Episcopal and ecclesial communion? Not this time.
We Roman Catholics talk an awful lot about being in communion with one another. Whether we are describing the nature of the Church, as in “communion ecclesiology,” or describing what we are doing at eucharist, or describing the collegial relationship of the bishops throughout the world and in each local church, the image of “communion,” being of one mind and of one heart, is often central to these discussions.
We all know the damage political elections do to our communities and to our Church as a whole. Partisan allegiances not only blind us to the motivation behind approaches to politics that differ from our own, but also to the demands of the Gospel. Election-time ugliness—american style—colonizes every moment, every conversation. Take, for instance, the fact that an acquaintance of mine recently sent me a message on Facebook to congratulate my wife and I on the birth of our daughter on Friday, only to punctuate it with a jab about how Obama is intent on killing babies. Is this what we have come to?
Sadly, this is not only a problem for “the faithful.” Our bishops—admittedly, human like the rest of us—are failing us too. Their Faithful Citizenship document indeed was overall an impressive moment of teaching, far more sophisticated than past efforts. As we draw nearer to November 4, we are seeing handfuls of american bishops, though, attempting to retract huge portions of that teaching under the guise of “clarification.” Baffling, isn’t it, that these bishops feel the need to “clarify” the content of FC, a document that is revised and updated every four years in order to be as clear as possible in each election’s political context? If the bishops really intended to say that a Catholic may not vote for a pro-choice candidate if there is a “suitable” “pro-life” candidate available, why wasn’t this said in the document itself? Not only was this not said, it was not even remotely implied. Indeed, the new (and few) “interpretations” of FC cannot in any real sense be connected to passages from the original document at all.
Among these new (and few) “interpretations,” the absolute worst moment so far has got to be the recent heavy handed approach of Scranton bishop Joseph F. Martino who didn’t even try to link his teaching with that of his brother bishops. He expressed his open defiance at a parish discussion on FC recently, saying, “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese . . . . The USCCB doesn’t speak for me . . . . The only relevant document is my letter. There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable.”
And unfortunately the result is that already confused Catholics are now even further entrenched in their own double standards. For years now, Catholic republicans have dismissed the teaching of the USCCB, especially FC, as irrelevant, as nonauthoritative. They continued to hold this view until said “clarifications” (such as that of the Dallas bishops) emerged. Suddenly, FC (or at least its “interpretations”) is seen to be as authoritative as scripture itself. Then, like watching a tennis match, comes Martino who is cheered by republican Catholics for his dismissal of the USCCB.
Such moves are revealing of several realities. First, they reveal another example of what many of us have known for a long time: Church teaching, at whatever level of authority, is used and abused over and over again for partisan political purposes and not for the true illumination they bring on the fullness of our social reality.
Second, they reveal that our bishops, human like us, are not immune from such nonsense.
And third, and most tragically, they reveal the extent to which we kid ourselves with talk of “ecclesial and episcopal communion.” We couldn’t be further from it.