Earlier this summer, Jesuit Father Thomas Reese wrote two columns in The National Catholic Reporter dealing with what he saw as a bias in the media and among progressive Catholics who claim that the bishops speak publicly about abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom, but they do not give the same attention to other issues of justice and peace.
In his first column, entitled “Political priorities of US bishops may surprise you,” Reese carefully does a quantitative analysis of press statements coming from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB):
“. . .[S]even press releases on abortion, two on gay marriage, six on freedom of religion, and an additional 11 on health care where conscience issues were sometimes tangentially mentioned.
“During the same time, the bishops issued 12 press releases on foreign policy, 20 on immigration, five on environmental issues, and five on other issues of justice or the poor.”
Reese also performed a qualitative analysis, showing that the rhetoric in the press statements on the latter issues was much stronger than those on the former.
But, Reese’s analysis does not tell the whole story. And in his second column, he acknowledges that other data and circumstances may be playing a role about what issues the bishops choose to speak publicly.
In the second column, entitled “Bishops need rebranding to get out of media pigeonhole,” Reese shows that the 2017 trends he identified were not in effect in the previous years. For example, he makes the important point about a change in the political atmosphere:
“One explanation for the tone of the releases is that the bishops can now afford to be milder on the culture war since a Republican administration is on their side, while the administration is totally against their concerns on immigration, refugees, and health care for the poor.
Steve Krueger of Catholic Democrats examined earlier press releases (1997-2000 and 2009-12) and found an increased focus on abortion, religious freedom and gay marriage during the first term of the Obama administration. Perhaps the nature and tone of conference press releases change with the political environment. In dealing with an administration, the bishops’ rhetoric may get more passionate on the issues where there is disagreement.
Krueger’s analysis points to the fact that if we are seeing a change in the bishops’ priorities, it is a fairly new one. Perhaps the media and the wider Catholic audience need to be given some time to catch up to the bishops’ new priorities.
In both columns, Reese also acknowledges another weakness in his about his claim that the bishops have turned away from culture war issues: he notes that the statements on culture war topics are issued by cardinals and archbishops, who have much higher rank not only in the church, but in the eyes of the media. So, these statements garner more attention.
I think there are three other missing pieces in Reese’s initial analysis. First, while it may be true that the USCCB is moving away from culture war issues toward more social justice issues, that is not necessarily the case with individual bishops. We continue to see bishops condemning marriage equality in their statements, even though it is already a legal reality. They are equally condemning when it comes to issues of gender identity. When Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, decreed that married lesbian and gay people were barred from most of pastoral life, that statement made national news and spoke more loudly than any bishops’ conference statement. Reese’s analysis only examined USCCB statements, not those of individual bishops.
Second, besides the change in political climate, I think it is important to note that there has recently been a change in ecclesial climate due to the influence of Pope Francis. Can the USCCB’s concern about social issues and their de-emphasis on culture war issues mean that they are heeding the pontiff’s advice and example?
Thirdly, and most importantly, while it may be true that the USCCB is speaking more about social justice issues and less about gay marriage, it’s also important to remember what the bishops conference is NOT talking about. No statements against bullying LGBT youths. No statements about physical and too often fatal attacks against transgender people. No statements about Catholic parishes and schools welcoming LGBT people in the spirit of encounter and accompaniment called for by Pope Francis. All of these are issues that the bishops can easily make without any connection to the magisterium’s sexual ethics teaching they are often so quick to defend. Their silence on these issues speaks louder than even their condemnatory statements on LGBT issues.
If the bishops truly want to adopt a new social justice agenda to replace their old culture war agenda, they will have to start recognizing that LGBT issues are a main part of the social justice agenda of U.S. Catholics. If they start being inclusive, I’m sure the media will stand up and take notice.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, September 5, 2017