Over 750 “tea parties” were held on April 15 of last year, protesting the excesses of the Obama administration — in particular, the pork-stuffed stimulus bill. Initially, the mainstream media tried to ignore the movement. They downplayed its size and influence, until the steady slide of President Obama’s popularity, the growing opposition to Congress’s health-care reform proposals, and Republican victories in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts forced them to acknowledge its influence.
Since then, the media strategy has been to portray the tea party as a gathering of disgruntled extremists, in spite of the fact that the limits on government spending they advocate would have been considered common sense in both political parties only a decade ago.
For American Catholics, the equivalent of centralized federal power is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The USCCB, the kind of episcopal conference authorized by Vatican II, has no canonical authority of its own. But its voice is considered authoritative by the media, and it is treated as such by those who applaud its lobbying efforts in Congress and the White House.
Criticism of the USCCB among lay Catholics, as well as many priests and bishops, has been a constant since its march to the political left in the years after its creation in 1966. Pastoral letters, including the ones on the economy (1986) and war and peace (1983), created a clear line of demarcation between the liberal politics of the conference (aligned with the Democratic Party) and the Catholics, both lay and religious, who interpreted the Church’s social teaching differently (in a way inclining them toward conservatism and the GOP.)
The pro-life advocacy of the conference, along with its opposition to same-sex marriage, has always set it apart from other politically liberal institutions. Unfortunately, the USCCB’s choice of coalition partners and memberships often threaten to undermine the clarity of its witness.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the series of reports from the Reform CCHD Now Coalition. These reports show two things clearly:
<!–[if !supportLists]–>1. <!–[endif]–>Bishops have given Catholic money to organizations advocating abortion and same-sex marriage (two such organizations were defunded last November).
<!–[if !supportLists]–>2. <!–[endif]–>The bishops have joined coalitions, like the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, that also advocate abortion and same-sex marriage.
These reports differ from previous attempts to address the politics of the USCCB in two ways: First, their Internet links allow anyone to read the various smoking guns unearthed by the research. The second factor is timing — the reports come after both the 2008 presidential election and the furor surrounding Notre Dame’s decision to bestow an honor on a pro-abortion president.
The Notre Dame incident brought home to thousands of Catholics, in a way they had never understood before, that many venerable mainstream Catholic institutions were strongholds of dissent.
Yet the Notre Dame story might not have gone so far if many Catholics were not already furious with the role a bishops’ document played in the election of Barack Obama in the first place.
The 2007 version of the bishops’ “Faithful Citizenship” document, prepared in advance for distribution for the 2008 election, contained several passages that, if taken out of context, gave the green light to Catholic voters to ignore Obama’s aggressively pro-abortion stance. (Obama won the self-identified Catholic vote over Sen. John McCain 54 percent to 44 percent, though among religiously active Catholics he lost by 1 percentage point.)
That document did not emerge from the USCCB without a fight — a number of bishops opposed it; I am told that Archbishop Raymond Burke, then still in St. Louis, was literally shouted down when he tried to explain his opposition to the problematic passages. The best any bishop has been able to say to me regarding “Faithful Citizenship” is that “it was difficult, it was a compromise.”
But such compromises are brewing a tempest for a potential tea party revolution among the faithful. In some ways, the very notion of a tea party goes against the grain for Catholics, with their inbred sense of deference to authority. Those same Catholics, however, are beginning to realize that there are some matters where they can speak out without acting in disobedience to the authority of their bishop.
In response to my recent story on the USCCB’s membership in a pro-abortion civil rights organization, a Notre Dame alumnus from the class of 1965 sent me this message: “Is it time for us to start throwing tea bags at the USCCB?” This is a man who, ten years ago, would not tolerate a word uttered against either Notre Dame or the bishops. The times may be changing.