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The Moral Demise of American Catholic Bishops

“You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24)

After Trump held up a Bible while standing in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, non-Catholic religious leaders expressed anger and disgust.

The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, Episcopal bishop of Washington tweeted, “I am outraged.” “Everything Trump has said and done is to inflame violence. We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us,” Budde said.

Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, stated: “Seeing President Trump holding a Bible in response to calls for racial justice … is one of the most flagrant misuses of religion I have ever seen.”

Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he was “brokenhearted and alarmed” by everything from the death of George Floyd to Trump’s response.

Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center wrote: “Imagine, instead, if the president had opened that Bible and read words about justice, or even words of comfort.”

Pat Robertson, an influential Evangelical leader and staunch Trump supporter, opened his nightly “700 Club” television show by saying: “It seems like now is the time to say, ‘I understand your pain. I want to comfort you. I think it’s time we love each other’. But the president took a different course. He said, ‘I am the president of law and order’.” Robertson also rebuked Trump for threatening to send military troops to stop the demonstrations. “You just don’t do that. Mr. President. It isn’t cool,” said Robertson.

SILENCE from every one of the 441 active and retired American bishops except San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller who retweeted a comment that “This is revolting.”

SILENCE from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) who speak on behalf of the American episcopate.

The next day, June 2, Trump made an already-scheduled visit to the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington D.C. owned by the Knights of Columbus and located in the same vicinity as the USCCB headquarters.

Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory criticized the Knights: “I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree.” Gregory also commented that St. Pope John Paul II “certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”

When given an opportunity a few days later to make another statement, Gregory again criticized the managers of the shrine and again avoided criticizing Trump directly, as did the only other bishop critical of the shrine visit. “Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, tweeted early that he hoped during the visit ‘someone proclaims today’s Gospel (Mark 12:13-17) where Herodians and Pharisees are called out for their hypocrisy.”

In fact, Gregory had received “the kind invitation” to attend Trump’s event at the shrine the week prior to June 2nd. “He declined due to other commitments,” Gregory’s office confirmed to the independent Catholic News Agency. Yet Gregory offered no objection to Trump visiting the shrine until after non-Catholic religious leaders protested the president’s photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church.

To this day, not a single Catholic prelate nor any USCCB official has criticized Trump directly and/or by name.  

 “PEDOPHILES”

Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was damaged in the early days of demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd. “Vandals repeatedly struck the cathedral over the weekend of May 30-31. The church building and rectory were spray painted with the slogans ‘Pedofiles’ [sic], ‘God is dead,’ ‘There is no God’ ….”

The sexual torture of children by priests first made headlines in the Boston Globe in January 2002. Since then, we have learned that it is the survivors (because so many commit suicide) themselves and their organizations such as the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and BishopAccountability.org – aided by the mainstream media and our civil justice system: lawyers,  attorneys general, legislators, and courts – who have brought healing and justice to the hundreds of thousands of victims, their families, friends and communities.

What we have also learned is that, although bishops speak appropriate words, their main concern has been protecting their assets against lawsuits, even by obstructing justice, until forced by media coverage and/or the civil justice system to do otherwise.

IMMIGRATION

Similarly, American bishops provide plenty of lip service and PR gestures against the brutalization of babies and children kept in cages.

“An unprecedented 69,550 migrant children held in U.S. government custody in 2019 [alone], enough infants, toddlers, kids and teens to overflow the typical NFL stadium. That’s more children detained away from their parents than any other country, according to United Nations researchers. And it’s happening even though the U.S. government has acknowledged that being held in detention can be traumatic for children, putting them at risk of  long-term physical and emotional damage.”

U.S. bishops have kept their promises to Trump in return for taxpayer funding.

The day after the 2016 election, the USCCB declared they “look forward to working with President-elect Trump [on] domestic ‘religious liberty’ (code for discrimination against gays) ensuring people of faith remain free to proclaim and shape our lives around the truth about man and woman, (code for anti-transgender)  and the unique bond of marriage that they can form …. We are firm in our resolve that our brothers and sisters who are migrants and refugees can be humanely welcomed without sacrificing our security.”

At the USCCB meeting a week later, the bishops promised their pro-immigration efforts would “honor and respect the laws of this nation,”

And so not one American bishop has offered the use of any Church property – “an estimated 70,000 buildings” – as a sanctuary for immigrants. Meanwhile “the number of churches, mosques and synagogues offering sanctuary nationwide has grown … from 400 to more than 1,100” as reported in April 2018.

THE QUID PRO QUO – TAXPAYER FUNDING FOR CATHOLIC VOTES  

Five days after his inauguration in 2001, Pres. George W. Bush had dinner in the residence of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick with the then-president of the USCCB and several other prelates. (see “So Far, Sympathetic Signals From President Bush” Zenit.org January 28, 2001) The primary reason for the meeting was to finalize plans for Bush’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative, an executive order mandating federal funding of religious programs and institutions granted in reciprocity for the voting power of the Religious Right. “The initiative has sparked constitutional concerns over ‘separation of church and state,’” the same article noted.

The bishops are deferential to Trump because, in the past 20 years, they have become dependent on taxpayer funding in order to preserve their assets.  For example, the USCCB received $48.5 million in government grants and contracts, or about 24% of their total operating revenues, according to their last financial statement. Presumably, this is mostly spent on migrant and refugee services. Regardless, when bishops boast about the care they provide they never mention how much is funded by taxpayers.

Catholic Charities USA receives $1.875 million in government support or 42% of their total revenue – also never mentioned in episcopal boasting. The USCCB and Catholic Charities USA are national organizations. If the government support also provided to 195 individual dioceses is considered, the total would be staggering even before 2020.

Trump is deferential to the bishops because Catholic voters decided the outcome of his election.

Trump won 60% of white Catholics, as compared to only 46% of the national popular vote.

Trump won the Evangelical Southern and rural states as expected. But, “his victory in the Electoral College came down to a razor-thin edge of only 77,744 votes across three states: Pennsylvania (44,292 votes), Wisconsin (22,748 votes), and Michigan (10,704 votes)” reported Robert P. Jones. All are states with more Catholics than Evangelicals.

A perfect example that Trump and the bishops believe in their mutual dependency was a conference call Trump had with over 600 Catholic leaders on April 25, including the prelate of Wall Street, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the USCCB and Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber, chair of the USCCB committee of Catholic Education and the superintendents of Catholic schools, among others.

Money

During the call, Trump mentioned the Covid-19 small business loan program,  intended by Congress to help our economy by “keeping small businesses and their workers afloat during the pandemic.”

As of April 24, the federal program had funded 20 percent of the Catholic entities that applied. Statistics compiled by the bishops’ own organization show that 8,000 parishes, over 2,000 schools, 104 bishops’ headquarters, 185 Catholic Charities agencies and 200 other organizations  operated by bishops received taxpayer funding even though the American Catholic Church has hundreds of billions of dollars in assets.

Trump told participants on the call that he insisted that Catholic institutions be included in the program or “I wouldn’t do the deal.”

Following Trump’s opening remarks, Dolan was the first to speak. The president called Dolan a “great friend of mine” and that he respects what the cardinal “asks for.” The cardinal said he was “honored to be the lead-off batter, and the feelings are mutual sir,” joking that the two had been on the phone so often in recent months that his mother in Missouri said “I call you more than I call her.”

Dolan thanked Trump for his “courageous insistence that the nonprofits, faith communities, and our schools be included” in the recent stimulus package.

“Many Catholic schools around the country are really scared,” the cardinal said. “Never has the outlook financially looked more bleak, but perhaps never has the outlook looked more promising given the energetic commitment that your administration has to our schools,” Dolan told Trump. “We need you more than ever.”

Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley “urged the president to guarantee tuition assistance to families sending children to Catholic schools. “We need it now,” he said. “It has to be done in a quick way that helps them to pay tuition.”

We’ll be helping you out more than you even know,” Trump promised.

The election

 Trump reminded his listeners that his reelection has “never been more important for the Church.”

He told them that Democrats “want abortion and they want it now and they want it to go up to the end of the ninth month and beyond.

When Paul Escala, a Catholic school superintendent, told Trump “we stand with you,” Trump warned, “The other side is not in favor of [taxpayer funding of Catholic schools] … the exact opposite of what you’re wanting so I guess it’s an important thing to remember.

“I hope that everyone gets out and votes and does what they have to do,” Trump said of the November election. He threatened the Catholic leaders, “You’re going to have a very different Catholic Church” if he is defeated.

The next day, Dolan “welcomed Trump [via online attendance] to his livestreamed Sunday Mass.” Dolan appeared on “Fox & Friends” on Monday. “The president has seemed particularly sensitive to the religious community,” Dolan said.  “I’m in admiration of his leadership.

Four days earlier, “Trump suggested the possibility of an ‘injection’ of disinfectant into a person infected with the coronavirus as a deterrent to the virus.”

DIMINISHING NUMBER OF CATHOLICS

As of October 2019, 20% of the U.S. population is Catholic, “down from 23% in 2009,” according to the Pew Forum.

“The largest decline among major U.S. religious groups has occurred in the Catholic Church” according to an August 2016 PRRI survey.

Sexual torture of children

In their August 2016 survey, PRRI asked those who no longer identify with a denomination why the left. “Notably, those who were raised Catholic are more likely than those raised in any other religion to cite negative religious treatment of gay and lesbian people (39% vs. 29%, respectively) and the clergy sexual-abuse scandal (32% vs. 19%, respectively) as primary reasons why they left the Church.”

After the USCCB November 2018 meeting failed to address clerical sexual torture, “Catholics have lost trust in their leaders,” declared Tom Gjelten, who covers religion for NPR News. “Too many are losing faith, losing trust, losing hope – we are, in so many ways, losing our religion,” wrote Deacon Greg Kandra. “This loss of trust in the leadership of the Church makes this the most significant crisis confronting the Church since the Reformation,” noted Madeline E. Lacovara.

“More than 15 years after U.S. bishops pledged ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests … a substantial majority (69%) of U.S. Catholics say that abuse by clergy is an ongoing problem,” reported Pew in June 2019.

Latinos

“49% of Hispanics who were raised as Catholics and have become Protestants say that an important factor was finding a Church that ‘reaches out and helps its members more,’”  a 2014 Pew report stated.

“In surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 47% of Hispanics describe themselves as Catholic,” Pew noted,  down from 67% as recently as 2010.

Are Latinos, who were a third of the Catholics in 2014, still leaving this time in response to the U.S. episcopate’s failure “to reach out and help” by denying access to their vast number of properties as sanctuary for immigrants?

Culture wars

Also, as of 2014 (unfortunately the latest numbers available), 50% of Catholics were Baby Boomers or older. If 39% of Catholics leaving in 2016 cited the Church’s treatment of gay and lesbian people as the reason, are younger Catholics still leaving because the bishops’ side with the Republican Party in the culture wars?

THE 2020 ELECTION 

When the USCCB held their November 2019 meeting, the bishops decided that their 2020 voting guide should state, “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority.”

Pope Francis agreed that abortion is the “preeminent” social and political issue during a Jan. 16 meeting with U.S. bishops. “The pope put it in a very beautiful way: Do we always want to simply eliminate those who are inconvenient?” Bishop W. Shawn McKnight related.

“At the same time Pope Francis said there’s another significant issue and that would be ‘transgender’ – where we are trying to make all human beings the same, it makes no difference, you can be whoever you want to be,” Archbishop Robert J. Carlson said.

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann explained that while Pope Francis has “elevated issues like the care of refugees and migrants,” he also understands that the situation in the United States is different compared to other countries.”

Pope Francis and Vice President Mike Pence had “a remarkably long meeting” on Jan. 24, “especially for one not involving a head of state.” They discussed the “sanctity of life” for the unborn, religious persecution in the Middle East and the impoverished in Venezuela.

Abortion is such an important issue that, on the same day Pope Francis met with Pence, Trump became the first sitting U.S. president in history to attend the anti-abortion rally in Washington D.C.

A lot has changed since then. According to a PRRI poll conducted May 26-31, “Trump’s favorability among white Catholics fell from 60% in March to 48% in April to just 37% in May,”  but remains high (62%) for white evangelicals.

Currently, Trump is losing to Biden in all the polls. And, although his margin of victory may be less, Trump is still expected to win the Evangelical Southern and rural states.

It is Trump’s polling numbers in battleground states – Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina – that is worrying his reelection campaign.

In order to save their assets, the American bishops have lost members by obstructing healing and justice for hundreds of thousands of survivors.

In order to sustain their taxpayer funding, they have lost Latinos by following Trump and young members by siding with the Republican Party in the culture wars.

Their diminishing membership threatens to leave the bishops as irrelevant in American public affairs. If Trump loses the election or wins but thinks the Catholic vote unimportant, the bishops will also lose their taxpayer funding leaving them to chose between downsizing their organization or their assets.

Nothing they have said or done thus far indicates the bishops will choose the moral path.

(Betty Clermont is author of The NeoCatholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America.)

4 Responses

  1. The moral demise of the American bishops underscores their being bedfellows with the present administration, and all reactionary administration in whatever country. Bishops need political power to impose their interpretation of morality. Generally, people aren’t buying it. If they go to church it is for community. Though a militant minority fiercely fight for “tradition, family and property.” They are in sync with the hierarchy and the hierarchy with them. And they have the money.
    As BC points out, US bishops have been reticent to utter Trump’s name lest he not approve of their agenda. In the civil rights era, Catholics religious and clergy were in the streets. The only time they are in the streets today is for abortion. BLM don’t matter for Catholics here as they are a minority of members. Stalwart white Catholics would withhold money if bishops called out racism among Catholics.

  2. Thank you so much for your expert analysis and keen insights. Agree, “bedfellows with all reactionary administration in whatever country.” Yes, the Church, especially the American Church, is a far different organization than the one in the civil rights era. EC, you are MUCH APPRECIATED.

  3. Joe Biden is a lifelong Catholic who cares about his fellow man. The RC Bishops of America appear to prefer to be led by a man who is a serial philanderer, a misogynist and self proclaimed sexual predator, a racist and an inveterate liar. As a lifelong Catholic who received a wonderful education thanks to the religious of the Sacred Heart I can no longer in good conscience support the Catholic Church and have recommended that my adult children abandon any support for this so-called Christian organization. The Catholic Church is the USA appears to be one of the most corrupt in the world and it deserves to fail.

    • Thank you for taking the time to make such an eloquent and heartfelt comment. Not only myself, but thousands of other American Catholics have reached the same painful decision. Again, much appreciated!

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