Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

USCCB statements on other political topics are harming the campaign for religious freedom

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 04, 2012

In March the US bishops’ conference (USCCB) announced that “we will not rest” until Congress ensures that religious freedom is protected in the federal health-care reform program. The USCCB followed up that clear and forceful message a few week later with a new, statement announcing a major offensive in defense of religious liberty. These powerful statements seemed to indicate clearly that religious freedom would be the focus—the focus—of the bishops’ political efforts this year.

The USCCB issued a clarion call to the Catholic laity, asking for help with this campaign. Cardinal Dolan called out President Obama; Bishop Lori challenged Congress. The bishops signaled that they would not retreat. The battle lines were drawn. The troops were summoned.

Unfortunately, since that time the bishops have lost their focus, and thus complicated things for the active Catholic laity. The USCCB has done what the USCCB always does: muddied the water, by issuing statements on a host of different political issues—including many of which good Catholics have differing opinions, and on which Catholic bishops have no special expertise.

In the past 10 week, the USCCB and its spokesmen have:

The USCCB has released a full listing of the legislative issues the bishops are tracking during this congressional session. The list includes not only the clearly germane moral questions that Catholics expect to discuss (such are religious freedom, immigration, and the defense of life and family) but also such far-flung questions as farm policy, health care, climate change, mining, copyrights, and digital television.

It is unlikely that any Catholic in the US fully understands (let alone agrees with) the USCCB position on all of these issues. When the USCCB stakes out a position on federal policy regarding digital television, that position obviously does not represent a consensus of Catholic opinion. Most Catholics—including most bishops—are unaware of the political issues involved. The USCCB stance is obviously crafted by a handful of prelates, guided by the conference staff.

However, the USCCB statements on these issues do not come with disclaimers, saying that Issue A is not a high priority or Issue B does not involve a clear-cut moral imperative. On all these matters—some clear, some not at all clear; some matters of unbending principle, some of prudential judgment—the USCCB makes the same claim that the bishops are speaking as moral leaders. Regrettably, this approach squanders the very authority that the USCCB so frequently invokes.

A good general knows that to win a crucial battle he must concentrate his forces. If the US bishops are serious in their desire to preserve religious liberty, and serious about a campaign to stave off the threats posed by the Obamacare mandate, the USCCB must stop issuing statements that distract attention from that cause.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - May. 20, 2012 8:36 PM ET USA

    Christ was a busy guy, also. You can't pick one fight and stick to that without fighting all of the other fights available. I don't see one thing on that list I personally have a problem with. And I'd be hard pressed to say that their position on any of those items is contrary to church teaching (aside from the solidarity/subsidiarity problem, which is clearly not settled). I am concerned that they let the liberty issue fall by the wayside, though, in their efforts to keep up with all issues.

  • Posted by: Vincit omnia amor - May. 07, 2012 12:32 AM ET USA

    Thank you Phil for restating the obvious. You'd think, among other things, the USCCB could have learned years ago from the focus of a certain Democrat whose mantra/focus helped win an election: "It's the economy, stupid!" How about "It's the Constitution, patriot?"

  • Posted by: - May. 05, 2012 7:53 PM ET USA

    It makes me really angry when they water down their words on the really important things by issuing statements that show that they do not understand that government spending is not charity. I automatically filter out most of their statements, and I am a practicing Catholic. Why should anyone else listen to them?

  • Posted by: - May. 05, 2012 2:56 PM ET USA

    It is the office of the bishop to teach the faith. It is the office of the laity to reform the social order. There has been a roll reversal. Immediately after the Council the bishops moved to DC and began setting in place a mind boggling social agenda over which they had neither competence nor mandate. (If one wants confirmation of this just look through the table of contents of the volumes of Pastoral letters of the United States Catholic Bishops. I’m looking at volume V, 1983-1988 as I key this.) The bishops long ago were referred to as the "Democratic Party at prayer." But for the life of me I don’t see what prayer had to do with it! But what I do know is the neglect of the religious formation of the flock is the central fact in the Catholic Church in the United States since the Council ended. And the bishops are to blame! Our own bishops acknowledged “the grim harvest of our catechetical efforts” in their 1988 “Pastoral Statement for Catholics on Biblical Fundamentalism.” Now, twenty four years latter it has only worsened. At this point Catholic identity hardly exists possibly for the great majority of Catholics within the United States. We already know via HPR’s follow-up to Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey we have lost about 20,750,000 cradle Catholics—and that does not include non-practicing Catholics. We also know from Pew’s Religious Knowledge Survey that Catholics are second only to Muslims in ignorance of their faith. And we also know our ecclesiastical lemmings keep right on marching into the sea of religious irrelevancy by talking about everything except what is their mandate and that is the care of the flock by the teaching of faith. At this point I believe the question is now simply this. Are we dealing with shear stupidity on the part of some of our bishops or bad faith? If it is the latter, it is a direct attack against the Body of Christ. Perhaps all of us should read Cardinal Dulles,’ “The Population of Hell.” There are only two final possibilities beyond the grave.

  • Posted by: impossible - May. 05, 2012 11:06 AM ET USA

    Thanks Phil. Commenting on political issues about which the Bishops have no special competence and upon which differing prudential decisions apply, is harmful and counterproductive. Thereby they risk becoming irrelevant and damage their credibility when they make pronouncements on faith and morals which do fall within their job descriptions. If the faithful bishops cannot reform the USCCB, they should form a separate organization that is orthodox and faithful to the Magisterium.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 05, 2012 10:50 AM ET USA

    I say this with deadly seriousness, it is not the "staff" that is the problem. The Bishops themselves freely choose to do what they do... We are NOT bishops, and so far as I know no bishop has freely chosen to enter into Catholicculture dialogue..., nothing prevents them from doing so you know.And again I say with deadly seriousness, the Second Person CHOSE to enter into the "dialogue" of our existence. Our AMERICAN biships CHOOSE to remain aloof and medieval,giving commands through "statements"

  • Posted by: benniep5 - May. 05, 2012 9:11 AM ET USA

    This needs repeating, "They have a public policy staff, which keeps busy---mostly retyping press releases from the DNC onto USCCB letterhead. When you eliminate the staff, you will eliminate the problem; not before." Politically as Catholics Priority one is to protect life especially the most innocent, Priority two, protect religious freedom so we can protect life. Leave the poor to Charity; the Church is the heart of Charity, not the federal government!

  • Posted by: jimpoc8837 - May. 04, 2012 10:43 PM ET USA

    Don't eliminate the staff. Just move them to one of those empty foundries on the Ohio river near Steubenville, Ohio. Each month they get four envelopes with paper and stamps which they can use at their discretion to publish what ever they deem important. They won't be needing phones, internet or computers. In the spirit of Saint Francis they can share the one pencil that they can use as needed.

  • Posted by: lauriem5377 - May. 04, 2012 7:06 PM ET USA

    It seems to me if there were good catechesis, there wouldn't a need to stake out so many individual positions - Catholic living would be fairly apparent. Our Lord knew what he was doing when he sent the apostles out to evangelize. Why have we drifted so far away from what He told us to do? He made it simple.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 04, 2012 6:25 PM ET USA

    "Parkinson's law applies: work expands to fill the time available for its completion." The problem is is that "a statemnt" DOES NOT "finish a work..." "And the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us..." God certainly knew how to engage all of our problems. God wanted "liberty" for us..., and He got it..!

  • Posted by: Defender - May. 04, 2012 4:24 PM ET USA

    The focus has been lost, I agree. In part because of the many USCCB committees that feel they must comment in some way about certain subjects and because the laity still awaits action by the bishops on subjects they want to ignore, especially errant politicians and Canon 915, as well as what the bishops are doing about Catholic universities, the lack of appropriate music during Mass and why it takes so very long for action on these and other subjects to be corrected.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - May. 04, 2012 3:56 PM ET USA

    Parkinson's law applies: work expands to fill the time available for its completion. They have a public policy staff, which keeps busy---mostly retyping press releases from the DNC onto USCCB letterhead. When you eliminate the staff, you will eliminate the problem; not before.