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“Blatant untruths” are among the sins perpetrated by the Catholic Alliance, according to Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., who addressed a closed executive session of the U.S. bishops last November. The Alliance, a division of the Christian Coalition, “will create massive confusion” among politicians and the Catholic faithful because it “purport[s] to represent the position of the Catholic Church.” “At a minimum,” he said, “it must be made clear that the Catholic Alliance does not speak for the bishops, who are the official teachers in the Church.”

The bishops’ political agenda “cuts across political and ideological lines,” said Hubbard. “I believe a separate, purportedly ‘Catholic’ organization which does not adhere to this agenda will undermine our heretofore unified efforts.” The Alliance, he said, is “another effort to split Catholics from their bishops.” That the Christian Coalition did not consult with the bishops conference before setting up the Alliance he finds “startling and offensive” in an “age of ecumenical sensitivity.” While acknowledging that Catholics are free to join the Alliance, he urges the bishops to distance themselves from it and to discourage parishes and church organizations from cooperating with it. The attack on the Catholic Alliance is redolent of a clericalism that many thought had been retired by the Second Vatican Council.

And if blatant untruths have been perpetrated in this dispute, it is not clear that they have been perpetrated by the Christian Coalition. Bishop Hubbard would have done his fellow bishops a service had he made available to them the mission statement of the Catholic Alliance. That statement begins with the assertion of Vatican Council II that the laity are to penetrate public life with a Christian spirit (Gaudium et Spes, 43). It then continues: “Animated by the call of the Second Vatican Council, enlightened by faith and motivated by our citizenship, we Catholic American lay people join with the Christian Coalition to promote, through action, a free and truly just society.” In no way does the Alliance purport to speak for the bishops or for the Catholic Church. It is a voluntary association of Catholic lay people seeking to exercise their responsibility as citizens in effecting social and political change. Only those wedded to clericalist patterns of the past should feel threatened by that.

Nor is the Alliance an effort “to split Catholics from their bishops.” True, the mission statement cites popes (John XXIII and John Paul II) rather than statements of the U.S. bishops conference as the Alliance’s source of inspiration, but perhaps that should prompt the bishops to ask themselves why their statements have elicited so little response from many of the Catholic people. In his address, Bishop Hubbard said, “I realize too that the Catholic Alliance may be emerging in the absence of our own church’s grassroots organizing effort on issues of public policy.” What he does not say is that people cannot be mobilized to champion an “agenda [that] cuts across political and ideological lines.” People become activists, whether of the left or of the right, precisely in order to press a political or ideological line. The bishops are in a bind. If they say they have no political line, they cannot rally people because there’s nothing to rally people to. If they acknowledge the line they do have, they cannot rally people who disagree with that line.

What Bishop Hubbard also does not say is that the agenda of the bishops conference is widely perceived, with justice, as supporting the Democratic Party. Apart from a few issues such as abortion and school choice, the forty-plus positions implicitly or explicitly endorsed in the bishops’ recent statement on “Political Responsibility” side with the Democrats against the Republicans. It is a constant puzzlement why bishops and their bureaucrats even bother to deny that. All one has to do is match “Political Responsibility” against the platforms and leadership statements of the parties. For all their high moral rhetoric, the bishops bring little to the political debate that is not already provided by one of the parties. Little wonder that a recent Gallup poll indicates that only 7 percent of Catholics look to religious leadership for guidance on matters of public policy. Little wonder that some bishops feel so threatened by the Catholic Alliance.

Bishop Hubbard complains that Ralph Reed & Co. did not consult with the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) before launching the Catholic Alliance. Can anyone believe for a minute that the USCC would have helped or encouraged such an initiative? The plain fact is that the USCC, for all its pretensions to nonpartisanship, has a clear political and ideological agenda, and that agenda is significantly different from the more straightforwardly partisan agenda of the Christian Coalition. (Although for reasons of tax exemption, both the bishops and the Coalition do a delicate dance around the question of their partisanship.) Partisanship is part of democracy, and it comes with the risk of encroaching upon the bishops’ claim not only to be the teachers of the Catholic people but to speak for sixty million Catholics on public policy, which they manifestly do not. It is deeply distressing that the authority of the bishops has in fact been seriously undermined, but it is not the Christian Coalition that did the undermining.

Bishop Hubbard says he finds it “startling and offensive” that in this “age of ecumenical sensitivity” the Christian Coalition did not consult with the bishops. Dare one ask whether Bishop Hubbard and other bishops consulted with the Christian Coalition before launching their public attacks on the Catholic Alliance? (The “closed” discussion about the Catholic Alliance was officially published in Origins on December 7, 1995 and has been widely disseminated throughout the Catholic community.) Ecumenical sensitivity, one might suggest, is a two-way thing. We would not like to think that the bishops assume that evangelical Protestants—especially evangelical Protestants who are politically conservative—are not included within the protocols of ecumenical sensitivity.

A more constructive approach is suggested by Bishop James McHugh of Camden, New Jersey, who notes that he and other bishops were not at all happy with news stories reporting that the bishops had attacked the Catholic Alliance. In his diocesan column, Bishop McHugh writes: “Actually, the initiation of the Catholic Alliance offers an opportunity for Catholics to discuss critical issues with the alliance leaders and with the Christian Coalition. In the face of the secularism of our political landscape and the trivialization of religion by some of our most prominent political leaders, Christians should strive to find many more areas of agreement in developing political strategies. And such efforts may make the coming year even more interesting and productive.”

The ecumenical question is addressed in the final paragraph of the Catholic Alliance’s mission statement, which quotes John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical on Christian unity (Ut Unum Sint, 43): “It happens more and more often that the leaders of Christian communities join together in taking a stand in the name of Christ on important problems concerning man’s calling and on freedom, justice, peace, and the future of the world. In this way they communicate in one of the tasks which constitutes the mission of Christians: that of reminding society of God’s will in a realistic manner and warning the authorities and their fellow citizens against taking steps which would lead to the trampling of human rights. It is clear, as experience shows, that in some circumstances the united voice of Christians has more impact than any one isolated voice.”

The public debate over the Catholic Alliance has been marred by blatant untruths and generalized mendacity. We are deeply ambivalent about this movement. When the Christian Coalition was first formed we challenged in these pages the choice of name. However one might agree or disagree on specific policies, it is a dangerous thing to attach the name “Christian,” the name of one’s highest allegiance, to any political movement. The danger is not, or at least not chiefly, to the integrity of politics but to the integrity of religion. As with “Christian Coalition,” so also with “Catholic Alliance.” But those are the names that have been chosen, and apparently there is nothing to be done about it. The Christian Coalition says that 17 percent of its present membership is Catholic and, with the formation of the Alliance, it hopes to boost that in short order to over 25 percent. It seems likely they will succeed. Indeed, that may be a modest goal. Many, maybe millions, of Catholics feel their deepest convictions are not effectively represented in the public square, the name “Catholic” was there for the using, and, as Mr. Dooley might have said, “Ralph Reed seen his opportunities and he took ‘em.”

In his address, Bishop Hubbard suggests that the bishops should explore canon law to see what can be done to limit the use of the term “Catholic” by organizations of which they do not approve. With due respect, that is pitiful. Not only can nobody have a copyright on “Catholic” (or on “Christian”), but the suggestion completely evades the substantive reasons why, as the bishops see it, others are intruding upon their turf. At the heart of this affair is a massive failure of communication, and the failure of communication is not unrelated to a lack of candor. If it threatens religious integrity to identify as “Christian” or “Catholic” a candidly stated political agenda, it is a greater threat to religious integrity when bishops press a political agenda disguised in the claim that they are “not a religious interest group but a community of conscience within the larger society.” In their lack of candor, or sincere self-deception, about their partisanship, the bishops elicit disagreement, which is not necessarily bad. Much more seriously, they elicit distrust, which drives to the heart of the Church’s constitution and the irreplaceable leadership of her bishops.

The Catholic Alliance is not “splitting” Catholics from their bishops, but it is not above exploiting Catholic discontent with episcopal leadership. Exploitation of opportunities is the name of the political game. If they want to know who provided the opportunity, the bishops need look no further than to themselves and the Washington apparat (USCC) by which they are poorly served.

We do not know how this unhappy state of affairs is to be remedied. The answer is not for the bishops to be as candid about their partisanship as is the Christian Coalition. The answer is certainly not for the bishops to change their politics and become as strongly Republican as they are now Democratic. If there is an answer, and there must be an answer, we expect it begins with the bishops reflecting with urgency and care on the difference between being political players and ecclesial leaders, asking whether, at the hands of the USCC, they have not been seduced into frittering away episcopal credibility in exchange for the empty promises of political influence.

A choice must be made between the inestimable dignity of the episcopal office and running a general purpose political lobby. On morally defining questions of paramount urgency, such as abortion and euthanasia, the bishops must risk entering the political fray. And even on these questions their influence should be exercised mainly in an indirect manner, through teaching and encouraging the Catholic people to effective action. But there is neither imperative nor warrant for the bishops to squander their credibility on the laundry list of political disputes to which the USCC has committed them. It is demeaning and counterproductive for the bishops to be perceived as an auxiliary of the Democratic National Committee, and a rather ineffective auxiliary at that.

Meanwhile—while the bishops reflect on the ways in which they have played into the hands of the Christian Coalition—we can find no grounds for criticizing members of the Catholic Alliance who say of themselves: “Animated by the call of the Second Vatican Council, enlightened by faith and motivated by our citizenship, we Catholic American lay people join to promote, through action, a free and truly just society.” Although we do wish they would find a different name.