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“Related Very Comfortably”: Catholic Bishops and the Culture Wars

August 15, 2013

Bishop Thomas TobinProvidence (RI) Bishop Thomas Tobin is trumpeting his political conversion to the Republican Party. This is awful news for those who love and care about the Catholic Church.

It’s not his choice or the political conversion that’s awful. Who knew that some U.S. bishops were still Democrat—after the long ideological cleansing that has taken place in the American church since the 1980s? And the reasons Tobin cites could’ve have just as easily been cited in the 1980s (what took him so long?).

What’s awful is the ongoing, never-ending, highly public political statements by members of the American hierarchy. Some of my friends (who will remain nameless in this post) like to downplay the tracking of Culture Wars actions and thinking by priests and bishops. Those friends argue that the Church’s teachings don’t “fit” well with American-style Culture Wars debates. They are right, in some sense. The issues shouldn’t track that closely. My friends’ hope may be true of the larger universal Church, but it’s not true among some prominent, vocal members of the American hierarchy (e.g. Tobin, Dolan, George, Jenky, Finn, Chaput). Here are some excerpts from the Tobin story (bolds mine):
The leader of Rhode Island’s roughly 621,000 Catholics said he had been a registered Democrat since 1969. …

Tobin switched his affiliation to the Republican Party effective Jan. 5, according to voter records reviewed by …

About 60 people who attended Tobin’s nearly two-hour discussion on faith and politics gave him a standing ovation before and after he spoke. He made the disclosure about his affiliation by holding up two pieces of paper – his letter from the East Providence Board of Canvassers confirming his Republican affiliation, and his baptismal certificate.

“My thesis tonight is that the two of these are related, and can be related very comfortably.”
I confess that this excerpt neglects a few caveats given by Tobin. He says this choice “doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.” He says his baptismal record matters the most. He says he’s criticized both Republican and Democrats in recent years. And he says he’ll “punt” on the question of whether Jesus today would be a “Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative.”

All those caveats mean nothing when the bishop argues that his party registration and baptismal certificate ARE (not maybe) related VERY COMFORTABLY (no sense of ambiguity).

The active politicization by American Catholic bishops is nothing new. We need look no further than the Cold War for examples of priests, bishops, and lay people arguing that support for America in general, and conservatism in particular, in the struggle against communism was support for God and the Church. As I’ve noted elsewhere, George Nash discusses this in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Since 1945 (1976, 1996). Therein Nash makes the case that early Cold War conservative intellectuals, Catholic and otherwise, were emboldened by Pope Pius XII’s strong stand against atheistic Communism; he was, in Nash’s words, “uncompromisingly anti-Communist” (p. 114). American Catholics like William F. Buckley, Jr. were inspired by the Church’s teaching to turn anti-Communism into a crusade that both helped and hurt the right. That crusade was important to John Paul II, a pope who probably installed nearly every bishop I mentioned above (or, if not JPII, then his ideological successor, Benedict XVI). Tobin himself was installed by John Paul II “three days before the late pontiff’s death in April 2005.”

Why should we care? Why does this matter? An audience member for Tobin’s conversion talk hints at the answer:

Tobin shied away when state Rep. Doreen Costa, R-North Kingstown, and others in the audience suggested he should look for ways to punish Catholic politicians who take votes that contradict church doctrine, saying his options were limited. “It’s a complex world and a complex church,” Tobin said, adding that on other issues some of those same lawmakers “are very good and very supportive.”

It’s about the potential for repression and political manipulation. I could take some solace in Tobin’s words if he was more consistent (i.e. he makes no mention of the weaknesses of Republicans on social justice issues). Tobin is no mere Augustinian sojourner in the City of World, but an activist participant in what Augustine would have seen as inherently compromised worldly politics. Tobin is not talking about the common good and coming together to share where we can. He’s advocating partisan politics in a world where division is the norm. His message isn’t about transcendence. It’s about divisiveness. – TL

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  1. Julia Smucker permalink

    As one of those who argue (’til I’m blue in the face) that the Church’s teachings don’t fit with American-style culture wars (well, they don’t!), I certainly agree that Bp Tobin’s “conversion talk” is problematic in that it is divisive, but I also fear that characterizing the bishops on the whole in the same way only contributes to the same problem. The left and the right, for their own reasons, both have a vested interest in portraying the Catholic hierarchy as thoroughly aligned with the political right, which is both divisive and inaccurate; as Catholics we just should not be playing those games. To me it is obvious from looking at the breadth of recent statements available on the USCCB’s website that the USCCB as a body does not conform to either party’s interests. I would argue as well that it’s not really fair to list Dolan in particular among the small but notorious handful of bishops who have indeed sold out to GOP partisanship.


    • Julia: I certainly did NOT intend on characterizing the bishops, on the whole, as clones of Tobin. In fact, I constructed a list in the post of bishops I felt correlated well with him. But yes, I realize the title of this post is somewhat misleading. As for Dolan, well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. He’s made several questionable statements about gay marriage and “the gay lifestyle” (whatever that is—can’t really be homogenized) that are regressive—not in accordance with human dignity. Anyway, I guess my title is a bit provocative, but I really meant for it to apply to Tobin and his crowd of publicly political bishops. – TL


      • Julia Smucker permalink

        I was thinking after I commented that your phrasing at a certain point may have put me on the defensive. You sounded as though you were setting yourself in opposition to those of us who are trying to break the “culture wars” paradigm, which is a major nerve for me nowadays. Actually, I’m rather astonished that the defensiveness I felt on that point even overrode my visceral Mennonite horror at the claim that any statement of political affiliation “can be related very comfortably” to one’s baptismal certificate. Anyway, after a second reading I’m wondering if what I initially took for disingenuousness was more just a misleading way of framing the issue. I certainly hope I was wrong in assuming you were aiming to stereotype the bishops, in which case I apologize.

        That said, I’m not quite ready to let go of Dolan; I guess he’s been growing on me lately. I just don’t think it’s fair to isolate whatever he’s said about homosexuality as conclusive proof of his “regressiveness”. I’m sure he simply means to explicate official Church teaching on that subject, and whether or not he does that well is debatable – but he is also explicating Church teaching when he backs Archbishop Gomez on the need for humane immigration reform, or when he talks about how Pope Francis is calling him to an examination of conscience regarding the comforts he lives with as a bishop. And speaking of Pope Francis, let’s not forget that the US cardinals were well reputed to be among the leading reformists in the conclave that elected him.


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