More than a few Catholic bishops spent this election feverishly warning their flock that voting for Barack Obama put their souls at risk and posed a grave threat to religious liberty. Now that the president has been re-elected with a majority of Catholic voters, leaders of our nation's most influential church have some self-reflection to do at their national meeting in Baltimore this week.
Bishops should take pause at recent national headlines ("Catholic bishops make last-minute pitch for Romney") that reflect the risks to their historic role as spiritual leaders who transcend partisan politics. Consider the recent flurry of episcopal electioneering.
In Illinois, a bishop who compared President Obama to Hitler and Stalin ordered all priests in his diocese to read a letter to their congregations the Sunday before the election denouncing the president's contraception coverage requirements under health care reform as an "assault on our religious freedom." Another bishop implied that voting Democratic "places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy." Bishops in Maryland, Maine, Washington and Minnesota lobbied aggressively against civil marriage for same-sex couples. All of the pro-gay-marriage ballot initiatives passed, in part because of a shifting religious landscape that is made up of faithful Americans who are younger, more diverse and tired of culture wars.
Catholic bishops have every right to oppose birth control and same-sex civil marriage, even as research shows a majority of Catholics support both, and a recent study in St. Louis found greater access to contraception significantly lowered abortion rates. The real challenge for bishops today is a growing perception that they are simply cheerleaders for the Republican Party. In fact, Catholic social teaching has long put economic justice, respect for immigrants, universal health care, environmental stewardship and labor rights at the center of its tradition. The Vatican's call for sensible regulations of global financial markets and stark warnings about climate change are to the left of many Democratic leaders. Catholicism is not a single-issue religion, and the church's "consistent ethic of life" framework has long recognized that being "pro-life" must include defending the sanctity of life outside the womb.
But in recent years, a vocal minority of conservative bishops have drifted from this proud tradition. Bishops launched a "religious freedom" campaign this summer, led by Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, largely aimed at the Obama administration's requirement that most employers must offer contraception coverage to women at no cost under the health care reform law. Catholic churches are exempt. Catholic hospitals and universities, which in some states already provided birth control coverage to their employees with little controversy, do not have to pay for coverage under an accommodation that requires the insurance company to pick up with tab. While reasonable people disagree over this policy, and details must still be worked out for some Catholic institutions that self-insure, the apocalyptic rhetoric of some church leaders suggests that President Obama is waging a war on the Catholic Church — a theme adopted in Mitt Romney's campaign ads.
Many faithful Catholics are concerned about the increasingly narrow vision of bishops. A new poll by Public Religion Research Institute found a majority of Catholics think the church's statements and engagement with politics should "focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor." This finding held up even among Catholics who attend church every Sunday — a demographic that largely votes Republican. These are proud Catholics who don't want bishops to be silent about abortion but recognize that the public face of Catholicism in the U.S today does not reflect the fullness of our church's rich justice tradition.
Given the headlines these last few months, one might assume Catholic bishops have little room for common ground with President Obama. This is false. Bishops advocate for humane immigration reform supported by the Obama administration, as many Republican leaders spew anti-immigrant rhetoric. While conservatives rallied around Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal, the U.S. bishops' conference criticized its deep cuts to safety nets that help the working poor. When President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency set a new national standard to reduce toxic air pollution from power plants, the U.S. bishops' conference praised the move. In contrast, the GOP's current infatuation with radical individualism and unfettered markets is wildly out of step with Catholicism's communitarian sensibilities.
President Obama and Catholic bishops will continue to clash over complex issues, but the next four years also present real opportunities for the administration and church leaders to work together for the common good. Can moderate bishops who are now being shoved aside by those who act more like politicians than pastors grab the steering wheel and chart a more prudent path forward?
John Gehring, a Maryland native is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life in Washington. His email is email@example.com.