The USCCB is meeting in Baltimore this week (12-15 November) for its annual Fall General Assembly. The bishops won’t be singing alleluias in their hotel corridors.

Despite strong attacks on him, by highly politicized bishops, President Obama has been reelected.

Despite urgent appeals to voters, and threats of mortal sin and refusing Communion to those who disagreed with them, the bishops lost on state referendums on same-sex marriage in Maine, Minnesota, Maryland, and Washington State.

To the bishops great dismay, a majority of American Catholics voted for Barack Obama and gay activists won every referendum.

In Missouri and Indiana, though expected to win, those Republican senatorial candidates, who took the strongest positions on abortion, were also defeated.

This week our bishops will hear addresses by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of USCCB, and Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, apostolic nuncio to the United States. They will vote on several action items, including their strategic plan and documents on preaching, the Sacrament of Penance, and challenges to the teaching ministry of a bishop.

So what now? It is not whether a person is a Republican or a Democrat. Certainly a bishop, like any citizen, has the freedom and the right to hold and express a political position. Bishops have the right — the responsibility — to speak out about contemporary moral issues.

These things being said, there are some fundamental Catholic issues that our bishops must open their eyes, minds, and hearts to. Simply condemning those who disagree with them is not only counterproductive; but it is wrong.

I am 100% pro-life: across the board. Nevertheless I think we must talk about abortion, and about the best way to diminish and eliminate abortion. And as an older historical theologian I know as well that despite the attempts of the Vatican and our bishops to silence open discussion of the morality of abortion, questions persist about precisely when human life begins and our Catholic tradition has been far from univocal on this point. The question is not yet settled. Serious reflection and dialogue are the appropriate Catholic response.

I had a friendly discussion with a bishop, not so long ago, who worries about Islamic fundamentalists imposing their values on civil society. That could be a danger, I said, but then suggested that many of our bishops are trying to do exactly the same thing. He was not amused……..

This week our bishops want to reassert their teaching authority. Good teachers must also and always be good learners. Our bishops seem to overlook, however, that strong currents in the Catholic tradition of moral thinking have always emphasized that moral and civil law are not and should not be synonymous. This teaching goes way back to Thomas Aquinas. A religious community can hold moral positions that it regards as strong and even absolute, without seeking to force a multicultural, pluralistic society to adopt its religiously-based moral judgments.

Note for example…..Catholic moral tradition has long held things like adultery or prostitution to be intrinsically evil, but it has not advocated forcing civil society to change or adopt laws to enshrine in civil law the Catholic understanding of these practices. The attempt to make abortion the exception to all rules of prudential judgment–to make it the fundamental moral issue trumping all other moral issues–flies in the face of Catholic tradition itself.

Same-sex marriage? A majority of Americans and American Catholics now support it. It is a civil reality; and I don’t hear many people saying it should become the eighth sacrament.

Artificial birth control? That issue was resolved fifty years ago. Let’s move on.

Women’s ordination? The number of women bishops and priests continues to grow. The whole scale ignorance of our bishops about the history of Catholic women exercising ordained ministry in the Catholic Church is appalling. They would flunk my introduction to Catholic theology class.

Yes indeed……our American Catholic Church continues its pilgrimage along the tracks of Catholic life. Right now, however, our bishops are more the antiquated caboose than the engine.



  1. John, well said and insightful. If there are any bishops who are less extreme and more pastoral than the outspoken ones who are shaping the image of the NCCB (and I really think there are), they need to speak up or they will continue to be tarred with the same brush, and it will be no one’s fault but their own. All of us are looking for good pastoral leaders. The only thing necessary for evil to happen is for good people to do nothing, as seems to be the case here. The Spirit really is a-movin these days, and it is exciting. Everybody has an important role to play. The hard part is figuring out what this role is. The Holy Spirit has good OPSEC (Operational Security).

  2. all our bishops can’t be as narrowly defined as the ones who so freely claim to speak for “Amercican Catholics”. step up and proclaim the gospel of inclusion not the legalism Jesus so profoundly rebuked.

  3. phrogue:Expecting other bishops to “speak up” in deviation from Rome’s official positions is to ignore the ” power of enforced obedience” by Rome on the hierarchy especially under this pope. Any Bishop who would publicly speak
    out against Rome ala Bishop Morris of Australia would be summarily sacked by this pope. Hence the silence of some bishops. The pastoral bishops you remember became openly pastoral under Pope John XXIII because of his “pastoral” example. John Paul II changed that by redefining what political issues could be openly espoused and what political issues were “forbidden”(freedom for Poland, but no freedom for “Liberation Theology” come to mind).

    Nevertheless when it comes to abortion defining a fertilized egg as a “Human Being” is still debatable. What is not debatable is that a fertilized egg is the beginning of human life. I would point out for instance that there are “Natural Abortions” called miscarriages. We don’t consider that the “death of a human being” because the fetus is not fully developed. The Church has never in its history had funeral services on such occasions.The question is when does the fetus become a “human being.”

    In the mean time it is useful to enhance contraception as a means of reducing abortions since it has been reported that many if not most decisions to abort are done for financial reasons. Due to Humanae Vitae the laity, not the bishops, need to take the lead on the matteras they have been since 1968.

    The bishops’ mouths are gagged by Rome just as they were during the continuing abuse crisis. They have no independence. They were chosen because they would express none. All the bishops in this country are “Roman Bishops” after all.

  4. +Dolan has a knack for saying the safest things as if they were new revelations. Confession and abstinence from meat? I think we are missing faith as a loving response to God’s love…not a relationship to an organization. Bishops are products of ecclesiastical bureaucracy and are in love with their career paths. They want to get those numbers up. I’d like them to be less scolding, less proud, more contrite about organizational endorsement of sexual abuse. They have been chastened by the sexual abuse scandal and they don’t even recognize it. They think it’s only religion freedom and elections.

    Receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is the first and ordinary Sacrament of Reconciliation…check the Council of Trent.The Sacrament of Reconciliation scares most Catholics because of the requirement of auricular confession. People don’t have the language or memory. If a bishop is ordained after a few professions, why not invite people to repentance, reform of attitude and redirection of life with a few simple answers.

    Meatless Fridays were instituted to help Italian fishermen. How about no red flesh or fish flesh? Only vegetables, fruits, pasta, etc. That would have some meaning behind it.

  5. Framing an issue in a different way can change perspectives. Instead of talking about “artificial birth control” or “contraception,” how about “responsible parenthood?” Robert Blair Kaiser

  6. Dear John,
    Members of the Catholic hierarchy and lay faithful who promote attempts to criminalize abortion do so out of the conviction that the fetus is a human person from the moment of conception and has rights which the law should protect.

    You correctly point out that right now, the Catholic hierarchy does not advocate changing civil law to outlaw adultery and prostitution. These are not valid parallels to the criminalization of abortion because adultery and prostitution presumably involve two voluntarily consenting adults. A fetus does not consent to an abortion. The attempt to criminalize abortion rests on the assumption that a person’s rights have been violated. In traditional Catholic theology, persons involved in adultery and prostitution commit an intrinsically evil act but their rights are not violated, because they commit this act voluntarily–if the act occurs involuntarily, the act would be rape–a criminal act.

    If your main point is to challenge the personhood of the fetus, please make that clear. Personally, I remain committed, as do the US Bishops and the Holy Father, to protecting the rights of the unborn, but I welcome discussion of this topic, precisely to prove the strength of the Church’s teaching. I encourage you to acknowledge the transparent logical fallacy in the parallel you offer above. If one is committed to the position that the fetus is a human person, as are the bishops, there’s no parallel. On the opposite side of the coin, I cannot remember the last time I heard someone who denies (or seriously questions) the personhood of the fetus lobby for the criminalization of abortion. Certainly none of the bishops openly question this–hence the sound foundation for their exhortations to legally protect the rights of unborn persons. Before you rail against bishops failing your introductory theology class, please prove to your readers you can pass an introduction to logic.

  7. So the basic question is: Is a fetus a human being? You would insist — on the basis of what? — that it is.

    But John’s point is that the Vatican is silencing any meaningful discussion by Catholics on the morality of abortion. It has just decreed that it is immoral and shuts down every other voice.

    That’s a major problem I have with the Vatican: the refusal to discuss. Did you ever read Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (on-line at and other places), John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the ordination of women? It can be accurately summed up as “Women cannot be ordained because I say so, now everyone sit down and shut up!” That may work with small children (but don’t count on it), but not with adults. I get the idea that the Vatican does not believe that the laity are adults, able to think and some of us well schooled in theology and history.

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