Maureen Dowd wrote an almost innocuous column in The New York Times in which she noted, or argued, that “American bishops have been inconsistent in preaching their values.” Any reader who is up on the teachings of the company of bishops should not be surprised that they are inconsistent or that Ms. Dowd caught them in action. Such a reader who is up on the parties in play can also expect that the columnist is zeroing in on a zone of teachings about sex, which are of a different nature than are the rest of the social teachings. Someone had to notice her generalization.
Someone did. An authoritative if informal response came in the Letters to the Editor column from Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany who wrote on “The Values of the Bishops.” He argued that Ms. Dowd and so many like her were not paying attention, so he cited all kinds and degrees of interest they had shown in focusing on the social teachings. Since we don’t often hear about almost all of them, it pays to note his list.
Bishop Hubbard pointed out that the bishops consistently raised grave moral concerns regarding the decision to invade Iraq back when that stance was unpopular, before the war became unpopular in the mind of the larger public. Who noticed? The bishops have been consistent supporters of efforts to repeal the death penalty, and have held this position for decades. They challenge the capital punishment culture and routinely request clemency for death-row inmates, in low- and high-profile cases alike. Who noticed?
The full body of bishops in 2007, Bishop Hubbard argued, overwhelmingly adopted “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a document which showed them “preaching their values.” Who noticed it? Bishop Hubbard listed some of the specific “values” positions, e.g., against torture, racism, and the targeting of non-combatants in acts of terror or war. These were “intrinsically evil.” Facing up to the need to deal with the suffering “from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigrations policy” also escaped public notice among many. “Today, we bishops are exercising our leadership in advocating for the protection of poor people at home and abroad in the continuing budget debates.” Notice, anyone?
Included in the values list were condemnations of “abortion, euthanasia,” and he could have added, “homosexual” activity. Now, check these three as “noticed,” “noticed,” and “noticed” by much of the Catholic public which likes to ignore all the other “values” here, and by non-Catholic publics who never heard of other parts of the “seamless” or consistent ethic about which we heard some years ago. Now we are left to ponder: which zones of values get noticed by Catholics (including “by which Catholics?”) and which not? Who praises the bishops for what they put on the extensive values lists which are as old as 1893 or 1917 or other times of the formulation of social ethics? And is “consistency” among them to be valued? Also, which consistent instances help the Catholic “values” cause, and which are counter-productive? An election year is a good time to ponder some answers to the questions. One hopes that the whole range of issues will get noticed.
A last question: how do these values differ from those of most humanist, mainline Protestant, and Jewish choices? Believers and unbelievers are in much of this together. Do the old lines and definitions still serve? It’s time to notice.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, includingPilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.