This is a far more political statement, in an overtly partisan way, than we're used to seeing from the US Catholic bishops. It also has broader implications for the Church generally and for politics generally, so what's going on here?
For starters it's helpful to ask: Who would have been pleased by this essay, and who would have been, well, let's say, displeased?
Let's see--displeased? The Democrat Party--that's a no brainer. They just lost a presidential election because they lost the heavily Catholic Reagan Democrats in the Midwest. This won't help--not in 2018, not in 2020.
How about the Bergoglio Vatican? Displeased? You'd better believe it. It's a given that Bergoglio personally has no use for the USA, and all you have to do to remind yourself just how virulent that dislike is, is reprise the article by Antonio Spadaro, the Jesuit editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, a journal that is reported to be personally vetted by Bergoglio himself. The article is titled Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism, and you can find an analysis of it by Sam Gregg here. The long and the short of it is that Spadaro--and presumably Bergoglio--are disturbed by the ecumenical cooperation between Catholics and Evangelicals. Why? Because they fear the rise of a "theocracy." Here's how Gregg puts it:
"Father Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa correctly observe that many Catholics and Evangelicals have found common cause in recent decades around issues such as “abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values.” They then add that “Both Evangelical and Catholic Integralists condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state.”
And that's more or less just for starters. Take it from me, Spadaro doesn't like Trump. The dislike begins with the nefarious Norman Vincent Peale officiating at Trump's first marriage and just goes on. But beyond the dislike for "social conservatives" generally, it's clear that this article was a direct attack on the political strategy that the Catholic bishops have followed for decades, a demand that they back off from "conflict" with the Liberal state on "matters generally considered moral or tied to values” such as "abortion, same-sex marriage, [and] religious education in schools."
So, we can take it as given that the Vatican 1) wasn't informed in advance that Dolan was writing this essay, and 2) is mightily displeased about it now that they've seen it. In a sense Dolan's essay is a follow-on to an earlier snub that the US bishops delivered to Bergoglio at their annual meeting. Back in November, 2017, the US bishops rejected Cardinal Cupich--known as "the pope's bishop"--for the leadership of their important and politically sensitive pro-life committee. If Cupich had been elected that would have been both a bow to Bergoglio and a signal to the Democrats that they could expect a more accomodating line from the Catholic Church. Instead, Cupich was soundly defeated--a poke in the eye for Bergoglio--and a steadfast pro-life bishop was elected instead. One who would not be accommodating to the Democrats on baseline social issues.
Who is likely to be pleased by all this? Naturally the Republicans, in a general way. They've tended to benefit strongly from the pro-life vote, but they've never received this pointed an assist from the Catholic bishops in the past. To the contrary, the bishops have tended to maintain an arms length relationship with the GOP, just as the GOP has often waffled on important life issues. I say this despite the fact that the GOP is mentioned only once in the essay, and that to point out that in the past Catholics have distrusted Republicans. Nevertheless, the US has a two party system, and if the Catholic Church--in the person of Cardinal Dolan--pointedly states that one of those two parties has abandoned Catholics, well, the implications aren't hard to figure out.
What about Trump? Yeah, he's gotta be pretty pleased by this. With the help of Kellyanne Conway Trump has courted Catholics from the start of his campaign, and has followed through with policy actions and appointments in ways that no other President has--no matter what their rhetoric may have been. Even though Trump is not mentioned once in Dolan's essay, it's hard to see this as much less than an endorsement. Nuanced it may be, but this initiative could only have been taken with the knowledge that it would help Trump among a key constituency for his electoral coalition. And perhaps with the hint that continued good behavior could lead to more overt support.
Now, I've been referring to Dolan and the Catholic Church as if Dolan were the head of the Church in America, but he's not. Does that change any of the preceding calculations? Does it render his essay a mere expression of personal opinion? I think not. While Dolan is no longer President of the USCCB, he has regularly assumed the position of a spokesman--a natural role for the Cardinal Archbishop of New York. I think that the decision to take this momentous step--and it was, I believe, momentous--was taken only after thorough consultation with other likeminded bishops.
My take is that the calculations that went into this decision are something like this. The Catholic bishops, having studied the politics of this new Trump era, have come to the conclusion that, as shepherd, they need to be with their flock. And they now know that their flock is no longer a Democrat flock, nor likely to return to that fold in any definitive way. As a further calculation, I believe that the bishops have recognized that if they lose the moral highground--in the eyes of their flock--on the all important social issues, the consequences could be dire. They've already seen how Trump was able to speak over their heads to the faithful. They can't afford to allow that to become a pattern, and they can't assume that Hispanic immigration is any sort of cure all for what ails the Church.
The final calculation is that offending Bergoglio is the least of the worries that the American bishops need be concerned about. From this standpoint, Dolan's essay may in fact be a gauntlet thrown in the direction of the Vatican. A warning that the Church needs to take the populist wave sweeping the Western world seriously. And more than that--a signal that important elements of the Church are coming to the conclusion that they can no longer afford to wait Bergoglio out. That they need to start drawing some lines in the face of the unfolding disaster of Bergoglio's Vatican II on Steroids.
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