Was 2009 a Turning Point?

Was 2009 a turning point for the American bishops, marking a tougher and more realistic approach on their part to the myriad problems, internal and external, besetting the Catholic Church in the United States? It’s too soon for final conclusions, but, on the evidence, history may judge the year just past in exactly those terms.

Two episodes in particular suggest as much.

One is the remarkable fact that some 80 American bishops, acting on their own, spoke up last spring to protest Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barack Obama to receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement address. Obama makes no bones about backing legalized abortion, and the bishops considered it scandalous for the country’s highest-visibility Catholic university to pay gratuitous tribute to him in this way.

The other episode has been the upfront campaign by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to keep public funding of elective abortion out of the health care legislation being pushed by Obama and the congressional leadership and to make the plan more generous in scope. The bishops have sought to influence legislation often before, but it’s hard to think of a time when they’ve put up a fight as strenuous and determined as this one.

In neither case, to be sure, did the bishops prevail. Notre Dame shrugged off the protests and honored Obama while most graduates and faculty cheered. And although the House of Representatives amended its version of health care legislation along the lines the bishops wanted, the Senate adopted a watered-down ‘compromise’ that may end up be in the final version of the bill signed by Obama.

Thus the point being made here isn’t that the bishops won. The point is that they put up a serious fight, thereby perhaps reflecting growing awareness that, absent resistance from them, the Church’s interests will only continue to take a beating. It’s impossible to imagine their predecessors of the 1970s and 1980s doing as much, and the new developments underline the fact that the hierarchy today is greatly different in membership and mindset from the hierarchy of those days.

So do the words and actions in the past year of a surprising number of individual bishops.

To mention three by way of example: Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who roundly denounced The New York Times for overt anti-Catholicism; Archbishop-designate Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, who told a group calling itself Young Catholics for Choice that by flouting Church teaching on contraception, abortion and sexuality they were “tragically distancing themselves” from the Church they claimed to belong to; and Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, who took on Rep. Patrick Kennedy-Ted Kennedy’s son, no less-for trashing (and misrepresenting) the bishops on abortion and health care.

It’s also worth noting that nearly 60 bishops and dioceses provided financial assistance (including $50,000 each from Philadelphia and Phoenix) to the Diocese of Portland, Maine, for a successful campaign against same-sex “marriage.”

Perhaps significantly, all this has been happening with Cardinal Francis George of Chicago as president of USCCB. Cardinal George is a tough-minded intellectual who’s not afraid to speak his mind publicly — as he did during the year past by criticizing Notre Dame for honoring Obama and by speaking out against health care abortion.

It remains to be seen what the impact on episcopal activism will be if, as seems probable, the bishops next November choose as successor to head USCCB a prelate who generally takes a softer line, more in the manner of the bishops of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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  • Cooky642

    Thank you, Mr. Shaw, for highlighting a prayer request I should have been on top of long before now. I’ll add that to my list of intentions starting tonight. Perhaps God will favor us with another “tough-minded” leader.

  • Joe DeVet

    1. Don’t we already know who the next president of the USCCB will be? Seems like they have a “second-in-command” arrangement, where the “second” becomes the president automatically. So who is it?

    2. Most of the progress that has been made, in my opinion, is the result of individual bishops taking their own initiative to publicize issues and take overt and visible actions within their own sees. The USCCB as a group has been a follower, not a leader in this. Regardless of who the new president is, it is likely that the “activist” bishops will continue to do their thing, to the benefit of us all.

    3. Regarding health care–the disappointing thing is that the bishops should have attacked the whole initiative, hammer and tongs, realizing that any wording on life issues would be defeated in favor of expanded abortion “rights” and funding, and realizing that socialized medicine means pressure for suicide of the elderly, assisted or not. These things will surely happen in the administration of whatever the final health care bill is. The bishops are foolish to have said they could support a nationalized health care bill by this administration and Congress on any basis.

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  • consecrata

    I do believe the Bishops are taking a stronger stand regarding health care. But I also believe that they need to take a stronger stand regarding Catholic politicians who continue to flaunt their pro abortion support. Nancy Pelosi is becoming more and more defiant. There is a report that she challenged one of the Cardinals who told her that the Health Care bill did not, in fact, clearly prohibit federal funding for abortion. It is reported that Nancy Pelosi challenged him, telling him to bring his lawyers and that she will bring hers to check out the health care bill…as long as these ‘Catholic’ politicians are permitted by our Bishops to receive Holy Communion, they will continue to boldly proclaim their radical positions in defiance of Church teachings. Archbishop Raymond Burke holds the position of leader of the Vatican’s highest court and he is an eminent Canon Lawyer and he insists that Canon Law clearly prohibits Catholic politicians who publicly support abortion from receiving Communion. This is not a matter of an individual Bishop’s personal opinion…it is Canan Law. This is not a matter of punishment, either, but a call to return to the authenitic teaching of the Church, a call to conversion…and something that will help save the lives of millions of unborn babies…