White smoke blowing in the Vatican may indicate a new pope, but the U.S. Catholic bishops don't seem to care which way the wind blows. At their annual meeting this fall, the U.S. bishops issued another in their long line of exemplary statements on social issues, this time a comprehensive and carefully argued paper on crime and criminal justice.
The criminal justice statement—nearly 100 pages of biblically based and morally nuanced discourse, including footnotes—decries the simplistic "slogans of the moment" from both sides of the political spectrum (such as "three strikes and you're out" or "criminals are simply trapped by their background"). The bishops make clear that the search for solutions requires far more than what they call the "policy clichés" of conservatives and liberals.
The same week the bishops released the statement on criminal justice (along with statements on Sudan, immigration, art and worship, abortion, and the Middle East), the chair of the bishops' committee on marriage and family life joined the heads of the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the National Council of Churches in issuing a call for the churches to "strengthen, support, and restore" marriages, which they called "God's first institution." (The NCC general secretary, Bob Edgar, later withdrew his signature, warning that the declaration on marriage might be used by some in "inappropriate ways." He said, "it would be unconscionable if support for married couples...were to be twisted into a weapon that can be used to attack gays and lesbians.")
For the Catholic bishops, there's no inconsistency in being "conservative on issues of sexuality and morality, and what on a political spectrum is considered liberal on social justice issues like poverty and immigration," as The New York Times put it.
The problem isn't with the bishops' positions—it's rather with a narrow understanding of the so-called "political spectrum." Being grounded in scripture and moral principles will lead us, as it has the bishops, to places and positions that make nonsense of the constraints of political labels—regardless which way the wind blows.
Jim Rice is managing editor of Sojourners.