When John F. Kennedy was asked during the 1960 presidential campaign whether he wanted to either meet with a group of nuns or bishops on a tightly scheduled day, he was said to have replied, "The nuns I'll see. But not the bishops, they all vote Republican."
In retrospect, those seem like the good ole days of the Church.
Today, at a time when a divided Catholic Church is still in need of healing, particularly as a result of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, a new predicament has emerged: the bishop Republicanization crisis, most recently characterized by the U.S. bishops focus on the contrived issue of religious liberty at the expense of their advocacy for the record numbers of people living in poverty. This crisis is defined by the degree to which many of the U.S. bishops have allowed their political affiliation with the Republican Party to effect their pastoral responsibilities. In the last week, it has been thrust onto the national stage again with efforts by Cardinal Timothy Dolan to insinuate himself into both parties' political conventions.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), talks and walks like a Republican, by any reasonable measure of scrutiny. To some this assertion will seem obvious and to others an unfair label. For the record, consider the following: his signing of the Republican social manifesto, the Manhattan Declaration; his public critique of President Obama before the 2008 election; his criticism of Notre Dame for awarding President Obama an honorary degree in 2009; his close, behind-the-scenes ties to conservative Republican operatives whom he has quoted on his blog; and his support, at least tacitly, for the Ryan Budget, which has been repudiated by 170 Catholic theologians and thought leaders for it's devastating impact on the poor.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with Cardinal Dolan being a Republican, just as there is nothing wrong with a Catholic bishop being a Democrat or an Independent. There is, however, something eerily unsettling when a bishop's political affiliation and the teaching authority he rightfully claims, conflate so that he becomes more of a partisan political figure than shepherd. The result is the politicization of the Catholic Church in a manner that few Catholics could have envisioned a decade ago. And it is likely to only get worse in the years ahead.
According to five surveys conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life from 2002 and 2010, between 63 percent and 70 percent of the population believed that "churches should not come out in favor of candidates." Cardinal Dolan has indicated that his presence at the GOP convention is not an endorsement of Gov. Romney. But he broke with tradition that called for Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg to give the benediction. In the context of Gov. Romney's pandering remarks along the campaign trail seeking to appropriate Catholicism, including his claim "...we are all Catholic today," the governor's cozy invitation and the cardinal's acceptance of it will be viewed as an endorsement. The politically savvy Cardinal Dolan realizes this.
His public offer to the Democrats is a brilliant political move but a divisive pastoral one. It takes some pastoral hubris, if there can be such a thing, to publicly position yourself for an on stage invitation to the DNC even though you are suing the Administration, have overseen a call for civil disobedience in opposition to the HHS contraception regulations and have misrepresented the regulations as including coverage for abortifacients. Certainly, he must realize that whatever prayer he will offer will be far outweighed by his conspicuous presence there.
But all of Cardinal Dolan's posturing will likely not have an impact on Catholic voters beyond the GOP base. A study to be released this week by Catholic Democrats shows that the commercial communications value of the USCCB's unprecedented "religious liberty" campaign in 2012 is likely to fall between $60 million and $100 million, based on the estimated percentage of partisan homilies heard by the 26 million Catholics attending mass each week. If the USCCB were a Super PAC, the value of its campaign would likely top the list of independent expenditure organizations. Yet surveys have shown that the USCCB's campaign has had little impact on Catholic opinion on this issue and a review of Pew Forum polls of registered Catholic voters between April and July has shown that Catholic voters, including white Catholic voters, moved toward President Obama into July as the USCCB campaign wore on.
However, there likely will be an impact within the Catholic Church. Last week, it was reported that Gov. Romney and Cardinal Dolan met secretly in April. While we do not know what was discussed, a top Romney aide was quoted as saying, "We're going to have outreach to Catholics in a coordinated, organized effort -- state by state, diocese by diocese, parish by parish and pew by pew." This sounds too much like the discredited Republican Catholic outreach efforts in 2000 and 2004 that politicized and divided our parishes -- so much for "we are all Catholic today." This time it is being done, by all indications, with Cardinal Dolan's blessing.
Cardinal Dolan would be well advised to keep his distance from both Tampa and Charlotte in the next two weeks for the good of our Church and the good of a divided nation. The Church can, and should be, a powerful advocate for the common good in our country. Cardinal Dolan's actions are jeopardizing that advocacy. In the process, he is not only Republicanizing our faith but also politicizing and dividing our parishes.
Steven A. Krueger is the president of Catholic Democrats, an organization whose mission is to advance the rich Catholic Social Justice Tradition in the public square and the Democratic Party to help address the moral issues of our time.