A Prophetic Force or Echo Chamber?

Competing conceptions of the Church in the age of Obama.

“Bishop decries ‘combative tactics’ of a minority of US bishops,” ran a headline in the National Catholic Reporter, a newspaper known for its own combative tactics. A bishop who gives an interview to the proudly rebellious National Catholic Reporter isn’t exactly on solid ground in protesting dissent and confrontation, but Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, New Mexico plowed ahead anyway.

Archbishop Sheehan said that he supported Notre Dame’s decision to confer an honorary degree upon Barack Obama and could not understand the “big scene” of protests about it. Asked by NCR if other bishops agreed with him, he replied, “Of course, the majority.”

He declared that “we don’t want to isolate ourselves from the rest of America by our strong views on abortion and the other things.” Though normally sensitive to the etiquette of ecumenism, he then allowed himself a slight at the expense of another religious group: “We’d be like the Amish, you know, kind of isolated from society, if we kept pulling back because of a single issue.”

So opposing the killing of unborn children makes American Catholics like the Amish? No, it makes them like early Christians, and it is the mark of an engaged, not isolated, religion to protect the good of society through public witness to the truth. An isolated sect doesn’t even bother.

Sheehan’s use of the trivializing phrase “single issue” is also telling. Were that “single issue” torturing prisoners, he would never use it. But somehow he considers “single issue” an appropriate description for the deaths of over a million unborn children a year.

Sheehan claims to fear for the Church’s irrelevance, but nothing has contributed more to it than his conception of the Church as an echo chamber for a secularized culture. As bishops in recent decades worried about “isolating” themselves from the public, they became more and more invisible to it.

“I believe in collaboration,” Sheehan said. “I worked under Cardinal Bernardin and he taught me how to collaborate, how to consult. So I am very committed to the concept called shared responsibility. I think involving people in the process all the way along—my priests, my lay people, I am open to talking to them, working with them. Consultation, collaboration, building bridges not burning them.”

Is taking aim at the D’Arcys and Chaputs in a publication of notorious dissent a form of collaboration? How quickly the spirit of collegiality espoused by the Bernardin-style bishops evaporates when the liberal consensus they once took for granted breaks down.

The Sheehan interview contained another ironic twist. Instead of typically defending the concerns of the local Church against the Vatican, he piously invoked the Vatican against the local Church. The Vatican is suddenly worthy of Sheehan’s praise now that a few curial officials have interpreted Obama’s agenda sympathetically.

The Vatican is a “little more diplomatically sensitive,” he said, claiming that he seeks to emulate its approach to Communion-related controversies: “The Vatican doesn’t do these big sanctions, you’re out of the church if you vote this way. They’ve tried it, it doesn’t work, and I try to learn from what the Vatican has to teach and to use that myself.”

It has fallen to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver to remind those Vatican officials whom Sheehan extols that local Catholics in this instance understand the facts on the ground far better than they do.

Writing in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio in response to Cardinal Georges Cottier’s praise of Obama’s “humble realism” and the “positive indications” of his words at Notre Dame, Chaput noted: “When Notre Dame’s local bishop vigorously disagrees with the appearance of any speaker, and some 80 other bishops and 300,000 laypeople around the country publicly support the local bishop, then reasonable people must infer that a real problem exists with the speaker—or at least with his appearance at the disputed event.”

The protest “was about serious issues of Catholic belief, identity, and witness,” Chaput wrote.

Indeed, the protest represented the “prophetic force” that Pope Benedict XVI has urged Catholics to renew. As he pointed out in his address in early October to Miguel Diaz, the new US ambassador to the Holy See, Catholicism’s service to the good of man depends upon that prophetic witness.

“In a word, fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom and real development. For her part the Church in the United States wishes to contribute to the discussion of the weighty ethical and social questions shaping America’s future by proposing respectful and reasonable arguments grounded in the natural law and confirmed by the perspective of faith,” he said.

Archbishop Sheehan’s fear that the Church in America could become “isolated” from popular opinion rests on a false and superficial understanding of her mission, one that would reduce her to the role of ratifying grave errors at the very moment resistance to them is needed most.


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