Steve Bannon’s Comments Were Harsh. But the US Bishops are Between a Rock and a Hard Place.
Former White House strategist Steve Bannon has provoked a firestorm in Catholic circles. How? First by supporting President Trump’s broadly popular goal of stopping illegal immigration. That fits in seamlessly with the actual teaching of the Catholic church. Our official Catechism teaches that if migrants wish to stay they must obey their new nation’s laws. Those include immigration laws. In fact, the 2016 GOP platform on the topic sounds like it’s plagiarized from the Catechism.
But Trump, Bannon, and millions of Catholic voters are out of step with the political opinions of their bishops. Those bishops routinely condemn every effort to enforce America’s laws. Pope Francis’ public statements go further, and suggest open borders as the proper Christian policy. As I documented here, some 24 U.S. bishops went so far this spring as to promise to use church facilities to “disrupt” law enforcement on immigration.
Then Bannon offered a theory as to why the bishops don’t follow the Church’s official teaching. He told Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes:
The bishops have been terrible about this. By the way, you know why? You know why? Because unable to really — to — to — to come to grips with the problems in the church, they need illegal aliens, they need illegal aliens to fill the churches. That’s — it’s obvious on the face of it. That’s what — the entire Catholic bishops condemn him. … They have — they have an economic interest. They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration. And as much … as I respect Cardinal Dolan and the bishops on doctrine, this is not doctrine. This is not doctrine at all. I totally respect the pope and I totally respect the Catholic bishops and cardinals on doctrine. This is not about doctrine. This is about the sovereignty of a nation. And in that regard, they’re just another guy with an opinion.
New York’s Cardinal Dolan went on XM Sirius to reply:
I don’t really wanna care to go into what I think is a preposterous and rather insulting statement that the only reason we bishops care for immigrants is for the economic because we want to fill our churches and get more money. That’s insulting and that’s just so ridiculous that it doesn’t merit a comment.
Not exactly a detailed refutation, is it? Bannon may have put the point bluntly, and uncharitably reduced the bishops’ views to cynical interests. But one gets the sense that a hornets’ nest has been poked.
Bishops Are Only Human
I don’t think Cardinal Dolan is a venal or Machiavellian churchman. Neither does Steve Bannon. But we do think that he and the other bishops are human. God doesn’t promise to guide the church in its managerial decisions or political opinions. Nope, that’s subject to the same fallen human nature that goaded Renaissance cardinals, Jimmy Swaggart, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. You and are I stuck with it too.
Catholic bishops are only human. That means they’re fallen, like us.
St. Augustine taught us, in the City of God, to analyze human actions with original sin in mind. (He compared the founders of Rome to a band of pirates.) That includes the actions of bishops, even popes. They are subject, like you and I, to temptations from the devil. Each of us feels drawn to the path of least resistance, to seek out praise and avoid public scorn. We’re each of us tempted at times to “phone it in” instead of shouldering the cross.
So you and I should avoid the easy temptation to scapegoat illegal immigrants for our country’s social problems. Agreed. That’s something the bishops talk about a lot. Liberal journalists love that, so those statements get praised as “courageous” and quoted against Republicans by reporters who’d march on Christmas morning to keep third trimester abortion for sex selection legal and taxpayer-funded.
Temptations of the Shepherds
What should bishops watch out for? What temptations come with the territory where they live? Here we see that Steve Bannon has touched a sore spot in American Catholic life and leadership. According to Pew, some 40% of native-born Catholics leave the Church. If it weren’t for large-scale immigration from countries where bishops are better at preaching the faith, the American Catholic church would be shrinking at a rate comparable to Mainline Protestant denominations. One in four American Catholics today is himself an immigrant, most of them from Latin America. And a disturbingly high percentage of immigrant Catholics leave the Church too, after a few years of life in tepid U.S. parishes.
Imagine you were a bishop, and you looked at the flat or shrinking numbers of Catholics in your diocese. What would you think? Would you be eager to see the federal government cut into them still further by enforcing immigration laws? Or might you feel tempted to echo leftists by claiming that those laws are somehow unjust? By doing it, you can also deflect the charge that you’re a hardline conservative for opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. It’s one of the few things you can say in public that will always get you praise in the secular press. That helps with donors, whose money you need for a thousand valid reasons. Like feeding the poor, and running pro-life pregnancy centers.
Speaking of money, many Catholic institutions, such as Catholic Charities, are heavily funded by U.S. government grants. It can turn them into federal contractors as much as apostolates. In 2014, the USCCB admitted that 97% of its spending on refugees was funded by the taxpayer. This dependence on the feds has threatened their freedom to follow Catholic teaching, for instance in hiring same-sex couples.
If you were a bishop, and you looked at the flat or shrinking numbers of Catholics in your diocese, what would you think? Would you be eager to see the federal government cut into them still further by enforcing immigration laws? Or might you feel tempted to echo leftists by claiming that those laws are somehow unjust?
If you were a bishop, would you want to see the budgets of your charities shrink by millions of dollars every year? Would you enjoy laying off good people, because you don’t have the money to pay them? Would the prospect of closing apostolates appeal to you? Probably not. So you might be tempted to support the government policies that spare you and your people all that pain. It’s only human.
Dieting or Diet Pills?
To make this even clearer, imagine this: Your doctor tells you that you really must lose some weight. It’s key for your health. There are two routes you can take. Each seems like it would work. You can fiercely limit your calories and train for your local marathon. Or you can take this nice diet pill, which the government offers to send you for free. Which would be more attractive?
Add on these conditions. Imagine that the media and other elites scorned diet and exercise. That waiters openly mocked those who ordered salads in restaurants. That passersby pelted joggers with garbage.
Now what choice would really prefer to make? That’s the dilemma facing Catholic bishops.
The Straight and Narrow Path
There’s another way to stop the Catholic population from hemorrhaging. To fill up your parishes and seminaries. But it’s a stark and lonely road that wins you no “attaboys.” In fact, it will get you mocked and spat on.
The signs on that road read “orthodoxy” and “tradition.” And a few bishops are taking it. They are leading the revitalization of faithful Catholicism in their dioceses. They are cleaning the liberals out of the seminaries. They’re turning away gay vocations. They’re insisting on orthodoxy in their parishes and schools. And they’re seeing a surge of vocations, conversions, and Mass attendance. They’re also under savage fire from the secular world and liberals within the Church’s institutions. See what happened to Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, IL. All he did was to say that people in same-sex relationships couldn’t receive Holy Communion. Seems obvious from a Catholic point of view. But the media painted him as if he’d joined the Ku Klux Klan. Even liberal Catholics joined the lynch mob.
To be a faithful bishop with a thriving church, you’d have to make a thousand such decisions every year. And reap the whirlwind without backing down, as good Bishop Paprocki has refused to back down.
Or you could keep the numbers up by just sitting back and waiting for new Catholics to show up from Latin America. Some of them would end up in the seminary just by the law of averages. And the public would praise you. Again, be honest: Which would be easier?