When hundreds of Catholic bishops gather in Baltimore Monday for their general assembly, the choices they make will not only affect the institutional church, they may very well determine the 2020 election.
That’s because abortion remains a potent issue in American politics, and opposition to abortion has long been the electoral litmus test for the bishops. Their 42-page document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, last revised in 2015, calls abortion an “intrinsically evil” act that may “never be supported or condoned.”
It explains why they largely kept silent when candidate Donald Trump promised to build a wall at the Mexican border, disrespected women and eviscerated civility: Mr. Trump pledged to name justices who would repeal Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
The bishops’ silence likely influenced the 2016 election. White Catholic voters helped deliver candidate Donald Trump victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016. He won these three crucial swing states by a total of fewer than 80,000 votes.
Days after the Trump victory, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori told The Sun that the bishops would assess the election outcome "through the lens of our social teaching,” anticipating “some bright spots” but also some “challenging spots.”
The bishops got the Supreme Court of their dreams. But along with it, they have faced a White House increasingly hostile to refugees and to all immigrants — legal and illegal. Not to mention a president whose hateful, sometimes racist, tweets have tarred not only elected officials but also entire communities.
In 2020, will the bishops’ message to voters emphasize the gospel values of social justice and hospitality to immigrants? Or will they continue to frame abortion as the greatest moral evil?
The prospects for change look grim. A task force is working on a short letter and four 90-second videos to supplement “Faithful Citizenship,” Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez told reporters last June. He noted that the new materials would be widely circulated and aimed to be “personal, realistic and appropriate for what we are going through in our country at the time.” But he also stressed that the church’s “basic teachings” in Faithful Citizenship would not be revised.
Archbishop Gomez came to the U.S. as an immigrant, and has strongly opposed President Donald Trump’s policies. Nevertheless, he is caught in the same bind as his brother bishops, unwilling to give up the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishop’s single-minded focus on curbing women’s reproductive rights. In a recent speech, Archbishop Gomez decried the poverty and income inequality in his city. However, he then called abortion the “fundamental social injustice ... because it means the direct killing of the most defenseless members in the human family.”
The prelates fail to acknowledge that poverty drives half the nation’s abortions and that a ban may not reduce them; needy, desperate women may seek out unsafe ways to terminate their pregnancies. Indeed, the USCCB is even more extreme. The bishops vigorously fought the contraceptive mandate in the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, attempting to deny insurance coverage for birth control to all employees of Catholic institutions.
Pope Francis has not gone soft on abortion, but his moral universe is much larger: He regularly condemns corporate greed that penalizes workers, nationalism that shuts out refugees and environmental predations jeopardizing the planet.
But U.S. bishops seem trapped in the 1960s, still obsessing over women’s sexual freedom and their newfound power to control their own bodies.
Indeed, in 2018, when several prelates strongly pressed for substantive revisions to Faithful Citizenship more in line with the pope’s views, they were soundly rebuffed by the majority. And just last month, Catholic presidential candidate Joe Biden was denied communion in South Carolina for his pro-abortion views.
Voter surveys suggest that most of the nation’s roughly 38 million Catholic voters are more apt to vote their political party than their faith. Nevertheless, some older white Midwestern Catholics likely will consider what they hear from the pulpit when they cast their ballots. It doesn’t take too many of them to shift an election.
Unless the bishops forthrightly state that policies ripping immigrant children from their parents are at least as sinful as abortion, their advice to Catholics will not have changed. And if that remains the case, the bishops will not only have failed the faithful, they may very well have failed democracy.
Celia Viggo Wexler (email@example.com) is the author of “Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).