The surprise election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York as the president of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has been much in the news. Two main related points dominate the coverage. This year, the bishops deviated from a decades old tradition of elevating the sitting vice president choosing Dolan instead. Some argue that the vice president was too moderate -- and that Dolan is likely to use post during his three year term as a bully pulpit to further the culture wars. That interpretation seems likely. As if to underscore the intentions of the majority of bishops, they also elected as the new veep, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who has led their campaign against marriage equality.
"I mean, we're in the middle of the biggest economic downturn since the Depression, and these bishops had nothing to say about that," Jesuit scholar Thomas Reese told The Los Angeles Times. "They did have a lot to say about the defense of marriage, and about their concerns about the healthcare bill funding abortion. ... I think the elections indicate that the bishops want to continue to be leaders in the culture wars."
In some respects, this is really no surprise, even though it has become fashionable not to mention the Religious Right's ongoing war of aggression against democratic pluralism. There have been plenty of signs.
Amidst the euphoria of the inauguration of president Obama, the dour prelates distinguished themselves at their 2009 annual meeting, according to the Associated Press:
BALTIMORE - The nation's Roman Catholic bishops vowed Tuesday to forcefully confront the Obama administration over its support for abortion rights, saying the church and religious freedom could be under attack in the new presidential administration.
In an impassioned discussion on Catholics in public life, several bishops said they would accept no compromise on abortion policy. Many condemned Catholics who had argued it was morally acceptable to back President-elect Obama because he pledged to reduce abortion rates.
And several prelates promised to call out Catholic policy makers on their failures to follow church teaching. Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, Pa., singled out Vice President-elect Biden, a Catholic, Scranton native who supports abortion rights.
Unsurprisingly, the bishops fought the administration's health care plan because it was deemed insufficiently antiabortion, even though it was the most draconian antiabortion legislation since Roe vs. Wade (making permanent the Hyde Amendment, which banned any federal funds from being used for abortion.) During the lengthy debate, a spokeswoman for the bishops took the administration and the Democratic Party's view on reducing the need for abortion to task. I wrote at the time:
Deirdre McQuade, assistant director of policy and communications at the "pro-life secretariat," of the Bishops’ Conference told U.S. News and World Report: "The phrase ‘reducing the need for abortion’ is not a common-ground phrase. We would say that there is no need for abortion, that abortions are signs that we have not met the needs of women. There is no authentic need for abortion."
There are, of course, many Catholics who oppose the hierarchy's approach to among other things, such matters as reproductive rights, marriage equality and separation of church and state. Because that is so, it seems likely (at least to me) that such groups as Catholics for Choice and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice will gain increasing prominence, will play ever more important roles as the hierarchy increases its militancy, and appeals to common ground become ancient history. Also important will be the work of the progressive Catholic bloggers at Open Tabernacle and Frank Cocozzelli at Talk to Action.