The USCCB has come under fire recently for its support of efforts to pass climate change legislation, with some of our policy people getting angry calls and e-mails. I don't mean the climate-change-isn't-real-it's-all-a-conspiracy kind of fire, although our policy people get those calls too. I'm talking about the but-that-bill-is-full-of-pork-and-all-sorts-of-wasteful-spending-how-could-you-ever-support-it kind of fire.
To get to the heart of what is really going on here, it might be good to draw a distinction between support and support, as far as the U.S. Bishops are concerned.
For instance, the only support from the U.S. bishops toward climate change legislation can be found in a June 22 joint letter with Catholic Relief Services to every member of Congress. In the letter, represenatives of the USCCB and CRS welcome the progress that has been made on the issue itself but state that they are "deeply disappointed" that the current legislation doesn't do enough to help poor people worldwide who contribute the least to climate change but suffer the most from its effects. The USCCB news release that accompanied this letter stressed this point.
So where, then, do the bishops stand on this legislation? The facts: we know the Catholic Church supports efforts to combat climate change. This has grown ever more apparent as Pope Benedict XVI has spoken out time and again, most recently in his new encyclical. The U.S. bishops have followed the pope's lead. And in the letter to Congress, they call the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2454) “groundbreaking legislation” that “begins a serious and overdue effort to face up to moral and environmental challenges and represents an important beginning.”
Yes, that sounds very supportive. But they go on to criticize the legislation heavily for not doing enough for the poor. Does this mean they've endorsed the legislation? Hardly. An endorsement looks more like this, with a bishop actually urging members of Congress to vote for a bill.
Another example of the bishops being supportive in one area but not in another came at the beginning of June when the bishops supported the Reuniting American Families Act (S. 1085) but refused to support similar legislation in the House of Representatives because it contained language that would have extended marriage-like rights to same-sex couples.
The picture that emerges is an encouraging one of bishops who are not willing to sacrifice their principles to achieve political goals, who exercise caution when engaging legislation, and who aren't afraid to throw a bill back and say, "We appreciate what you're trying to do overall, but this isn't good enough. This has pieces we can't support."
This approach should serve the bishops well as they seek to engage Congress on a particularly thorny issue, health care reform. In this case, the USCCB sent Congress a very broad letter, noting the bishops' decades-long support for the cause, outlining their priorities, and emphasizing two general areas -- respect for human life and access for all -- where they see the current legislative efforts needing work.
While far from an endorsement, the USCCB news release on this letter sparked an outraged tirade, on Twitter no less, in which an individual, convinced that health care reform meant a wholesale sellout to the abortion lobby, accused the bishops and myself of throwing the unborn and the taxpayers "to the wolves" in 140-character blasts.
First, I wondered if the person had even read the letter. But after that, it occurred that the guiding principles of the bishops -- cautious engagement, subtle discernment -- are a model for all of us. The bishops recognize that a proposed piece of legislation is a work in progress and that all Catholics, bishops included, are called to engage the political process and be the proverbial prophetic voice, not settling for the status quo when we know it can be better.
In a way, this approach echoes the methodology of a Church that is always calling on its people to do better, to eliminate their destructive behaviors and build on the good in their lives ... until that day when they hear the Lord say, "Well done, good and faithful Congressman--er--servant."