For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them.
- T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
The Catholic bishops of the United States have problems on their hands. Their moral credibility as leaders has been in tatters for some time now due to the ongoing revelations of the extent and cowardice of their actions in responding to the sexual abuse of minors. Catholic levels of engagement with the church, particularly among the young, continues to plummet. The coronavirus pandemic has left many people feeling spiritually adrift, particularly in parts of the country where religiosity and COVID precautions such as masking and vaccines have been in an inverse relationship. All of these are urgent matters affecting many people, a true challenge of leadership.
How have the bishops chosen to respond, in their June meeting and the runup to their November meeting? By voting to proceed with a document on the Eucharist including a section on “Eucharistic Coherence”— e.g. worthiness of the faithful to receive the Eucharist if it might produce a public scandal—with a cadre of bishops throwing aside all pretense of avoiding political partisanship to single out the inauguration of President Biden as the cause of this initiative (which it clearly was). This document will not be approved by the Vatican. High-level Cardinals, and even the Pope himself, have made this abundantly clear.
What brought the bishops to this point? Ultimately, through a combination of tunnel vision and donor pressure, they have chosen to fight the culture wars rather than pastor their flocks. They have also not-so-tacitly signaled that Catholics are allowed to be Republicans and carry out policies of Republican administrations, but are not allowed to be Democrats or support positions associated with Democrats (namely, continuing legal availability of abortion). Beyond the issue of abortion, many bishops promote, for example, organizations that still attempt conversion therapy despite its devastating psychological effects while shunning (and in many cases condemning) even moderate Catholic outreach to the LBGTQ community such as that of Fr. James Martin, SJ. Catholicism, on this view, is concomitant with cultural and political conservatism.
When I set out to choose an epigraph for this column, I initially thought of the famous line from the same speech referenced above in Murder in the Cathedral, in which its protagonist, Archbishop Thomas Becket, says that “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” I demurred in part because I do not in fact think the bishops are doing the right thing, but reading through the broader speech to ensure proper context, I found it even more relevant than I expected, as Becket is grappling with the temptation to find glory in martyrdom, which should be taken up only reluctantly. I think a similar dynamic is afoot in our day and age; many of the bishops have concluded that strong public opposition, including from within the church, equates to a kind of soft martyrdom. This language of martyrdom and persecution carries within it that danger of self-glorification and making their cause—the pro-life cause, proximately, but ultimately the cause of the faith itself—serve them and their political, culture war ends.
While this debate goes on, American democracy remains on the brink of catastrophe, with many “red” states curtailing voting rights and preparing for the possibility of sending electors that go against the will of the people in the 2024 election. This has been met with resounding silence from the Catholic hierarchy, as was much of the corruption and abuse (particularly the lies leading to January 6) of the Trump administration. Needless to say, there has also been little episcopal condemnation of the failures of Catholic politicians like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott to protect their citizens from needless COVID-19 deaths through vaccination, and of Catholic Supreme Court justices to stay executions that are egregious even by the standards of that barbaric form of punishment. What is this—threatening de facto excommunication to some politicians who promote policies that are out of line with Catholic teaching but completely ignoring others—but incoherence?
Pope Francis has all but begged the U.S. bishops to change their tack on multiple occasions, to little avail, with some bishops belittling this past Sunday’s opening homily of the Synod. In November, they have a choice: to stay the course and produce a document that will be null and void but alienate and anger many Catholics whose relationship to the church has been strained by the above; or to embrace the approach of Pope Francis—full witness to the teaching of the church in dialogue with the pastoral needs of the world in front of them, including the crying needs of their own country and its people. That would be coherence— not with culture war politics but with the Gospel.
Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.