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A Bishop's First Duty

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In the fall of 1953, as Senator Joseph McCarthy was commencing his investigation of the U.S. Army that was to lead to his disgrace and downfall, Francis Cardinal Spellman, the reigning Archbishop of New York, expressed his approval of that latter-day witch-hunt of communists and fellow-travelers.

"The anguished cries and protests against 'McCarthyism' are not going to dissuade Americans from their desire to see Communists removed from positions where they can carry out their nefarious plans," his Eminence informed a church group in Brussels, Belgium (See E.F. Tompkins, "Cardinal Spellman Defends McCarthy Abroad," Milwaukee Sentinel, Oct. 31, 1953).

Cardinal Spellman certainly had reason to fear the spread of communism. The Catholic Church in Eastern Europe -- in Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere -- was being relentlessly persecuted. There was no room for compromise between Stalin's militant atheism and religious faith of any sort. But Spellman allowed his fears to overcome his rational judgment. Communism did not have a foothold in the American government, Senator McCarthy's empty bombast notwithstanding. By lending aid and comfort to McCarthy's cause, Spellman besmirched his own good name and endangered the moral authority of the office he held.

Spellman's reckless embrace of McCarthy's histrionics can be contrasted with the steady leadership shown by one of America's great prelates, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago. When he chaired the committee that drafted the famous pastoral letter "The Challenge of Peace" in 1983, Cardinal Bernardin eschewed grand theatrics about the red menace, even though the context was, as in Spellman's day, the Cold War. Bernardin well knew that the Church was not pacifist, but he also appreciated that war was a frightening option to be avoided. His committee dutifully heard from all sides and when it finally spoke, it did so in the name of a united episcopate. And persons of good will, from across the political spectrum, responded to the letter with respect even when they disagreed.

Cardinal Bernardin's temperament was one that sought to transcend political division. His "Seamless Garment of Life" speech, which sought to find common ground between Republican anti-abortion Catholics and liberal Catholics committed to a broad vision of social justice, was yet another example of his great irenicism.

It was Bernardin, not Spellman, who acted like the true Archbishop. At the very dawn of Church history, in the first years of the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch, while being frog-marched across the Mediterranean to meet a martyr's death in Rome, wrote to the churches he encountered along the way. Bishops, he thundered, must be figures of unity. There must be no division between the church and its earthly head, the bishop. It was in the name of this principle that he, Ignatius, was now about to shed his blood.

Such a theology places an awesome burden on bishops. Above all else, the person called to teach and lead and sanctify the People of God must not engage in petty games of partisanship. Democrats and Republicans in equal measure sin, fall short, and are redeemed by Jesus Christ's great sacrifice on Calvary.

Regrettably, today's Catholic episcopate seems increasingly marred by Spellman's bitter-end spirit of strife and faction, not by Bernardin's humble recognition that the political squabbles of this world should not rend asunder the Church of Christ.

In the spring of this year, the bishops chose to oppose the Obama health-care law because of its requirement that contraceptive coverage be part of every health plan, and rejected the Obama peace offering that insurance providers, not employers, should assume the cost of this coverage. In diocese after diocese, this election season, bishops are leading the charge against marriage equality. Indeed, in my home Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis, our Archbishop has chosen to stake his reputation and leadership on the success of an entirely otiose marriage amendment writing into state constitutional law the requirement that marriage is a union open to heterosexuals only. A more adroit episcopate, one less blinded by confrontation, more open to creative solutions, could certainly find ways around these issues. Alas, that is not the case.

I fear that a spirit of hysteria has descended upon the Church that I love. Today's Republican Party does not present an attractive face and Catholics should be mindful. The GOP's dog whistles about welfare cheats, its catering to the paranoia of the birthers, its worship at the altar of the pagan goddess Ayn Rand, its easy acceptance of militarism as the cure for every world problem, are places where bishops should not want to venture. Cardinal Timothy Dolan's acceptance of an invitation to give the closing benediction at the Democratic, as well as the Republic Convention, is to be warmly commended.