From ........... National Catholic Reporter

July 12, 1996

page 28

Speaking to the U.S. bishops at their June meeting, Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, conference president, recognized the opportunities and dangers the church faces as it attempts to be a moral voice during an election year. While the address appeared aimed at educating the public about how the bishops view their role as teachers and not party partisans, it also seemed to send an important message to bishops.

It is no secret the U.S. bishops were used during the Reagan and Bush administrations and hurt as a result. Nonpartisan though they may have tried to be in a technical sense they invested an enormous amount of political capital into the antiabortion cause. In return, however, they got precious little back for their efforts.

A prime example was the rousing welcome given in New York to candidate George Bush at a convention of the Knights of Columbus, with many of the attending clergy and bishops and including Cardinal John O'Connor, prominently present. Bush lost his reelection effort, but the point had been made. The gathering was only one of many at which [Roman] Catholic bishops provided meetings and photo opportunities with Republican antiabortion candidates.

Bush, like his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had offered little or no support to the other pressing social issues on the bishops' agenda. As for abortion, there was lots of noise about opposing abortion, but little action. This partisanship hurt the bishops in several ways. First, after 12 years of Republican administration, legalized abortion continues. Second, while their attention was on abortion, the social safety net established over a generation to protect the weakest among us was unraveling. Third, an alienated, Clinton-led Democratic party feels it owes nothing at all to the bishops. Meanwhile, cynicism grows among many [Roman] Catholics who hear the bishops saying one thing about their roles as teachers and doing another.

With this in mind, we can imagine Pilla cringing when on June 26, just six days after delivering his talk, O'Connor appeared once again in a picture on the top of the front page of The New York Times with a Republican presidential candidate, this time Robert Dole.

Of course, a photograph with a candidate is not necessarily an endorsement, but O'Connor knows what a campaign season photo says.

Additionally, what made the session with Dole surge well beyond any plausible neutrality into the realm of endorsement was O'Connor's insistence, according to the Times account, of clearing Dole of charges by antiabortion forces who were arguing he was diluting his antiabortion stand. The O'Connor meeting followed by days Dolc's comments that the Republican platform be tolerant of other views on abortion. That angered the hard right and Dole was hurting.

The cardinal's blessing, coming when it did, was a blatantly partisan political act.

The [Roman] Catholic community has a powerful corpus of social thinking, perhaps best condensed in the expressions "seamless garment" and "consistent ethic," to guide it in the rough-and-tumble of political battles. But to teach this by living it, the bishops must act with great wisdom and prudence if they are not to be co-opted by eager political partisans.

For example, the bishops-backed nationwide postcard campaign to override the Clinton veto of the partialahortion bill arguably represents proper church involvement in a political matter. But it is questionable when no such campaign develops in the face of politicians who want to shut all doors to immigrants, force young mothers to leave their children to take jobs, invest billions in ludicrous missile defense systems, cut public housing widen the death penalty to include young teens and the mentally disabled. Why no postcards then?

Politics, yes, necessarily so. But without an above party evenhandedness, the bishops' message is seen as primarily political and it is cheapened. Pilla and other bishops understand this. Some, including O'Connor, clearly do not.

"As moral teachers," said Pilla, "we bishops definitely do seek to persuade and to offer our arguments, in every forum our society has to offer, in favor of what we believe will serve the common good." He went on to warn, however, that the role of teacher "should also signify that our intention is not either to advance or to undermine the electoral fortunes of any individual or party.

History shows that, in our culture at least, when religious leaders enter into electoral politics, it is more likely that religion will be debased than that politics will be elevated."

Near the end of his talk, Pilla advised that bishops "should not hesitate to teach the principles of [Roman] Catholic social justice, even with the realization that the political parties, the media, and individual candidates will seek to use what we say to their own advantage. In such a situation, we should not let the 'photo op' obscure our message."

That's advice that the cardinal archbishop of New York ought to finally take to heart. Others might listen, too.

"Republican presidential challenger Bob Dole talks with Cardinal John J. O'Connor outside St. Patrick's Cathedral before their hour-long meeting at the cardinal's residence in New York June 25." - [caption under picture of Dole and O'Connor]