Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

What do bishops want?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 07, 2012

One day the US bishops’ conference is urging Congress to take action to undo the contraceptive mandate. The very next day the conference is urging Catholics to lobby their Congressmen for more funding for food stamps. Can anyone fail to notice that the second message dilutes the impact of the first?

Actually if you’re trying to influence Congress, having constituents call their representatives is more effective than issuing your own public statement. You might say, then, that this week the USCCB acted more decisively in favor of food stamps than against the contraceptive mandate. But that’s a side issue.

Have you ever had an acquaintance who hounded you to support a particular cause? Eventually, when you see him, you say to yourself: “Here comes Harry; I’m about to hear another pitch for the alumni fund.” It’s not necessarily attractive to play Johnny One-Note, but it is effective. You know what he wants. If Harry wants a donation to the alumni fund, you know exactly how to make him happy, and you know that nothing else will do the trick.

If you hear that the US bishops’ conference is going to issue another statement tomorrow, however, you can’t predict what they will want. It might be a statement about religious freedom, but it might also be about food stamps or climate change of immigration or tax cuts or day care or bank regulations or foreign aid or disaster relief or…who knows?

Which is precisely my point. Who knows what the bishops want? Every member of Congress has heard dozens of different pleas from the USCCB. Sometimes the liberal legislators are sympathetic; sometimes it’s the conservatives. Nobody in Congress is with the bishops’ conference on every issue, yet virtually every politician can point to some issue on which he has agreed with the USCCB. The net result is that when campaign season arrives, every politician in America can claim to represent the political preferences of the US bishops—on the issues that really matter, you know.

Do you doubt me? Just take a look at the 2012 presidential campaign. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have “Catholic outreach” committees, busily trying to persuade voters that their candidate is more in tune with fundamental Catholic values. They can’t both be right, obviously. But they can both cite statements from the USCCB.

As an organization that seeks to influence public policy, the US bishops’ conference could accomplish much more if it attempted much less.

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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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: shrink - Sep. 28, 2018 4:51 PM ET USA

    Pope Vichy (aka Pope Francis) will do what he can to help the underground church to embrace "suffering" for the greater good of Christian unity with atheists.

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Aug. 11, 2012 5:28 PM ET USA

    AMEN! Bishops, get out of politics and get back home to your dioceses. Teach your people, be fathers to your priests, raise monies at home for at-home needs! Please! Sell your huge USCCB headquarters in Washington, D.C., lay off all those liberals working for you, meet once a year to pray together at a monastery. We need spiritual fathers and teachers of the Faith. Not politicians! Subsidiarity, bishops! Please! And be together on important sacramental decisions. Thank you!

  • Posted by: impossible - Aug. 08, 2012 10:20 PM ET USA

    The USCCB is like a tempest in a teapot. They make some appropriate noises about the policies of the most pro-abortion president ever and they refuse to enforce Canon 915 and keep issuing faithful citizenship documents that provide loopholes for "Catholics" who prefer electing godless liberal democrats to office. They make noises about the dignity of the human person and then support politicians who constantly attack that dignity.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 08, 2012 12:14 PM ET USA

    The USCCB with its myriad of communiqués and position papers is indeed diluting their message. Also since these directives are usually not clear as to which ones are most binding morally, the result is a smorgasbord of moral directives from which Catholics are left to pick, cafeteria style, the ones that they like, and ignore (or break) the ones that they don’t like or feel are of lesser importance. This lack of moral clarity is the reason why so many Catholics today can rationalize that social outreach programs to help the poor and needy (such as government food stamps or block money grants, or local charities) outweigh other “less important” programs such as ones intended to end abortions or protect marriage. The same applies to supporting the current HHS Mandate under the (false) pretense that it betters women’s health even though the mandate infringes on religious freedom and forces traditional Catholics and Catholic institutions to act contrary to their religious beliefs. It is time the USCCB and especially the Bishops individually at the grass roots level, to set the record straight, and to speak out with boldness and clarity. Catholics desperately need to SEE and HEAR their leaders, not READ about them through long and complex articles and position papers. The Bishops MUST get more close and personal with their flocks. For too long Catholic pulpits have been silent. Perhaps it is now time for the Bishops to awaken them again!

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Aug. 08, 2012 11:26 AM ET USA

    The questions are; Do the Bishops want to be more relevant to their flock or not? and, Do they want us to actualize more of our faith or not? If they answer affirmitive to both, then less is more.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 08, 2012 8:33 AM ET USA

    The USCCB should not and cannot take a political stand and favor one party over another. The issues are the key and social justice is a key concept of our faith. No one party has a monopoly on those issues and writers such as yourselves have to be very careful when you speak for the Church.

  • Posted by: aclune9083 - Aug. 07, 2012 10:13 PM ET USA

    USCCB confuses the faithful. Case in point: Cardinal Dolan invites obama to attend the Catholic Charities Al Smith dinner. So, as a butt-in-the-pew Catholic, how do I read this mixed message?

  • Posted by: - Aug. 07, 2012 5:04 PM ET USA

    Good column. The relentless verbal snow from the bishops' conference is sometimes inconsistent, almost always ignores the subsidiarity principle, and is also rather like the boy who repeatedly cried "Wolf!" when there was no wolf. After a while, no one is listening. Perhaps it would help if the USCCB staff were sharply reduced in size and the remaining bureaucrats could feel less need to sound off to justify their employment.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Aug. 07, 2012 3:26 PM ET USA

    This is so simple and obvious that it shouldn't have to have been written. Even our bishops should realize it without being told. Since they didn't, there is no likelihood whatever that they will act on it now.