More than a few Catholic bishops spent this election feverishly warning their flock that voting for
Bishops should take pause at recent national headlines ("Catholic bishops make last-minute pitch for
In Illinois, a bishop who compared President Obama to Hitler and Stalin ordered all priests in his diocese to read a letter to their congregations the Sunday before the election denouncing the president's
Catholic bishops have every right to oppose birth control and same-sex civil marriage, even as research shows a majority of Catholics support both, and a recent study in St. Louis found greater access to contraception significantly lowered
But in recent years, a vocal minority of conservative bishops have drifted from this proud tradition. Bishops launched a "religious freedom" campaign this summer, led by Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, largely aimed at the Obama administration's requirement that most employers must offer contraception coverage to women at no cost under the health care reform law. Catholic churches are exempt. Catholic hospitals and universities, which in some states already provided birth control coverage to their employees with little controversy, do not have to pay for coverage under an accommodation that requires the insurance company to pick up with tab. While reasonable people disagree over this policy, and details must still be worked out for some Catholic institutions that self-insure, the apocalyptic rhetoric of some church leaders suggests that President Obama is waging a war on the Catholic Church — a theme adopted in Mitt Romney's campaign ads.
Many faithful Catholics are concerned about the increasingly narrow vision of bishops. A new poll by Public Religion Research Institute found a majority of Catholics think the church's statements and engagement with politics should "focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor." This finding held up even among Catholics who attend church every Sunday — a demographic that largely votes Republican. These are proud Catholics who don't want bishops to be silent about abortion but recognize that the public face of Catholicism in the U.S today does not reflect the fullness of our church's rich justice tradition.
Given the headlines these last few months, one might assume Catholic bishops have little room for common ground with President Obama. This is false. Bishops advocate for humane immigration reform supported by the Obama administration, as many Republican leaders spew anti-immigrant rhetoric. While conservatives rallied around Rep.
President Obama and Catholic bishops will continue to clash over complex issues, but the next four years also present real opportunities for the administration and church leaders to work together for the common good. Can moderate bishops who are now being shoved aside by those who act more like politicians than pastors grab the steering wheel and chart a more prudent path forward?