The Path from US Bishops’ Silence to the Screams of Immigrant Children

I’m happy that US Catholic bishops, following the lead of Pope Francis, have condemned the separation of families seeking asylum in the United States, and the White House’s harsh “zero-tolerance” towards immigrants.

But talk is cheap. Particularly when the values the US bishops now publicly cherish were largely invisible during the 2016 election. Then, the bishops’ focus was on fighting legal abortion. Some Catholic clerics even supported Donald Trump from the pulpit, but they did not have to bother. The bishops’ almost complete silence gave him tacit support.

Indeed, the vast majority of the bishops refused to listen when a handful of their colleagues warned that the guide for Catholic voters they were about to approve just a year before the election was so focused on abortion and euthanasia, it was stacking the political deck.

The Catholic hierarchy largely stayed quiet when Trump railed against immigrants, characterized most of them as thugs, and made clear his agenda to “build a wall” to block those seeking refuge from the violence and chaos in their own countries.

Most bishops did not say a peep when the Access Hollywood tape exposed a candidate who displayed neither respect for women nor fidelity in marriage.

They appeared unfazed by the insults he lobbed at a disabled reporter, a gold-star family, and a Republican senator who was once a prisoner of war. When the candidate boasted that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose voters, the bishops shrugged it off. Somehow the “right to life” and the “dignity of all human life” seemed to apply to only to life inside the womb. Trump did not disparage fetuses.

This litany of bad behavior doesn’t even include candidate Trump’s dismissal of climate change as a hoax, and his willingness to walk away from the Paris Climate Agreement, despite the fact that Pope Francis had made protecting the planet a moral imperative.

So I guess it was only to be expected that New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan had no qualms in welcoming Trump to the Al Smith dinner, the annual benefit for Catholic Charities, and calmly letting the candidate blatantly attack his opponent. Clearly, Dolan had calculated that the chance to get another pro-life justice on the Supreme Court was worth any demeaning of the dinner or its guests.

I understand the church’s views on abortion. I respect them, although making abortion illegal clearly is not the only alternative: trying to come up with a theological position that permits artificial birth control could have actually sharply reduced the number of abortions throughout the globe.

But more importantly, the gospel message is far more demanding than knocking yourself out to change one law. There’s a lot in the New Testament about loving your neighbor, helping the marginalized, working for justice. You know, all the stuff that Jesus preached.

This is something Catholic sisters have lived, and now continue to outdo their clerical brothers in their direct intervention in the lives of the dispossessed.

Not every bishop wanted to go this route. In 2015, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, urged his colleagues to reject the “Faithful Citizenship” voters’ guide they were about to approve. McElroy contended that the bishops were not paying attention to Pope Francis’s moral priorities. “[A]longside the issues of abortion and euthanasia, which are central issues in our effort to transform this world, poverty and the degradation of the earth are also central. But this document … tilts in favor of [opposing] abortion and euthanasia and excludes poverty and the environment.” He even warned that the guide “provides the words for those who will misuse this document outside this room.” McElroy was voted down.

Well, to paraphrase the bible, you reap what you sow. And now, the bishops are only just beginning to come to terms with their moral cowardice. After the election when the bishops finally spoke out against the Trump administration’s immigration policies, Washington, DC archbishop (now Cardinal) Donald Wuerl made it sound like morality was a fad, and that you could just pick one issue to get really riled about at one time. When Obama was president, he told the Washington Post, the “raging issue” had been contraception and abortion. With Trump, he added, the “raging issue” now is immigration.

No, Cardinal Wuerl. Immigration should never have been off the table, particularly in 2016, when your Catholic voters faced the prospect of a virulently anti-immigrant president in the White House. Nearly six out of tenwhite Catholics voted for Trump. Clearly, in many cases, they were following your lead.

This is my request to all US bishops: Listen to those screams from children calling for their parents from the detention camps. They are the voice of God, and He is calling you to repentance.

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