Bishops Are Doing the Wrong Job

By Eric Sammons, originally published in Crisis Magazine November 16, 2023

This month saw one of the most demoralizing events of my life as a native Ohioan. On November 7, a majority of voting Ohioans enshrined in our state constitution abortion on demand for all nine months of pregnancy. This was a gut punch to all pro-lifers in the state.

I know a lot of people who were involved in the effort to defeat Issue 1, and they did heroic work. Likewise the Ohio Catholic bishops, who also labored to defeat the amendment. Here in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, I saw “Vote No on Issue 1” signs in every single Catholic parish I passed. The Ohio bishops made it clear that a No vote was the right vote.

However, I think the bishops still dropped the ball. The problem isn’t that they did a bad job; it’s that they didn’t do their job. This is something we’ve seen for decades from the bishops when it comes to various political and social issues, so much so that I wonder whether the bishops even know what their job is.

In general the Ohio bishops acted as a political action committee. They worked to explain the details of the amendment—what it would do and what the impact would be if it passed. They focused on how it would lead to the deaths of many unborn children, and how it would harm vulnerable women. All well and good, but that’s what lay activists working against the amendment were already doing.

What the bishops did not do is focus on the spiritual ramifications of the amendment. First, how it would spiritually harm many souls, particularly the mothers and fathers who would decide to abort their babies due to abortion’s easy access. And, to my knowledge, they didn’t even mention the spiritual impact on Yes voters.

Yes, voting has spiritual dimensions that can impact the voter. While there can be debates about the morality of voting for this particular politician or that particular politician, Issue 1 was straightforward. A Yes vote was direct participation in making abortion legal for all nine months of pregnancy. There were no mitigating factors to potentially justify a Yes vote. As such, it was a grave matter, and if carried out with full knowledge and consent, a Yes vote was a mortal sin. Yet the bishops never mentioned this in their campaigning before the election.

Likewise, after the results were tallied, the bishops lamented the amendment’s passage and the impact it would have on the unborn and on mothers just as every pro-life PAC did, but they said nothing about the consequences for those who voted Yes.

Why didn’t the bishops publicly announce that every Catholic who voted Yes on Issue 1 should confess that sin in the Sacrament of Confession before receiving Communion? Yes, many Catholics would ignore the directive, and the bishops would have been ridiculed in the press, but isn’t their primary job the salvation of souls?

And although this might sound crazy, there is recent precedent for it. In 1962, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans excommunicated three Catholics who publicly and vehemently opposed his efforts to desegregate Catholic schools in his archdiocese. Rummel understood that this wasn’t just a political issue, to be debated in political halls and the public square. No, it was a spiritual issue, and those who opposed his efforts were harming their own souls. Thus he applied the harsh medicine of excommunication in an attempt to spiritually wake up these three Catholics and to make clear to all Catholics the seriousness of their actions. (Two of the three ended up retracting their views and were reconciled to the Church.)

Sadly, there are few Rummels in today’s episcopate. But I don’t think it’s primarily because bishops aren’t pro-life or even that they are cowardly. Nor is it that they don’t want to push too hard against a government from which they receive many financial benefits. I think they honestly don’t understand their role in these debates.

Vatican II famously encouraged the laity to be engaged in the temporal order: “The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation” (Apostolicam Actuositatem 7). It is the laity’s job to fight against evil amendments like Issue 1—to canvas, to educate, and to work for its defeat. And the laity, on a whole, does a good job of this in our time. I saw it first-hand in the case of Issue 1, and we can see it around the country on a whole host of political issues.

However, there is something the laity can’t do, which is to be spiritual leaders in these fights. It is not the laity’s role to hold prayer vigils and call for days of prayer and fasting. They cannot withhold the Sacraments from those who publicly advocate and vote for evil. That’s the role for the bishops and priests. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that there were some priests who did heroically declare the spiritual dimensions of this battle. Sadly, they were too few and they did not receive any public support from their bishops on that score.)   

This problem is not something limited to the Ohio bishops or to Issue 1. It is pervasive in how American bishops have approached political issues for more than a generation. Just read most USCCB statements about any political issue, from abortion to the death penalty to immigration, and you’ll see they are fundamentally no different than something a generic PAC would churn out. Perhaps they might be fluffed up with some Catholic terms, but they do not address the underlying spiritual issues involved.

We don’t need another political action committee. We need spiritual leaders. Every bishop is a successor to the apostles, given the responsibility from Jesus Christ himself for the salvation of the souls in his diocese. As such, bishops need to focus less on the political and social impact of various bills and amendments and laws (let the laity do that), and instead focus on the spiritual impact to the individual souls under their care.

In other words, the bishops need to do their jobs and let the laity do theirs.

Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.