Monday, September 15, 2008

From the Publisher's Desk, NCR Edition

Placing the marquee publication of American Catholicism's progressive wing in feisty, fearless and familiar hands, earlier today the National Catholic Reporter announced the return of Joe Feuerherd -- until last year, the paper's longtime Washington correspondent -- to its masthead, but now as publisher and editor-in-chief.

The 45-year-old Feuerherd first came to NCR in 1984 when he showed up, as a junior at the Catholic University of America, from which he graduated with a degree in history. As a college intern, he said, “I made the coffee, sorted mail, answered phones, clipped newspapers and grabbed whatever reporting assignments I could finagle.”

He apparently impressed enough people to wind up with the title political affairs reporter during his senior year at Catholic University.

Feuerherd would leave and return several times over the next two decades.... He returned to NCR from 1988 to 1991 [and 2002 to 2007] as Washington bureau chief....

Feuerherd, on his appointment as publisher, commented, “Forty-plus years ago a group of spirited and entrepreneurial journalists decided that both the church and the broader culture would be served by a publication that told the story of Catholics in this country — an independent newspaper that provided, to the extent possible, the facts and the truth about the institution and its people. They were right then — and that mission is even more important today.”

With Feuerherd slated to take the reins of the KC-based weekly on October 1, the news comes not all that long after the scribe made some headlines of his own by lobbing a high-octane February bomb in the Washington Post....

To Catholics like me who oppose liberal abortion laws but also think that other issues -- war or peace, health care, just wages, immigration, affordable housing, torture -- actually matter, the idea that abortion trumps everything, all the time, no matter what, is both bad religion and bad civics. It's not, for God's sake, as though we're in Nazi Germany and supporting Hitler.

Or is it? Amazingly, at least one influential bishop has made just that comparison publicly, and it's a good bet that many others believe it privately....

This fire-and-brimstone approach to the ballot box is the long-term bequest of a conservative pope, John Paul II, enacted by a U.S. hierarchy appointed during his 27-year tenure and now by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. John Paul's key criterion in choosing the men who lead the United States' 195 dioceses was their vocal support for church teachings that have been rejected in whole (birth control) or in part (women's ordination and abortion) by many Catholics in the pews and the broader American culture. John Paul gave little weight to management or pastoral experience, as evidenced by the bishops' handling of the clergy sex-abuse crisis.

The "Forming Consciences" statement is the most pronounced sign of how much things have changed in the Catholic Church over the past 25 years. It was the U.S. Catholic bishops, after all, who cautioned in a 1983 pastoral letter that the bedrock policy of the Cold War -- nuclear deterrence -- was immoral. These 1980s bishops were sharply critical of U.S. support for authoritarian governments in Central America. In 1985, they approved a pastoral letter that included a harsh critique of U.S.-style capitalism. All the while, and with no sense of contradiction, they spoke against the United States' liberal abortion laws and funded campaigns to overturn Roe v. Wade.

But by 2004, war, peace and economic injustice had become largely afterthoughts. Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., spoke for many of his peers when he wrote in a pastoral letter that the "right to life" is an "issue that trumps all other issues."

The bishops' defenders on the liberal/Democratic side of the political spectrum -- and there are some -- are quick to note that "Forming Consciences" doesn't limit its condemnation of "intrinsically evil" acts to the issues of abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage. And they're right. The bishops say, for example, that a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who promotes the "intrinsic evil" of racism. Fair enough. But when's the last time a credible candidate for any office in the land actually advocated racism? It's a straw man designed to protect the bishops against charges that their political agenda is too narrow.

As to the death penalty, immigration, the Iraq war, health care and other social justice issues, these fall into the realm of "prudential judgment" -- areas where Catholics of goodwill, say the bishops, can disagree. This, naturally enough, provides convenient cover for Catholic candidates who support the war, think the death penalty should be expanded, would leave millions uninsured and oppose immigration reform.

The bishops seem to have forgotten that it is not simply aspirations that matter, though they seem more than willing to accept rhetoric ("I am pro-life") over results....

So what's a pro-life, pro-family, antiwar, pro-immigrant, pro-economic-justice Catholic like me supposed to do in November? That's an easy one. True to my faith, I'll vote for the candidate who offers the best hope of ending an unjust war, who promotes human dignity through universal health care and immigration reform, and whose policies strengthen families and provide alternatives to those in desperate situations. Sounds like I'll be voting for the Democrat -- and the bishops be damned.

...that -- in a foreshadow of its unprecedented rapid-response strategy of recent weeks -- was promptly pilloried as an uncivil "screed" in the same pages by the USCCB:

With demeaning and mocking words, Feuerherd scoffs at the bishops' November 2007 statement "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." It urges Catholics not to be one-issue voters but to look at all the issues and make prudent decisions. When up for a vote, it drew virtually unanimous support of the almost 300 active members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Few decisions get that kind of support.

The document points out that Catholic voters need to consider all the issues on the table, as well as the potential of a candidate to actually implement the platform on which he or she runs. Some issues involve acts that are always wrong -- that are intrinsically evil -- because they directly and intentionally violate the sanctity of human life. A Catholic cannot directly participate in or support attacks on innocent life. A clear case is abortion, which ends the lives of more than a million children a year in this country. Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as racism, torture, genocide, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified.

Feuerherd suggests that holding the protection of human life as a primary concern means that the bishops have only one issue: abortion. But the bishops have spoken out about such matters as the war in Iraq, anti-immigrant sentiment, the death penalty and lack of adequate health care for the poor.

He also mocks the bishops for citing racism as a concern. That is especially curious given that the U.S. government is building a fence along our southern border to keep out brown people -- not along the northern border, where whites reside....

The bishops never align themselves with any party or any candidate, yet Feuerherd presumptuously declares them for Sen. John McCain. He puts the bishops in the Republican Party despite that fact that on many of their positions, such as immigration and health care, they could be considered in the Democratic camp. He describes Pope John Paul as conservative, despite the fact that the media who heard him in Newark in 1995 said he sounded more liberal than the most liberal Democrat. In 1999, in St. Louis, Pope John Paul personally -- and successfully -- called upon the governor of Missouri to commute the sentence of a man on death row....

Feuerherd's incivility is striking. The crude reference to the Eucharist as "the wafer" should be beneath anyone who respects people's religious sentiments, let alone an acknowledged Catholic. Belief in the Eucharist is sacred to Catholics, yet Feuerherd treats it in a belittling manner.

His final salvo, damning the bishops, is unworthy of both Feuerherd and The Post. It's hard to imagine The Post giving its pages to a writer suggesting the outright damnation of the leaders of any other religious body. Feuerherd's vitriol might be understandable if the bishops were concerned, like a typical special-interest group, only with what benefits them. However, the bishops' defense of the right to life of the unborn is a principled commitment in justice to the good of others who are vulnerable and with no voice of their own.

Feuerherd might want to reconsider his words in light of this, and of Christ's words to his disciples when he calls them blessed for facing insult and rejection on account of the Gospel.
So, um... to say this should be interesting might just be putting it mildly.