Whether in Miami or Seattle, Newark or St. Paul-Minneapolis, the U.S. bishops are ratcheting up the influence of their office during the final days of the 2012 campaign season.
Providentially, during the last lap before the election, Church leaders and lay experts are meeting for the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in Rome, where they are discussing the best way to mute the siren song of secularism and draw Catholics back to faith in Jesus Christ.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, in his opening address at the synod, urged Christians to "overcome the syndrome of embarrassment" that led the faithful to shrug off threats to the survival of "marriage, family, the concept of the common good and objective right and wrong."
The breakdown in the transmission of the faith that followed the Second Vatican Council was partly responsible for this state of affairs, he admitted, and his urgent tone suggested that the Church cannot afford any further delay in repairing the damage.
The cardinal’s words provide spiritual and cultural context for the U.S. bishops’ election-year pastoral letters and social-media tools that provide guidance to Catholic voters on religious freedom, life and marriage issues, sometimes with combustible results.
It’s too soon to say whether these efforts will have a decisive impact on state contests or on the outcome of the presidential election.
The U.S. bishops do not endorse candidates, and commentators are still debating whether Church leaders’ unresolved dispute with the Obama administration over the federal contraception mandate could lead Catholics in battleground states to shift their support to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
But it’s indisputable that the bishops are stirring both intense hostility and enthusiasm among Catholics in the pews. Many are grappling with hot-button issues that test their political loyalties and an often tenuous grasp of Church doctrine.
The bishops’ opposition to same-sex "marriage" in Washington, Maryland, Minnesota and Maine — four states that will decide the issue in November — underscores the scope and complexity of their role in the 2012 campaign season.
As the gap between Catholic and mainstream values continues to widen, Church leaders are spearheading referendum battles that double as catechetical seminars.
The high stakes involved have prompted bishops to drive these campaigns.
They have marshaled the faithful where they can, while drawing attacks from Catholics who either reject their priorities or criticize them for doing too little, too late.
In some instances, the bishops’ clear articulation of Catholic teaching is viewed as unsolicited meddling in the political process. Further, Catholic doctrine on religious freedom, life and marriage puts partisan loyalists in the uncomfortable position of choosing between faith and party ideology, especially now that the Democratic Party platform endorses both "marriage equality" and abortion rights.
In such cases, it’s not unusual for Church leaders to be accused of politicizing Catholic teaching, as if non-negotiable moral precepts bear no relevance in actual policymaking.
Catholics who are passionately engaged in the political process must not confuse political scorekeeping with a more fundamental responsibility to embrace natural-law precepts that transcend political categories — and be a leaven in a culture that risks forgetting its Divine origins.
As Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore notes elsewhere in these pages, "What is lost in so much of public discourse and all the sound bites is the ability to think at the level of principles, at the level of what is foundational. One reason our country is so divided is our seeming inability to do this."
During the 2012 election year, state bishops’ conferences dealing with "marriage equality" referenda are striving to remedy this problem, anchoring their arguments in the framework of Christian anthropology.
But they are playing catch-up.
Many Catholics believe the benefits of legal marriage should be extended to same-sex unions because they have not been taught God’s plan for marriage in the economy of salvation.
Here’s where Providence is at work in the parallel efforts of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization and the bishops’ final push before the November election.
Archbishop Lori put it this way: "There are many openings for the Gospel, but we cannot defend traditional marriage, for example, without engaging the New Evangelization. Yet, in an election year, we have a tendency to drop everything else to focus on the campaign, to exaggerate both the importance of victory and the dangers of defeat."
Ultimately, the New Evangelization offers a more sustainable path for Catholic public witness that is inspired by the bishops as authoritative teachers of faith and morals — and executed by a well-formed laity that will not tailor their beliefs to fit partisan talking points.
As Cardinal Wuerl said, "The New Evangelization begins with each of us taking it upon ourselves to renew once again our understanding of the faith and our appropriation of it in a way that more deeply, willingly and joyfully embraces the Gospel message and its application today."