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Dances With Hacks: Bishops as Politicians

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Long a bouquet of shy wallflowers compared with evangelicals, Catholic bishops are at last joining the dance at the Republican party. The big step forward will be made as New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan says the closing benediction at the GOP convention this week. His appearance marks the first time in 40 years that an American cardinal has traveled cross-country for this purpose, and it comes as the churchmen reveal themselves to be more like politicians -- in style and substance -- than ever before.

The Republicans have danced to this song many times before. Since 1980, the party has used evangelicals to win elections but denied them most of what they want in policy from restoration of school prayer to a nationwide ban on abortion. With Mitt Romney's selection of the fiercely anti-abortion Paul Ryan, he signaled the party is now taking conservative Catholics for a whirl. However, everything in Romney's flip-flopping character suggests that once again, religiously motivated voters will give up their votes and get little in return.

For their part, the Catholic hierarchs are abandoning the restraint that once made them credible as moral leaders above the partisan fray. The danger in this choice is evident when you consider that a majority of Catholics disagree with their leaders. They use contraception and oppose the GOP's "no exceptions" abortion stand. Polls also show Catholics support gay rights and marriage at about the same rate as the general population. These Catholics are not pleased to see their bishops lining up with party hacks or with an evangelical movement that includes a significant number of anti-Catholic bigots.

The fact that Timothy Dolan is leading the bishops in a partisan direction is not a surprise. Take away the clerical clothes and the cardinal is the central casting version of an old pol, glad-handing and joking in one minute and deflecting and deceiving in the next. As Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times reported in May, the cardinal lied about money paid to Wisconsin priests who had been accused of sexual abuse when he was their bishop. He described the money as "charity" when it was intended to induce them to leave the priesthood as quickly as possible. When documents surfaced contradicting Dolan, local Church officials admitted as much. New York's prelate chose to attack the suggestion that something was amiss as "false, preposterous and unjust."

Of course, it was the scheme itself that was preposterous and unjust. As officials of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests asked, "In what other occupation, especially one working with families and operating schools and youth programs, is an employee given a cash bonus for raping and sexually assaulting children?"

In true political style, Dolan used an encounter with reporters to attack the press and his critics, rather than speak as a moral leader. "SNAP has no credibility whatsoever," Dolan said. "To respond to charges like that that are groundless and scurrilous in my book is useless and counterproductive." In shifting blame and dodging responsibility, Dolan sounded like a blustering partisan, not a pastor.

Dolan isn't alone on the hierarchy's march into party politics. As a group the bishops have joined the GOP in opposing the Obama health care reform program. Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria sounded a lot like someone from the political fringe when he spoke of Hitler and Stalin and added, "President Obama with his radical pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda now seems intent on following a similar path." Baltimore's Archbishop William Lori said that the bishops had reached a moment in politics "we have to draw the line in the sand."

The main thing the bishops cite when they explain their ire is the requirement that institutions that aren't churches provide contraception coverage as part of employee health insurance. Dozens of states have imposed a similar requirement for years (some don't even exempt churches) with no outcry from the Church. But when opposition to the president's health care reform act became a rallying point of the 2012 GOP campaign, the bishops used the issue to justify joining hands with the party.

With them now on the dance floor, it's hard to separate the Catholic bishops from other partisans. As men, they may feel invigorated and relevant. But religious leaders, they have lost the position that once helped others respect them.