This absence of moral leadership reflects a decadeslong decline of the political relevance of the USCCB. While it quietly release statements about protecting the poor and vulnerable, it has focused its political firepower almost exclusively on one issue — abortion.
It has become an absurdist one-note play. Not content to place abortion atop all other moral issues, the USCCB has acted as if it is the only one — even during a period of dehumanizing and violent attacks on immigrants and marginalized communities, with hundreds of thousands dying from a pandemic. While some individual bishops have shown the moral courage to speak up for immigrants and the poor, or to criticize hate and violence, the Bishops Conference has shown no moral urgency. It lacked the courage to even mention Donald Trump by name in its few statements of concern. Abortion remains relevant to many Catholic voters on both sides of the issue, but the USCCB’s monotonous statements on the matter tend to be about as noteworthy as a Catholic feeling guilt.
This moral myopia reached its peak with its short-lived efforts to politicize the Eucharist this summer. The trial balloon about denying communion to Biden over his support for abortion rights left the bishops looking like poll-tested politicians, and generated a diplomatic rebuke from the Vatican spokesperson, who made clear that Pope Francis considers the Eucharist to be “the bread of sinners not a reward for saints.” Only 29 percent of American Catholics supported the bishops’ idea, according to a March survey by the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, 82 percent have a favorable view of Pope Francis.
The bishops’ communion misfire reflects the second reason their political influence has eroded so much: their lack of moral authority or even legitimacy among so many American Catholics. Only 31 percent of American Catholics rank the clergy as high on “honesty and ethical standards.” This reflects the failure of the church even today to prioritize accountability and ask forgiveness for the abuse, rape and silencing of thousands of children. To this day, the church’s only lobbying priority that may rank higher than abortion is fighting every federal or state law that targets its impunity and limited liability over the sexual abuse saga. At a time when a deeply divided America could benefit from the moral leadership of what the USCCB preaches — confession, contrition and penance — these leaders respond with obfuscation, lobbyists and lectures.
The conference’s latest partisan attacks on the president ironically have probably done more than anything else to elevate Biden above the bishops as the voice of American Catholicism. The empathizer-in-chief speaks to the values that shaped so many of us as Catholics, including his compassion and clear awareness of his own flaws and sins. His soul is still rooted in the struggles of Scranton and the social teachings of the church.
Instead of criticizing Biden, the bishops would do well to listen humbly and hear how his agenda reflects the struggles families in the pews — and those who have left — face in paying for child care and aging parents, keeping their families out of poverty and helping others come out of the shadows. The bishops’ recent Labor Day statement calling for action to promote the “common good” was a promising start. To more of that, the congregation of American Catholics would be unified in saying, Amen!