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tone deaf

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 11, 2009

In a short op-ed piece distributed this week, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who heads the PR efforts for the US bishops’ conference, set out to justify the American bishops’ involvement in the debate over health-care reform. Instead I think she illustrates what has been wrong—in this case and many others—with the bishops’ approach.

Sister Walsh writes that American hierarchy has been involved in two other historic battles: for the New Deal and for civil rights. In the former case, she says, Msgr. John Ryan, while working for the US bishops, set forth a program for reform that was, in effect, “an outline for what would become Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.” His intensive political activities, she said, provoked “strident cries that [the Church] did not belong in the public arena.”

No doubt that’s true. No doubt there were people who thought that Catholic leaders should keep quiet about social problems. But there’s another important issue here, which Sister Walsh ignores. Many good Americans—including many good Catholics—would have been happy to see the Church take an active role in social problems of the day, but felt that Msgr. Ryan and his backers in the hierarchy were on the wrong side. There's a very important distinction to be made between people who think the bishops have no right to speak on public issues and people who disagree with what the bishops say. Sister Walsh fails to note the difference.

The battle to attain equal rights for all Americans, and to end racial discrimination, was a very different matter. In that case, good Catholics disagreed about various political initiatives, but all could and should have agreed that the ultimate goal, equality of justice under law, was a good thing. The same could not be said about the New Deal. There are still Americans today (count me among them) who believe that New Deal policies have had a deleterious effect on the American republic.

In her brief apologia for the American bishops’ political efforts, Sister Walsh shows that she is not sensitive to the distinction between a clear moral goal (racial equality) and a controversial program (the New Deal). She also demonstrates a failure to recognize that Americans today are still divided on the merits of the New Deal, so that applauding the bishops’ support for Roosevelt’s policies only lends strength to the perception that the hierarchy is engaged in partisan politics.  

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