Friday, February 19, 2010

The Silence of the Bishops

By Andrew Sullivan

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, on February 18, 2010.

A reader writes:

Reading your post about Thiessen, complete with the statement from the conference of Catholic bishops, makes me wonder about something. Patrick Kennedy was barred from communion for thinking abortion ought to remain legal. St. Louis Archbishop Burke forbade John Kerry from taking communion while campaigning in the area in 2004. During the Democratic National Convention, Denver archbishop Chaput noisily suggested that Joe Biden skip communion too.

What have these (arch)bishops to say about Thiessen? Anything?

Call me a cynic, but conferences of Catholic bishops may issue clear, even categorical statements against torture all they want. Until a single Catholic cleric on the planet has the cojones to suggest the same for Thiessen, however, I’m skeptical that the Church is really serious about its values.

It is, I fear, a function of the stranglehold that political and Republican partisan theo-conservatives now have on the hierarchy, aided and abetted by the current Pontiff. And there is an obvious distinction here. No one is suggesting that Patrick Kennedy or John Kerry have personally performed or authorized an abortion. They have taken the position that in a free society, where there is a genuine conscientious debate on this question, the state should permit private citizens to make such a choice. And in government, we make a distinction between government-funded abortion and abortions in the private sector - what else was the Stupak Amendment about? I deeply respect the Magisterium’s position on abortion, although, as I explain in The Conservative Soul, I think they have gone too far in some respects. And my own agonized defense of legal first trimester abortion, while obviously against the Magisterium, has always been complemented by my view that abortion is still a grave sin - although in some specific cases, the lesser of two evils. But the public-private distinction is almost universally acknowledged as a legitimate one when discussing the impact of the interaction of one religious teaching in a free and secular society.

I also do not believe that denying communion should be a public act. I think it should always be a matter of private, personal and pastoral counseling. But I do think the church hierarchy has a right to complain when a Catholic presents something that is contrary to Church teaching as actually in accordance with Church teaching. On the gay question and choice question, for example, I have aired my own conscientious disagreement, but I have never claimed that my position is the official one. I am not misleading anyone on Catholic hierarchy’s position - and certainly not in the many Catholic venues where I have tried to make my case.

But Marc Thiessen went on a Catholic television station, self-identified as a Catholic, invoked the Magisterium and presented the torture of human beings as perfectly consonant with Catholic teaching – and actually in accordance with just war Catholic teaching. And his interviewer clearly agreed with him. Not so long ago, he was a public official writing speeches for a vice-president who directly authorized – and monitored – the torture of human beings. This makes him an accessory to an intrinsic evil and subject in due course to war crimes prosecution, if the United States were still a serious signatory to Geneva (which it clearly isn’t). That Thiessen would now actually be going on Catholic television to mislead and misrepresent in grotesque fashion a position that the Bishops have declared is never justified is surely far worse an offense than any of the pro-choice politicians the Bishops have made such a public fuss over.

I think the pro forma stance of the Bishops on this question will be their ultimate self-defense. They have made the position clear – in a whisper. And it is true that there is a great coalition of religious groups opposing torture, including many Catholics.

But I think the hierarchy’s refusal to tackle this head-on has been a great and saddening failure. I noted when the Pope met with Bush that he made no statement whatever about the question of torture, and I am sorry to say I believe the silence of the hierarchy is a political silence, designed to promote one political party – not to defend a core teaching. If they can speak out in defense of illegal immigrants, and on the death penalty, they can surely speak out with blinding clarity on what the Bush-Cheney administration did to abuse, torture and rob imprisoned human beings of the last shred of human dignity they had – without even subjecting them to minimal standards of due process. They did this – and this is simply an incontrovertible fact - to the innocent as well as the guilty, and they made no serious attempt to distinguish between the two.

I think the Bishops and Cardinals in the US need to speak out directly and loudly and insistently on this and demand a Truth Commission to get to the bottom of it. I think we need a homily sent to every parish. I think we need in every state the kind of stand that the hierarchy has taken on a much more minor issue, like civil marriage rights for gay couples. And I believe it is a scandal – an absolute scandal – that the hierarchy has been so absent at a time when bearing witness to this intrinsic evil, conducted directly by the government itself, is so necessary for the future of our civilization and the integrity of this country.

Photo: Bishops from around the US participate in an opening prayer during the fall meetings of the United States Conference of [Roman] Catholic Bishops (USCCB), November 13, 2006 in Baltimore, Maryland. By Brendan Smialowski AFP/Getty Images.

1 comment:

  1. Well, now, if you want the bishops to start condemning every sinner by name, be careful that they don't start with you.

    Elected politicians who represent Catholics and directly create public policy are a lot different than private citizens expressing their opinions on those policies.

    And, as heinous as torture sometimes can be, it rarely is a matter of the taking of a human life.