Late Edition: Lead, and They Will Follow

Early last year, Bishop William Liam Weigand of Sacramento issued the canonical equivalent of a cease-and-desist order against California’s then-governor, Gray Davis. A self-described Catholic, Davis nevertheless had been pursuing an aggressively pro-abortion agenda. Bishop Weigand offered the governor a choice: He could either be a Catholic in good standing or he could support abortion, but not both. Unless Davis altered his abortion stance, the bishop added, at the very least he should refrain from receiving the Eucharist.

The usual suspects denounced Bishop Weigand in predictable Pavlovian fashion, nattering about the wall of separation between church and state and telling him in so many words to mind his own business. Davis re-treated behind the “I’m-personally-opposed-to-abortion-but…” curtain. He received an additional layer of cover when California’s other bishops, including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, remained silent. Davis’s pastor, however, praised the governor’s character and cautioned his critics not to be so judgmental. After a few days, it was back to business as usual.

In fairness, Davis may perhaps be forgiven for acting as he did. For the past three decades, American bishops, with few noteworthy exceptions, have been notoriously accommodating of Catholic politicians who ignore Church teaching on grave moral issues such as abortion. Some politicians—former New York governor Mario Cuomo established the pattern—have made a great show of wrestling with their consciences. But in virtually every case, the match has ended with their consciences pinned firmly to the mat. So it was with Gray Davis. Cardinal Mahony’s silence gave him little reason to think that Bishop Weigand’s instruction would acquire wider political purchase.

Well, the times they are a-changin’. Ousted by the voters for other reasons, Davis is now a forgettable historical footnote. But a funny thing seems to have happened since his exchange with Bishop Weigand. Inspired by Weigand’s courage, a new generation of bishops is rising to redress the disastrous accommodationism of their predecessors. Boston’s new arch-bishop, Sean O’Malley, has warned pro-abortion Catholic officials in Massachusetts to refrain from receiving Communion. He has also upped the political ante by rousing the laity in opposition to homosexual marriage. For the first time in living memory, Catholic pols in Massachusetts are feeling the heat from the pews. Bishops elsewhere have begun to take note—and courage.

Most notable among them is the archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke. Last fall, while serving as bishop of La Crosse, Burke wrote privately to three Catholic legislators in Wisconsin and requested a meeting to discuss their pro-abortion records. His request was refused. After the story leaked, Bishop Burke abandoned his diplomatic silence and publicly instructed diocesan priests to refuse Communion to the legislators. He was supported in this by a number of his colleagues, including the formidable archbishop of Milwaukee, Timothy Dolan.

When presidential hopeful John Kerry visited St. Louis in January, the newly installed Archbishop Burke cited O’Malley’s Massachusetts precedent: “I would have to admonish him [Kerry] not to present himself for Communion.” The conspicuously pro-abortion Kerry replied that “what I believe personally as a Catholic as an article of faith is an article of faith.” It .41 would be wrong, however, “to legislate personal religious beliefs for the rest of the country.” This shopworn, relativist formula, which has worked so well for Catholic weasels in the past, will disintegrate in 30 seconds flat— but only if bishops take their inspiration from the likes of Weigand, O’Malley, and Burke.

Many bishops, sad to say, have made non-confrontation into a fifth cardinal virtue, which is why ambitious men like Kerry feel so blithely free to ignore Church teaching. The more serious difficulty, however, lies in the pews, where a generation of poorly instructed Catholics have been demoralized by episcopal passivity. Indeed, many do a version of the Kerry Shuffle by way of rationalizing their own opinions and behavior. By calling hypocritical officials to account, bishops will simultaneously teach the laity about their obligations as Catholic citizens. The pols will grumble, but they know how to count. They will watch the pews. Meanwhile, the people in the pews are watching their bishops.


  • Michael M. Uhlmann

    Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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