Watching this general tell Air Force cadets what is acceptable behavior and what is not, it is hard to fathom why the leadership of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops cannot seem to summon the courage to speak with the same moral clarity. It is hard to fathom why the Catholic bishops do not offer the same unvarnished denunciation of the racism that the people in power in D.C. from the President to GOP leaders in the House and Senate, have made acceptable. Their embrace of Roy Moore in Alabama as possibly their next Senate colleague to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions reflects a now public, unembarrassed everyday tolerance in the Republican Party for those who espouse racism, misogyny, as well as anti-immigrant and anti-gay policies.
Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria is well aware he has a platform. And he used it. The bishops have a platform–no, hundreds of platforms–in every Catholic church every Sunday–and they have yet to use it with the same power and passion.
The bishops, can, if they so choose, instruct priests in every diocese to tell parishioners that they cannot fill the pews on Sunday yet embrace or condone behavior that is antithetical to the Gospel the rest of the week; that they cannot be Catholic and racist at the same time. They cannot be Catholic and clamor to take away healthcare from those who need it most. They cannot be Catholic and support giving the rich more tax breaks while doing little to nothing to improve the lives of the poor, which is the essence of the GOP Tax “Reform” Plan.
The bishops have found it possible to forge alliances with questionable groups and send out broad directives to fight marriage equality or instruct that letters be read from the pulpit denouncing legislation to allow death with dignity. A few have threatened to withhold Communion from those who advance the civil rights of LGBTQ citizens. Most of them have stood by while long serving LGBTQ Catholic teachers and administrators and church workers have been fired for coming out publicly. As a group, they have spoken out with unmistakable force and urgency about the need to police women’s reproductive rights. They have carefully chosen when to speak out and when to be silent, or to confine their comments to a whisper.
Clearly they just cannot seem to find their prophetic voice to decry the poisoning of the body politic and the debasing of standards of public discourse even as these stains soak into the fabric of the nation daily.
The Catholic bishops speak constantly of evangelizing. Offering the same kind of moral clarity that Lt. Gen. Silveria did in addressing the Air Force cadets would be one way to evangelize. Or at the very least to slow the erosion in confidence amongst Catholics who wonder how long they can stay part of a creaky institution that seems so out of touch.
How long do people in the pews have to wait for the bishops to publicly and unmistakably underscore the church’s commitment to Gospel values? To say, “Get behind me, Satan.” To evangelize by shining a light for all to see?
If Episcopal bishops can do it in the New York Times; if Repairers of the Breach President and Senior Lecturer, the Rev. William Barber can do it in North Carolina, and in cities across the nation and in communities online; if the Rector of St. Eizabeth’s Episcopal Church here in Honolulu, the Rev. David Gierlach can do it every Sunday; if Sr. Carol Keehan, President and CEO of the Catholic Health Association can do it to beat back an immoral healthcare bill; and if a three star general can speak without dissembling for the values Americans are supposed to hold dear, surely the Catholic bishops can do more than issue press statements?
They could emerge from their mansions and take to the microphones and the Sunday talk shows. They have done so in the past to talk about “freedom” and the need for the church to manage women’s decisions about their bodies. Why not now?
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops could offer a measure of leadership more akin to what Pope Francis preaches that speaks for what Catholics say we believe. But it remains to be seen if they will. Each time they pass up an opportunity to use their megaphones to draw clear moral red lines, they send a message that the leadership of the Catholic church tolerates and accepts what should be entirely unacceptable. Surely not the best way to fill the pews.