President Obama’s decision to force insurance coverage of contraception and sterilization on those who morally object to such practices. Archbishop Dolan based this disappointment on reassurances about conscience rights that the President had given him in a November meeting.

Of course New York’s cardinal-elect should object to Obama’s policies in this area, including the recent HHS mandate. But when he says he is let down and disappointed, these words imply that he had high hopes based on Obama’s assurances—assurances which, even at the time, self-evidently contradicted everything the President has repeatedly proven he stands for. So what is wrong with this picture is that the Archbishop of New York and the head of the USCCB can be so amazingly naïve. This staggers the imagination. It strains credulity.

Bishops must speak truth to power. But nothing about this task suggests they should get the warm fuzzies when power embraces (and so defuses) them. To the contrary, while they must always welcome conversion when they can get it, bishops ought to be realistic enough to understand that power in this world is most often redirected only by raising the worldly cost of continuing in the same direction. Over the past two generations the bishops of the West generally have dissipated their political clout by squandering the cohesiveness of the community of voters on which that political clout is based. Cozy White House meetings are window dressing; in the absence of political morals, those windows can be opened only by corruption or poll power.

In America at least, the bishops now have so little political clout that one wonders why they continue to make political pronouncements at all. Their statements are only too easily dismissed as politically irrelevant. Our bishops could learn something from Teddy Roosevelt’s famous methodology—to speak softly and carry a big stick. But the only big stick available to bishops is a cohesive Catholic community united around Catholic moral principles.

This is yet another reason (and certainly not the primary one) why the bishops should concentrate their energies on revitalizing the fidelity of priests, religious communities and universities, and so forming a solid block of committed Catholic laity. Moreover, this solid block of Catholic voters can neither be formed nor maintained if the bishops insist on offering endless particular political prescriptions about which morally-committed Catholics can properly differ. They need to focus on core issues where the course they advocate is not one of many possible moral responses but the only moral response.

Let us take just one set of contrasting examples: The need to assist the poor admits of a thousand different initiatives, both private and public, and Catholics with the same understanding of the moral principle of solidarity can disagree sharply about the most effective means to show their solidarity with those who are less fortunate. On the other hand, the need to avoid supporting actions which are intrinsically immoral admits of only one moral political response. The public authority must not assist, facilitate or approve (and therefore no citizen may be coerced into assisting, facilitating or approving), whether financially or otherwise, such evils as abortion, embryonic research, human cloning, contraception, homosexual behavior, gay marriage, sterilization, slavery, torture, or indiscriminate attacks on non-combatants in war—to name only some of the intrinsic evils which might, if a Catholic community were formed properly, be reduced dramatically or eliminated altogether.

Any measure which imposes support for such things must be opposed by Catholics; any politician who favors such things must similarly be opposed (assuming there is a more intrinsically moral alternative). But this can be effective only if Catholics have political clout, and Catholics can have political clout only if they constitute a well-formed and cohesive community. Again, forming such a community is very much the work of bishops. Within such a community, bishops can actually speak truth to power effectively without even raising their voices. They would no longer be simultaneously embraced and ignored. They would more likely be kept at arm’s length—and heeded.

The Church does not strive for political power. But she does strive for moral power. And her moral authority translates into moral power only when her bishops attend zealously to their primary tasks. Therefore, when a bishop chooses to engage in a bit of political maneuvering, placing himself in danger of having a warm reception go to his head, he will do very well to heed the classic advice of those who see things as they are: Do not—I repeat, do not—quit your day job.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: frlweish7600 - Feb. 15, 2012 1:08 AM ET USA

    is it too late for the bihops to have any credibility with the laity. it seems so. since bishops can decide when and where to obey the pope or consider his words irrevelant why can not the laity. furthermore, when the pope says one thing and does the opposite he loses credibility. no altar girls, yes altar girls. disobey the popes rule of no holy communion for proabortion pols and get made a cardinal.

  • Posted by: mdepietro - Feb. 04, 2012 12:03 AM ET USA

    I agree with what you say, but am mystified as to your need to include the clause "....slavery, torture, or indiscriminate attacks on non-combatants in war—... as some of the intrinsic evils we can not politically support. Well.. of course we can not support these things but is anyone anywhere in America advocating them? At the end of the day In the US this issue comes down to abortion. Democrats being in love with it, Republicans imperfectly but generally opposed. Why make this more complicated?

  • Posted by: thx1688 - Feb. 01, 2012 2:21 PM ET USA

    True, Archbishop Dolan is not a "wimp", but he is in fact incomprehensibly naïve. That actually probably best describes the leadership of the Church these last 40 years or so. Should serial homosexual child rapists be reassigned to new Parishes after they have already raped and molested multiple children? Sure, what harm could that do? Should 2000 years of organic liturgical development be tossed out the window? Why not? How could that be a bad idea? And on and on and on.

  • Posted by: winnie - Jan. 31, 2012 2:26 PM ET USA

    But of course, it's all about him and his feelings of betrayal and shock;now the drama, the hand-wringing. Countless responsible organizations and individuals tried to warn him and the bishops that this and worse was coming from Obama/Sebilius but they (with a few exceptions) chose to tune the critics out.

  • Posted by: cvm46470 - Jan. 30, 2012 12:02 AM ET USA

    I did not see the original interview, but I can see the remarks in a different light. Archbishop Dolan is not wimp; his interview last year on 60 Minutes was to the point. Could it not be that he was trying to purposely highlight the hypocrisy and deceit of the administration? It puts a negative light on Obama; personally I was put off by the headline that linked a Bishop with "to hell with you". Wasn't there a recent commentary about the need to be more civil? Let's at least stick together.

  • Posted by: Exaudi nos - Jan. 29, 2012 1:50 PM ET USA

    Snooze....you lose. Preach Jesus and Him Crucified. The Truth and nothing but the Truth.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 28, 2012 8:14 AM ET USA

    This too is a crisis. The episcopacy's moral performance with regard to clerical abuse and homosexuality has been tremendously harmful. The Church's political and moral clout has been discredited in the eyes of many. The years of hand-holding, balloon and dove releases, and Kumbya sing-a-longs have not been conducive to forming the most indefatigable of warriors against the intrinsic evils of our time. There is much work to be done, and the hour is late. It's time to "see things as they are."

  • Posted by: shrink - Jan. 28, 2012 6:16 AM ET USA

    What is lying to an archbishop compared to agreeing to suck the brains out of a half-born baby?

  • Posted by: GymK - Jan. 27, 2012 5:11 PM ET USA

    Are there enough faithful Catholics left to combat this evil? When surveys show that 80-90% of "practicing Catholics" (and many priests and bishops) believe in &/or practice, artificial birth control, where will the Bishops find support to oppose Obama? If this issue were put to a vote I assume the majority "Catholic vote" would be in favor of artificial birth control, sterilization and even abortion. How confident is Obama to give the Bishops a year to try to convince their flocks! God help us!

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