The “Catholic” Problem: Who Controls the ‘Brand’? Of Bishops, Dissenters, and the Average Catholic

We’ve got a “Catholic” problem and it’s getting worse.

As the dust settles on the health care battlefield, ‘Catholicism’ must surely be numbered among the wounded. It’s not hard to know what tipped the balance in the health care debate. The scales began to move as Catholic Democrats, the Catholic Health Association, Catholic social justice groups, and a bunch of Catholic nuns all sided against the Catholic bishops on the abortion funding issue. The tipping point came as Rep. Bart Stupak, who proclaimed his Catholic faith when he opposed the Senate abortion language, proclaimed his Catholic faith again in voting for it. Ironically, Stupak now calls pro-life advocates and his own bishops “hypocrites” for not supporting the Executive Order compromise on abortion.

Archbishop Chaput,  blames “self-described ‘Catholic’ groups” for the expansion of abortion rights under the new health care legislation. These groups, he noted, “have done a serious disservice to justice, to the Church, and to the ethical needs of the American people by undercutting the leadership and witness of their own bishops…The bad law we now likely face, we owe in part to the efforts of the Catholic Health Association and similar ‘Catholic’ organizations.”

Why these groups scrambled over to the Democratic side—and took up arms against the bishops’ position on abortion–is no mystery. In more peaceful times, these groups routinely amplify Democrat messages through a megaphone labeled Catholic. For the historic health care battle, they were called in for hand-to-hand combat over votes. And they won.

In the process, the Catholic problem moved to the front lines. The image of ‘Catholic’ adversaries battling to be the public voice of Catholicism on health care raises a fundamental question: Who speaks for Catholicism?  Put differently, who owns the Catholic “brand,” if you will, and what does it stand for?

The media–and “self-described ‘Catholic’ groups”–assume that the Catholic brand belongs to anyone who claims it, regardless of how closely aligned with—or far apart from—official Catholic teaching they are. (Exhibit A is the pro-abortion lobby Catholics for Choice.) In this view, the Catholic brand belongs not to the institutional Church but to any Sister Carol or politician Nancy who sticks the label “Catholic” on her own agenda.

And more casualties are sure to follow. The average person in the pew is increasingly likely to embrace a “personal” definition of Catholicism. It’s easier, after all.  We get to rationalize our pet vices as a customized version of Catholicism. And don’t we want everything customized these days, from the news in our in-boxes to the playlists on our iPods?  Why not religious beliefs?

Similarly, the explosion of “new media,” with its social networks and user-generated content, fosters a mindset where it matters less what a company thinks it stands for and more what the consumer perceives the brand to mean. The company’s brand derives meaning not from top-down definition but from bottom-up acclamation. Self-proclaimed Catholics, then, rather than the hierarchy, will presume to decide what “Catholicism” really means.

The successful company responds by putting its ear to the ground and listening well to consumer conversations. Then it bends and flexes in response to the brand users’ expectations. Come to think of it, isn’t that exactly what the liberal media—and Democratic politicians—yearn for: a Catholicism that bends and flexes in sync with trendy Twitterers?

Therein lies the problem, from the liberal perspective at least.  Catholicism has proven to be gloriously inflexible—and unresponsive to consumer demand–when it comes to moral teachings. The “Catholic” label really stands for unchangeable moral truth—God’s truth, not “my truth” or “your truth.”

Reclaiming the Catholic Brand: The Bishops Speak Out.

Certainly the bishops themselves know—even if consumers don’t– that they must own the brand. After the health care bill passed, Cardinal George of Chicago, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, defended the bishops’ role as the public voice of Catholicism. “The bishops know that they don’t speak for every one of the 61 million Catholics in the country, but what we do is we speak for the Catholic faith itself,” he said.

To their credit, the Bishops have grown bolder in their defense of the faith. The Obama campaign, the Notre Dame charade, and now the health care debacle have helped the bishops find their voices. Let’s hope their muzzles are gone forever.

Re-establishing the ‘Catholic’ brand in the eyes of ordinary Catholics, however, requires a clearer distinction between prudential applications of principles and the principles themselves. While the bishops admirably stood firm on the abortion funding issue, their advocacy for “universal access” and “health care reform” seemed to equate a Catholic approach to health care reform with the Democratic bill (except on abortion funding, conscience protection, and coverage for illegal immigrants). Since when did universal health coverage–as conceived by the Democrats–become Church teaching? Sure, insist that all people have access to medical care, with special concern for the poor, the disabled, and the immigrant. But require everyone to purchase insurance? And tax an individual’s choice to buy better (‘Cadillac’) coverage? The push to “reform” morphed into Church approval (with the exceptions noted above) of a bill laden with liberty-killing specifics.

Not surprisingly, the bishops’ general support for health care reform on Democratic terms provided unintended moral cover for Catholic politicians who refused to toe the line on abortion. Reacting to the bill’s passage, Cardinal George seemed to imply a moral equivalence between preventing abortion funding and providing universal health care:  “[We]’ve been very careful to insist upon the moral principles that everybody should be cared for and no one should be deliberately killed,” he added.  He later repeated, “The principles are twofold — everybody taken care of, nobody killed.”

Democrats and “self-described ‘Catholic’ groups” conveniently appropriated the “caring for all” message while rejecting the “nobody killed” message. The Catholic Health Association trumpeted their good deed when the bill passed: “Millions…Helped; Lives Saved.” (Oops. They forgot to add, “except for the unborn.”) Wavering politicians found their moral loophole. Abortion, however, is a threshold moral issue,  not ripe for political trade-off. The wrong vote on abortion cannot be balanced out by the right vote on some other issue—even “health care reform.”

The whole situation calls to mind a study that hit the news just after the bill passed: Research shows that people who buy “green” products (a morally admirable choice) are more likely to lie or cheat afterwards than people who don’t buy green. Why? Consumers who bought the green products were pleased with themselves. They’d done something “good,” which earned them “moral credentials.” In the decisions that followed, they felt entitled to cut themselves some moral slack: they excused their bad, self-serving choices because the moral credentials already earned proved they were good people.

Sounds like our Catholic Democratic politicians. Millions helped?  Check. Lives Saved? Eh, close enough.

It’s up to the bishops to deny the moral credentials of Catholic politicians and “self-described Catholic groups” who supported abortion funding. As the legitimate voice of Catholicism, the bishops can take a step towards solving the ‘Catholic’ problem. They need only speak out again…only this time, for repeal of the health care bill.

(c) 2010 Mary Rice Hasson


2 thoughts on “The “Catholic” Problem: Who Controls the ‘Brand’? Of Bishops, Dissenters, and the Average Catholic

  1. An excellent article. Very well argued! Thank you for delineating so clearly the difference between Truth and choice. You’re quite correct that religion is becoming compartmentalized and based predominately on preference; the Protestant church is seeing big problems with this as well.

  2. Reading this filled me with a great deal of hope after the disappointments on the health care front in the past few weeks. As far as the USCCB goes, what is your response to this recent development: ? My heart just sank to hear that the Bishops seem to be once again “losing their voice” to a certain extent.

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