A Notre Dame professor reminded me this week of an old football saying: offense sells seats, but defense wins games. Painfully true about the problems of the Irish this year, but I’ve never thought much of that proposition. Taken to its logical extreme, the most you could hope for relying solely on defense is 0-0 ties. Far preferable is the profound and incarnational wisdom of the coach who said that “prayers work better when the linemen are big.”
I’ll drop the football metaphors, not least because, in an odd way, the Church is also on the side of the other team’s players, though not their views. But the metaphors suggest truths about the Church in America. We’ve played defense too long; meanwhile the other side has run up the score. I’m happy to say, however, that, in recent weeks, some of the American hierarchy have gone beyond defense and onto cultural offense. You won’t hear much about it in the secular media, or find it characterized this way, but we are seeing a new generation of bishops with big enough shoulders not only to stand up for Catholicism but to try to move the ball forward in American culture.
First, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has become, as a body, rock-solid about opposing current healthcare proposals if they include abortion. They have warned Congress of that threat, despite the bishops’ long held view that healthcare is a “basic human right.” You don’t have to be a sophisticated theologian to see this as concrete living out of the belief that, as the bishops and Vatican have often said, the right to life is the basis of all other rights and therefore takes precedence over them. A high-placed prelate told me a few days ago that if coverage of abortion is not removed from the reform proposals, the bishops as a group will go on the attack “because we’ll have nothing to lose.”
That’s refreshing talk. Not that long ago, there might have been vocal resistance within the USCCB itself, but recent reforms of the conference have all but removed that possibility and enabled strong action. Note the bishops’ healthcare petition drive, which began yesterday.
Individual bishops have been stepping up the offensive, too. Perhaps none more sharply than Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence. Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy (Ted Kennedy’s son) professed in October not to understand the Church: “You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life saving health care? I thought they [sic!] were pro-life?” Instead of the usual diplomatic response, Tobin called Kennedy an “embarrassment ” to the Church, and continued “Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s statement about the Catholic Church’s position on health care reform is irresponsible and ignorant of the facts. . . .But the Congressman is correct in stating that ‘he can’t understand.’ He got that part right.”
Sad to say, Kennedy does seem to have been occupied at some celestial watering hole when they were passing out brains. But Tobin’s candor – and demand for an apology – may make other compromised Catholic politicians a bit more gun shy.
Similar scuffles have occurred internationally. I was in Rome in early October when Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput’s article appeared in the newspaper Il Foglio, rebutting an earlier piece by Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier, who defended Notre Dame’s invitation of President Obama. The cardinal had clearly been put up to the job by someone in America. In Italy, where political correctness is less evident than here, the headline to the Chaput article read, “The Redskin Bishop’s Tomahawk.” Chaput is part Native American, and you can read the article here  and judge for yourself whether the archbishop went on the warpath.
Either way, though, another example of taking Catholic truth aggressively to the culture.
But maybe the best example of the trend is an op-ed  submitted by New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan last week to The New York Times. The Times declined to run his embarrassing evidence of media bias – not least by the NYT itself – against the Church. Dolan cites, by way of example, news stories in the Times about sexual abuse by rabbis in the Jewish community (forty last year alone) and by numerous teachers in NYC public schools. But neither of these regrettable abuses has drawn the public scolding and calls for investigation that Catholic lapses have. In fact, says the good archbishop, the Times just went out of its way to report a quarter-century-old story about a single Franciscan who had fathered a child, “above the fold” on the front page.
The bias is not limited to the news pages. The Times allows columnists like Maureen Dowd regular attacks on the Catholic Church, most recently over the visitation of women’s religious orders, about which Dowd and the Times know nothing. Dolan does not mince words, “But her prejudice, while maybe appropriate for the Know-Nothing newspaper of the 1850’s, the Menace, has no place in a major publication today.”
Somewhere Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, one of Dolan’s nineteenth-century predecessors in New York, who a newspaper in his own day tried to ruffle by calling him “more a Roman gladiator than a devout follower of the meek founder of Christianity,” must have been smiling.
Don’t think these scuffles are just part and parcel of a vigorous American pluralism. They portend something far more sinister. The Washington Post just carried an interview with the militant atheist Richard Dawkins making utterly outrageous remarks about Catholicism in a regular column on faith. The Post would have taken great pains not to publish such slanders about any other religion. (Please read it.  If your blood does not boil, consult your physician.)
So far, it’s all been only words, but words lead to deeds, and right now such words are everywhere. That’s why our bishops’s turn to offense is not only encouraging. They are needed to ward off something much worse than words from developing in our culture.