The Common Good
January 2013

Who Speaks for Catholics?

by Jim Rice | January 2013

Before the election, several bishops went so far as to threaten their parishioners with eternal damnation if they voted for Obama.

FATHER JACK MORRIS was one of those Catholic priests who ruined a lot of people for life. I'm one of them.

Father Morris passed away Sept. 30 in Spokane, Wash. He was working with the Catholic sisters and others who ran the highly regarded Copper Valley School in Alaska in the late 1950s when he took the idea of young people volunteering their time with and for Native Alaskans and helped turn it into the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Since then, more than 12,000 people have served in the JVC, whose motto "ruined for life" reflects the fact that voluntary service often makes enduring changes in the way participants view the world. (A few years ago, Father Morris told Sojourners that the motto is "a resurrection statement"—through volunteering, he said, "you're transformed.")

I spent my first two years after college as a Jesuit Volunteer, first at the Oregon Center for Peace and Justice in Portland and then at Georgetown University's Center for Peace Studies. My mentor and boss in Portland was the center's director, Sister Michele Phiffer. She worked for years helping Catholics in Oregon understand the church's social teaching on the common good and the preferential option for people who are poor.

Perhaps needless to say, the local bishops weren't always on her side. In fact, it often appeared—even to my young eyes—that the bishops were more interested in protecting their own privilege and power than in genuinely working for the marginalized. And Sister Michele's gender seemed to be a factor in the lack of support she received from the episcopal powers that were.

The way the U.S. Catholic bishops behaved in the election this fall suggests that very little has changed. For months last year, the bishops—in what the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) referred to as "self-indulgent tantrums"—attacked the Obama administration with exaggerated, if not completely scurrilous charges, accusing the president of a "war on religion" and strongly, if indirectly, endorsing the Republican Party. In the last few weeks before the election, several bishops went so far as to threaten their parishioners with eternal damnation—one bishop exhorted his flock that "to vote for someone in favor of [the Democratic Party's] positions ... could put your own soul in jeopardy."

But Catholics didn't listen. In a pre-election survey, 83 percent of Catholic voters said they felt no obligation to vote the way bishops recommended, and in the voting booth a majority supported Obama over Romney. The future of the U.S. church—Latino Catholics—rejected the bishops' "advice" even more dramatically: More than three-quarters voted for Obama.

One important principle that many—perhaps especially the bishops themselves—seem to have forgotten: The institution is not the church. As the NCR editorial board wrote, "The bishops clearly need to rethink their political alliance with the Republican Party and their emphasis on making abortion and gay marriage illegal as the principal marks of Catholic identity"—positions that have "further compromised the already seriously damaged moral authority of the church's leadership in this country."

People like Sister Michele and Father Jack —"social justice Catholics"—have been the real leaders of the church for a long time, even before Vatican II pushed the church to engage the "modern world" five decades ago.

The election was a wake-up call for those who apparently hadn't noticed the emergence of the new, more diverse face of America, led by people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and every combination thereof. Just as America is changing, so is the church. And unless the bishops get on board, they're likely to find themselves even more disconnected from this new reality, and even less relevant, in the days to come.

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.

Image: Bishop with cross, Marko Rupena / Shutterstock.com

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