George Weigel is wrong.
Obama is not driving a wedge between Catholics and their bishops, rather, he's taking advantage of a pre-existing wedge between Catholics and their bishops, a wedge the bishops themselves created. Much as it pains me to agree with anyone from America magazine, Fr. Reese hit the nail on the head: no one is listening to the Catholic bishops, and they haven't been listening for a very long time.
But, Reese is also wrong - the bishops didn't lose their credibility during the sex abuse crisis. They lost it long before that crisis began. Indeed, part of the reason the bishops covered over the sex abuse crisis is precisely because most Catholics paid no attention to them as it was, and they couldn't afford to look like even greater idiots than they already had done.
As Joseph Bottum pointed out in his First Things article last week, the bishops stopped leading over 40 years ago. Today, as in the time of the Arian heresy, the faithful lead and the bishops follow as best they can. I go into much greater detail (if only because I have more space to explain it), in my book Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America, but here's the thumbnail of the problem: when chemical contraception became possible, the American bishops became docile. They agreed to Lyndon Baines Johnson's suggestion that they shut the hell up on contraception in exchange for him conducting a war on poverty. So, while they were allowed to be in opposition to abortion, they would not speak a public word against the root cause of abortion, contraception. As I pointed out in 2004, they have kept that promise for over forty years, and still adhere to it today.
In fact, they liked LBJ's deal so much, many of them are still in the political tank. Out of over 200 bishops in the United States, less than 80 publicly made statements that were clearly in opposition to Obama's election. A different group of less than 80 bishops publicly made statements that were clearly in opposition to his speaking at Notre Dame. As CultureWarNotes.com points out, at least one bishop publicly came out in favor of Obama's Notre Dame speech.
Weigel could just as easily have argued that Obama is trying to drive a wedge between two groups of Catholic bishops, and he would have been just as right (or, in this case, just as wrong).
In fact, there is already a divide in this country, and it is due precisely to the American bishops themselves. The American Catholic bishops caved back in 1968. They stopped teaching the Faith in order to satisfy American politicians. When they stopped teaching Catholic doctrine in exchange for political favors, Catholics stopped listening to them.
Today, nobody really cares what America's Catholic bishops think. After all, how many Catholics in your parish have read any doctrinal encyclical from their own bishop within the last five years, apart from perhaps an instruction on how to avoid the swine flu? How many even know that their bishops produce doctrinal encyclicals?
And of those few faithful who have read those encyclicals, the writing generally hasn't improved their view of the bishops. What orthodox Catholic was not entirely ashamed of the USCCB's Always Our Children instruction on how to affirm homosexual identity? What of the frankly diosbedient attitude displayed in their instructions concerning Holy Thursday's liturgy? Or the most recent embarrassment, their attempt to instruct married couples in how to put spice back into their marriage? I literally know only a half-dozen people who have even visited the USCCB-sponsored website on marriage. Of those who have, everyone has been embarrassed by the juvenile attitude of some aspect of it.
The "Obama at Notre Dame" event will not drive a wedge between Catholics and their bishops, because the separations are already there, but it does highlight the problem bishops have in communicating with their flock. For instance, at least one Catholic friend of mine is of the opinion that some of the bishops who spoke against Obama at Notre Dame weren't really opposed, they were just jumping on the bandwagon because (a) they knew it would make no difference anyway - Obama and Jenkins would do what they wanted, and (b) it made them look good to the orthodox crowd in the diocese, the only ones who actually feel an obligation to pay any attention to the bishop. A bishop using this cynical ploy could then continue to allow abuses of the liturgy or silence on points of Catholic doctrine, while gaining points for orthodoxy in reference to Barack Obama's murderous attitude and legacy.
Is this really what is happening in certain dioceses?
I don't know.
But I will bet my whole bank account that if it is, you'll never hear George Weigel say it.
Update: A reader pointed out a very salient fact -
"I think the bishops' failure to teach goes a little further back that 1968. Try 1945. On March 10th of that year the 20th US Army Airforce attacked Tokyo with three hundred B-29's. The incendiaries they dropped started a fire storm that killed 100,000 people in six hours, the greatest loss of life in that time span in all of recorded history. Owing to the fact that all men of anything like military age were away, the victims were mostly women, children and the aged. The general who ordered the attack, Curtis E. Lemay admitted later that if Japan had won the war he would have been tried and executed as a war criminal. His candor was not reflected by a single American bishop. Granted, many historical elements contributed to this silence. Still, it's nothing to brag about."
I agree with the addendum. As I point out in the book, Catholic bishops in this country have had a long history of political collusion with the American (as opposed to the Catholic) concepts of various aspects of life, including ideas on how to handle:
- slavery (American bishops were silent while the Vatican opposed it),
- just war (see above),
- voting issues (American bishops emphasized individual conscience instead of informing yourself on Catholic teaching),
- contraception and abortion (see above and the book).