The fall meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Baltimore, Maryland, November 16-17, 2015 was a prime example of why prayer, preaching and pastoral programming need to be the bishops’ principal focus—and why they should leave public health policy proclamations to the professionals. At their semi-annual meeting, the bishops discussed a variety of issues, including marriage equality, reproductive health and religious liberty. At nearly every juncture, they showed how out of touch they are with the everyday lives of Catholics around the globe and how woefully equipped they are to adjudicate public policy. A particularly telling moment: during a discussion on “Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography,“ a bishop questioned whether the term STI “was a typo.” The widely-used term for sexually transmitted infections was unfamiliar to him. Several other bishops added that they too were unaware of the term. If that was not enough to make us all shiver in disbelief, the bishops’ approval of a nominally revised Catholic voters’ guide should certainly give everyone major pause.
Originally released in 2008, the guide “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” was created ostensibly to help Catholics form their consciences around various political issues. The document is misguided at best. It’s more aptly described as a cudgel to hammer candidates and politicians who take a stance for prochoice or LGBTQ rights. Catholics are perfectly capable of forming their own conscience—they do it all the time. The vast majority of Catholics don’t want the bishops’ counsel on political issues, and are not likely to start now.
The bishops seem oblivious to the fact that many Catholics are not actually looking for their input on political matters. Despite regular lectures from the pulpit, Catholics continue to disregard the hierarchy and follow their own conscience when they decide how and for whom to vote. A 2014 poll found that nine in ten Catholic voters (89 percent) reject the idea that they have an obligation to vote for candidates recommended by the bishops. Catholics trust their political representatives to represent their constituents not the bishops—eight in ten US Catholic voters reject the idea that Catholic politicians have an obligation to vote on issues as the bishops recommend.
As Sheila Briggs, theologian and Associate Professor of Religion and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, explains in the latest issue of Conscience magazine, the church’s flawed theological insistence on being “the sole reliable interpreter of the moral order…the supreme moral authority…cuts it off from the moral history of humanity.”
Rather than take a cue from Pope Francis’ more pastoral tone embodied in the Year of Mercy, the USCCB has again squandered their chance to set a new course. Instead, they’ve renewed their fixation on issues below the waist and doubled down on their opposition by using a fresh coat of paint. No one is fooled, however. Their intent to manipulate Catholics’ consciences on moral issues and to bully candidates’ political views is not new and it isn’t subtle. The USCCB still champions the same set of strategic priorities despite urgings for realignment. The latest version of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” still reflects a woefully inadequate answer to the many challenges facing our political leaders, like poverty, economic injustice, racism, environmental degradation and a broken immigration system. These issues are barely addressed in the document and show how little the bishops value these issues.
The bishops wasted no time to set their agenda in motion. Almost immediately following their meeting, the bishops joined with other staunchly conservative Catholic organizations to send a letter to Congress asking them to adopt the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (ANDA) as part of must-pass Omnibus Appropriations bill being debated in December. Cloaked in the false pretense of protecting religious liberty and conscience, the provisions of ANDA would hinder Americans’ ability to follow their own moral codes, consciences and beliefs. It would curtail the freedom of both the healthcare professionals who want to provide the best quality care and the patients who seek their services. Real religious freedom honors individual conscience. ANDA would broadly expand religious refusals so that institutions—beyond individual healthcare providers—could refuse to perform, participate in, pay for or refer for abortion services. It would disregard the beliefs and consciences of patients, as well as the medical professionals who want to provide necessary care.
ANDA is an example of the bishops’ strategic priorities in action and it shows their troubling propensity to minimize the right of all individuals to exercise their conscience. It expands the power of religious institutions so that they can impose their will on others.
Fortunately, Catholics have an equally strong propensity for independence when it comes to listening to their spiritual leaders in matters of politics. Catholics overwhelmingly support legal abortion, contraception and comprehensive sexuality education, marriage equality and religious pluralism. Catholics understand the importance of the separation of church and state and believe that religious freedom is the freedom of – and freedom from – any one religious view being imposed on everyone. The bishops can try to steer the faithful towards their narrow views, but American Catholics will do as we have done in every election. We will consult our own conscience and vote accordingly.