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The Problem Was Messaging, Not the Message, Say Catholic Bishops

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops held their annual November meeting this past week, and coming a week after the elections, it had to have been rough. The bishops lost four out of four state votes on marriage equality, and the prospects for rolling back the Affordable Care Act and advancing their other policy prescriptions dimmed greatly with Obama’s reelection and the failure of the GOP to take control of the Senate. It was not a good week for the bishops, and like all people in politics who came out on the short end of things, a little stock taking was in order. What went wrong, and how can we do better next time?

Taking a page from many a losing candidate, the problem, according to the bishops, is a communications issue, not the positions they are taking:

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the bishops’ subcommittee on the promotion of defense and marriage, gave an update on the organization’s work in this area, and his assessment was at times grim.

“Last Tuesday was a disappointing day for marriage,” he said in a statement. “Many people simply do not understand [that] marriage is … the only institution that unites a man and a woman to each other and to any children born of their union.”


[USCCB President and Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy] Dolan said the principle of traditional marriage is central to the church’s view of a healthy society and thus inviolable.

As they look to the future, he said, the bishops must look for ways to make their case more convincingly . . .

Right. And Todd Akin lost not because he was a man firmly on a mission to return us to the 18th century, but because he was inarticulate.

But a sizable majority of the USCCB truly appears to believe this. They overwhelmingly approved (202-25) a major reorganization of their communications department, including the addition of a director of public affairs. Last June, by contrast, when this new post was first suggested, it received a cool reception:

But it was [Salt Lake City Bishop John Wester’s] mention of hiring a chief spokesperson — quickly seconded by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the USCCB and a media-savvy prelate who is often seen as the hierarchy’s best PR man — that prompted the longest discussion of any topic so far.

While many bishops seemed to back the idea, out of necessity as much as conviction, a few expressed reservations. Long-standing Catholic tradition holds that each bishop speaks for himself and is answerable only to the pope, not a national conference.

And so, while the GOP in Washington seems a bit chastened by their losses on election day, don’t expect the same from the USCCB. They will be doubling down on the fight against contraception, complete with extra help from the Vatican, even as Ireland is reeling over the death of Savita Halappanavar, who was going through a bad miscarriage and was refused an abortion that would have saved her life “because this is a Catholic country.” (More here from RhRealityCheck on how this relates to the political battles here in the US.) No, the fight must go on, say the bishops, and even now the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Health Care is meeting to deal with the pressing issue of Catholic hospitals providing abortions in opposition to church teachings.

The passion with which some in the USCCB are pushing these things cannot be underestimated. Among the other items on their agenda this past week were the adoption of a statement on preaching, which carried the same “our problem is we need better messaging” tone and a statement on the economic crisis — a statement that failed to get the two-thirds vote needed for adoption. Here’s how the National Catholic Reporter described the debate:

Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, Texas [and also a past president of the USCCB], denounced a proposed pastoral statement on workers, poverty and the economy as a betrayal of Catholic social teaching. . . .

He noted that the proposed statement, “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times: A pastoral message on work, poverty and the economy,” did not have a single reference, even in a footnote, to the bishops’ landmark 1986 pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All,” which the bishops developed after years of consultation with economists and other experts. The letter addressed a full range of applications of Catholic social teaching to economic policy and practice in the United States.

“Where’s the continuity?” Fiorenza asked.

“I am very disappointed, and I fear that this draft, if not changed in a major way,” will harm the U.S. bishops’ record on Catholic social teaching, he said.

“The title of this document is about work, and it seems you only gave one sentence to our social teaching … on the right of workers to unionize,” he said.

“One sentence,” he added. “It’s almost like it was an afterthought. But when you look at the compendium of the social teachings of the church, there are three long paragraphs on the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike.”

If that was the afterthought, what was the thought? As Grant Gallicho noted at dotCommonweal, “Instead [of connecting with Economic Justice For All], the drafters apparently thought the bishops’ statement on the economy was an appropriate venue to rehearse their concerns about gay marriage, the contraception mandate, and school vouchers.”

To their credit, enough bishops agreed with Fiorenza to keep the statement from being adopted.

But make no mistake: these issues are not going away in the USCCB, and they will not be going away for the GOP. The election results decided certain things, but the biggest thing they decided was that the battles will go on, waged even more fiercely by the USCCB.

As long as they think that their problem is that people didn’t understand what they were saying, however, the more their losses will continue to mount. They’ve been very clear about wanting to deny women’s rights, LGBT rights, and about wanting to claim an exemption to any law, rule, or regulation on any topic that they don’t agree with. It’s not that the voters don’t get this; it’s that they don’t like this.

I know I sure don’t.


Photo by sparetomato under Creative Commons license.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

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