Is there a double standard when it comes to disagreeing with the bishops?

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By Liz Lefebvre and Scott Alessi

Criticism has abounded for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, with claims that it violates Catholic moral values and will slash funding to the most vulnerable while giving more breaks to the wealthy. And after some had raised concern that the bishops had not spoken up about the issue, the USCCB released this week a series of letters to Congress penned by Bishops Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, and Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairmen of the Committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development and International Justice and Peace, respectively.

The bishops took issue with the budget proposal and urged Congress to protect the poorest Americans, noting that “every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.” The bishops also called for “shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and fairly addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs.”

Concerned Catholics hoped this would strike a chord with House Republicans who are themselves Catholic, including Ryan, who actually said that his Catholic faith influenced his decisions in crafting the budget proposal, and House Speaker John Boehner. Unfortunately the bishops’ statement seemed to have little impact on those who say they cling so closely to the teachings of their church.

Boehner said the bishops are missing the big picture, putting his spin on the issue by claiming the budget cuts are necessary now to ensure the long-term viability of programs for the poor. He didn’t address some of the bishops’ other suggestions, such as raising taxes on the wealthy or cutting military spending as ways to avoid cutting aid to the poor.

But Ryan had a much more blunt dismissal, saying that “these are not all the Catholic bishops,” suggesting that the letters from Bishops Blaire and Pates don’t carry the weight of the entire conference and that other bishops may hold different views. He added simply that he “respectfully disagrees” with what they said.

A spokesman for the USCCB was quick to correct Ryan, saying “Bishops who chair USCCB committees are elected by their fellow bishops to represent all of the U.S. bishops on key issues at the national level. The letters on the budget were written by bishops serving in this capacity.” In other words, they do speak for the entire conference, so Ryan’s dismissal is incorrect.

Of course, we have yet to hear any prominent bishops themselves speak out in support of the letters that came from the conference. And Rep. Rosa DeLauro is still waiting for a response from Cardinal Timothy Dolan to her letter requesting that he take a stand against the budget proposal (CNS reports that he received the letter, but his spokesman said Dolan has no response). It seems unlikely that there will be a large outcry against Ryan or Boehner for dismissing the bishops’ recommendations either.

That’s a stark contrast to how others who have "respectfully disagreed" with the church’s leaders are dealt with. Cardinal Dolan was quick to publicly criticize Catholic Health Association head Sister Carol Keehan earlier this year for disagreeing with the bishops’ assessment of the Obama administration’s attempt to provide an accommodation on the contraception requirement in health care coverage. Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George took even sharper aim at those who disagree with the bishops on their religious liberty fight, saying “Bishops are the successors of the apostles; they collectively receive the authority to teach and govern that Christ bestowed upon the apostles… Those who hold that faith gather with them; others go their own way. They are and should be free to do so, but they deceive themselves and others in calling their organizations Catholic.”

So if one disagrees with the Catholic bishops on their interpretation of constitutional law--an issue that even expert law professionals and Supreme Court justices routinely come to differing conclusions on--then they are not really Catholic. But those who disagree with the church leaders on the fundamental teachings regarding the Gospel message of caring for the poor are allowed to “respectfully disagree.”

When bishops raise their voices loudly and collectively against those who disagree with them on one end of the political spectrum, it is only fair that they should do the same with their dissenters on the other end. While they are spending the bulk of their time shouting at one side these days, their silence towards the other side speaks volumes.