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Will the Real Catholic Bishops Please Stand up?

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As the U.S. Catholic Bishops gather in Baltimore today for their annual meeting, they find themselves at the crossroads of political expediency and integrity. The Republican wave has empowered a caucus whose laissez-faire "small government" agenda runs counter to Catholic social teaching. As poverty rises and recovery stalls, it waxes indignant about deficits and debt while defending tax cuts that exacerbate these problems and opposing measures that protect those living in poverty.

Nonetheless, many bishops are smug about the recent election results. In a misguided attempt to dispel the appearance of partisanship, director of the USCCB's Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development John Carr accused both parties of neglecting the poor: "Our focus is the least of these," he said during a recent panel discussion. "And that is not the focus of Washington no matter who is in charge."

While such assessments might burnish their nonpartisan bona fides in the press, the bishops need to be diligent against succumbing to the temptation of false equivalencies. The fact remains that when it comes to promoting the interests of the poor, Democratic leaders advance the teachings of the church to a far greater extent than their Republican counterparts. Over the past two years, the Democrats have fought to make affordable health care coverage available to all, to extend benefits to the unemployed, and to invest in education, infrastructure, and green jobs. They worked to help struggling families stay in their homes, to reform the immigration system, and to make it easier for workers to form unions. The GOP has opposed these efforts at every step, advancing in response a decidedly un-Catholic agenda: cut taxes, eviscerate government, deregulate, and let the invisible hand of the market take care of the rest.

Sadly, the Republicans were abetted in their pursuit by many individual Catholic bishops, who chose either to remain silent in the face of attacks on social justice, or to focus their political energies on maligning the Obama Administration to Catholic voters. In January 2009, as job losses approached 600,000 per month, the bishops launched a postcard campaign against the Freedom of Choice Act, a piece of abortion rights legislation that wasn't even on the new Congress' radar screen. In the spring, some 80 bishops caved to right-wing culture warriors and joined a campaign opposing Obama's speech at Notre Dame.

And then there's health care reform. The Catholic Church teaches that health care is a fundamental human right, and as such the bishops could have served as a powerful voice for the principle of reform, if not for actual elements of the Democrats' plan. Instead, the USCCB opted to play the primary role of abortion watchdog, its Family Research Council-aligned policy "experts" setting impossible standards for preventing abortion funding in the legislation. The final bill earned the approval of the Catholic Health Association - the U.S. Catholic Church's foremost health care authority. But it's the USCCB's opposition that everyone remembers, a position that Republican-backed "pro-life" groups exploited to the fullest extent in election attack ads against a number of faithful Catholic Democrats.

If the USCCB really wants to demonstrate nonpartisanship, it might consider taking a page from the playbook of its predecessors. When Reagan's Republicans claimed a similar mandate for small government and laissez-faire economics, the bishops issued a 1986 document entitled Economic Justice for All: A Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy. It was a direct response to - if not an all-out dismissal of - the new conservative order:

Government should assume a positive role in generating employment and establishing fair labor practices, in guaranteeing the provision and maintenance of the economy's infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, harbors, public means of communication, and transport. It should regulate trade and commerce in the interest of fairness. Government may levy the taxes necessary to meet these responsibilities, and citizens have a moral obligation to pay those taxes. The way society responds to the needs of the poor through its public policies is the litmus test of its justice or injustice. The political debate about these policies is the indispensable forum for dealing with the conflicts and tradeoffs that will always be present in the pursuit of a more just economy.

What has become of these bishops, who recognized the incompatibility of the GOP's economic agenda with Catholic social teaching, and weren't afraid to say so? No doubt, a vestige survives among the conference's nearly 300 members. Whether these voices have the courage of conviction to stand and be counted this week remains to be seen.