Every year, the Catholic bishops of the United States meet in the fall, before the start of the new liturgical year. The official agenda is often less interesting than the unofficial agenda. Because the bishops are all human, I suspect the switch in the nationwide Catholic vote from mostly Republican to mostly Democratic was this year’s 800-pound gorilla in the room. The discussions are heated because, like most of Catholic America, the divisions in politics make for some red bishops and some blue bishops.
I don’t believe that speaking about the humanity of the bishops lessens their dignity. Like any annual conference of executives (that is what each bishop is for his diocese), there is button-holing, idle talk about the golf game, campaigning for open positions in bigger and more important places, promotion of worthy protégées, etc. The red and blue divisions always surface because they roughly correspond to theological tendencies and pastoral priorities. For example, the blue bishops tend to advocate social and welfare services such as delivered by Catholic Charities, while the red bishops are focused on abortion and stem-cell research.
As a body of bishops, all of them together tend to balance out the issues so that BOTH perspectives are reflected in collaborative statements. But these collaborative statements come only after a long process of debate and majority vote. In the interim, decisions are left to committees of bishops who act in the name of the Church. In a calm atmosphere, the organization tends to allow each bishop to join committees that best reflect a particular interest. By a process of self-selection, the bishops who speak out on social issues or against war tend to be the blue bishops. On the other side, those who repeat Church teaching on abortion and stem-cell research are the red bishops who consider these issues paramount. This makes for public statements by bishops’ committees which sometimes are further left or right that what the entire group is willing to endorse. It also makes for confusion.
Compromise for religious believers is always difficult, even if you happen to be a bishop. Thus, at their annual meeting this week, the fissures were obvious. While blue bishops appealed to the Magisterium reflected in the collaborative document of Faithful Citizenship, the red bishops complained that they did not agree to any interpretation of that document which would deny that abortion is the most important basis for casting any Catholic vote. And so it goes.
In seeking common ground, this year the bishops have decided to target the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA). In a collaborative statement issued in the name of the bishops’ conference, passage of this legislation is equated with an “attack on the Church.” It is particularly pleasing to the red bishops because early in his campaign, Barack Obama promised to vote for this bill.
Without getting into details regarding this legislation, it is worth noting that support for FOCA is NOT in the Democratic Party Platform and that the Obama website dropped this measure from the list of issues regarding the right to abortion. From my perspective, this is evidence of the input of Pro-Life lawyer, Douglas Kmiec – who wrote part of the platform and is adviser to President-elect Obama. I think the blue bishops know that FOCA is no longer likely to be promoted by the incoming administration. Denunciation of FOCA helps satisfy their red colleagues’ ire, but does not blow up the agenda of the Democrats. Beating a dead horse, so to speak, safely achieves internal unity. While those outside the Church might see one-sidedness with the attack on FOCA, it really is not what it appears. After all, the color for a bishop’s cassock is purple.