My friend Jack Smith takes a valiant turn at defending his bishop, Robert Finn of Kansas City-St Joseph, from the question posed by (among others) America:

What moral responsibility do activists and church leaders bear to prevent moral and political criticism on both sides of the abortion divide from escalating into hate speech?

Jack concedes his own blog headline, “We Are At War,” didn’t quite match the bishop’s keynote title, “Warriors for the Victory of Life.” I mention on Jack’s Catholic Key blog that I find the terminology of warfare problematic. As a pacifist, I certainly object to it on principle. But additionally, it adopts the political ploy of playing to the “base.” It’s not much different from warm-feely messages delivered to the self-satisfied. And to be sure, there are times when people are dispirited and crestfallen and need a pep rally to bolster their own energies for the task ahead. A more effective message to the pro-life “base” would be, in my opinion, a serious self-examination from top to bottom. Do individual pro-lifers present the best example, as the Church insists believers always should? When we have erred, are we not challenged to examine consciences, confess wrong, and amend behavior? And when we are confronted with political failure, as the pro-life movement itself judges the elections of 2006 and 2008, isn’t it time to reexamine strategies and tactics? The GOP mainstream seems to be repeating the same old messages, only louder and longer, and their political foes seem pleased to give them ample rope to hang themselves. The president is clearly an able politician (even if he is inexperienced) and maintains a posture above the fray. Too bad pro-life leaders, especially bishops, haven’t managed the same.

Jack goes a little overboard with this:

This week’s Current Comment editorial in America disgraces the paper and the Society. It is vicious calumny in service to wicked ends.

No, I think the question raised in the editorial is apt: do bishops have responsibilities, given the current climate of fracture in the Church, and the reality of political disenfranchisement by conservatives who have been in ascendancy for the past twenty-eight years? I would be very interested to read Bishop Finn’s response to the question. Even if one is trying to rally disheartened followers, and knowing that dozens of blogs and web sites will link and selectively quote your talk, does he have additional responsibility not to incite anger, disunity, and aggression?

I stated on the “We Are At War” post that the whole of the bishop’s talk  must be read. It does have its own context. Yet my friend Jack doesn’t seem willing to grant a similar context to admittedly strong words from “America, NCR, and Commonweal,” not to mention other Catholics who are honestly questioning the whole situation in the Church and society at large. He runs off the rails a bit by lassoing criticism of a bishop into an enemy-of-my-enemy meme via President Obama. The conclusion of his post:

So why would the editors at America, NCR, and Commonweal, who all got on this anti-bishop bandwagon, attempt to associate Bishop Finn and by extension other outspoken bishops and the pro-life movement as a whole with murder and truly incendiary speech and threats? Why would they seek to make those who have consistently at personal cost defended human life, the enemies of life?

Is it because the ultimate strategy for them to “Sing a New Church Into Being,” is to alienate the Faithful from their Shepherds? Is it because the defenders of life have criticized their master? They will muster any excuse for him, praise him immodestly for actions he has not taken, and destroy the reputations of any who dissent from him.

That is not the way a Christian works for the Risen Lord. But their master is not Risen. He resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And serving a man this way is idolatry.

The problem and challenge with the blogging medium is the instantaneous nature mixed with the lack of editors (colleagues) and the inevitable errors we bring to our writing means our web sites will usually run the gamut of quite good to truly bad. I think this is one of my friend’s worst posts on an otherwise laudable blogging effort. And I can appreciate his loyalty to Bishop Finn, not only as his boss, but as his diocesan pastor.

Bishops are criticized all the time. If indeed we’re talking bandwagons, we’re not talking about one or a few. This wagon trail would extend to Rome and back–and it probably always has.

I think the critical Catholic media are asking apt questions of the bishops. Many of us see inconsistencies, and those of us not close to the political arm of the pro-life movement may have the perspective lacking from within. It is the duty of a pastor to serve unity, and if unity is served by sitting people of different opinions together and soliciting their input and reconciliation, so be it. The task of promoting life in the political sphere is that of the lay person, not the bishop. When bishops get mixed up about their job description, they should be called to an accounting of it.

In trying to cast this criticism as an arm of the pro-president effort is to misread what the Republicans and moral conservatives have been doing for three decades and trying to read it into one’s political adversaries. So sure, there are Democrats who are active Catholic editors and writers and leaders. But not quite so many as there are Republicans identified with the pro-life/anti-abortion effort.

My open suggestion to Jack would be to have Bishop Finn address these concerns: How does a bishop concern himself with unity at a time when Catholics find themselves fracturing over politics? If one can recognize that the cultural setting is particularly partisan, and that even the threat of violence from within hangs over society, is the imagery of “war” and “warriors” appropriate? Do bishops today realize their followers will pull whatever they like from net-published talks and documents and use them for their own ends? Does any of this affect what a bishop says and how he might say it?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Responsibility

  1. Bill Kurtz says:

    I am of two minds on this.
    On the one hand, allegations that Bill O’Reilly or Bishop Finn are to blame for Tiller’s death are ridiculous.
    I am no admirer of either, but it’s time to recall something Frank Rich wrote after the Oklahoma City bombing. Blaming that bombing on Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich was just as unfair, he wrote, as it would have been to blame the 1970 University of Wisconsin bombing on Jane Fonda or George McGovern.
    On the other hand, intemperate statements by bishops (such as Bishop Finn going on secular talk shows to say Obama voters were in danger of going to hell) can have set a tone. Consider
    one such incident in 2004 in Raymond Burke’s former diocese.
    An eighth-grader at a Catholic school in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., was told by a school secretary on election day, “So you’re a baby-killer, eh?” A math teacher said that “as Catholics, you’re supposed to vote for Michels,” the candidate challenging Sen. Russ Feingold.
    (The student’s father was a Democratic activist, and his aunt was a Democratic state legislator.)
    This kind of uncharitable behavior, not possible inspiration for the occasional nutcase, is the real danger of bishops who see themselves as culture warriors.

  2. Gavin says:

    That is not the way a Christian works for the Risen Lord. But their master is not Risen. He resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And serving a man this way is idolatry.

    Could the same have been said of the other spectrum of Catholics 2 years ago? Whatever side it takes, enforcing subservience to a political party or ideology as requisite for the Christian faith is a dangerous road. Liberals are doing it now, but the conservatives had their run for 8 years as well. Or shall we ask Mark Shea what happens when one speaks ill of Bush?

  3. Another Todd says:

    “A little overboard”?

    Maybe if the spectrum includes only Smith’s work on the Catholic Key blog.

  4. GodsGadfly says:

    But it is a Culture war. If you don’t think so, read _Evangelium Vitae_.

    And how can one be a member of the Church Militant and be a pacifist?

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