Former Newsday reporter and editor Paul Moses took to the CNN.com Opinion section on Tuesday to lecture America's Catholic bishops on how to manage the contraceptive-mandate debate. Sure, they had success because their appeal to freedom of conscience moved moderate and liberal Catholics, but if bishops become “shrill and partisan,” they’ll lose.
Moses suggested that if the bishops really need a guide they should be “guided by the writings of Saul Alinsky” – yes, the guy who hailed the organizing talents of Lucifer in the front of his book “Rules for Radicals.” If they organize “massive rallies” for subsidized low-cost housing, then maybe they could have some clout.
The headline was "Can U.S. bishops regain their clout?" Moses began with the notion that the bishops’ new clout on contraception was mysterious: “For about a week, the nation's Catholic bishops enjoyed some measure of their bygone political clout...this time, to the surprise of many, the bishops' effort seemed to work. President Barack Obama quickly modified the rule. He didn't satisfy the bishops -- but still, the clergymen had upset the political calculus that they no longer affect Catholic voters.”
Moses is speaking only of the “moderates and liberals,” not the entire faithful, since he suggests “half the choir” are conservatives:
The bishops were able to wield influence because their message against the contraception mandate was framed in a way that appealed to a broad spectrum of Catholics. For moderates and liberals, there were calls to freedom and conscience, rather than blunt declarations to heed ecclesial authority. For conservatives, there was the opportunity to circle the wagons against secularism.
But if the bishops insist on coming across as shrill and partisan, as some are wont to do, they'll wind up once again preaching to half the choir.
This is where he turned to that genius Alinsky, who somehow is all about consensus, not polarization:
If the bishops really want to gain back some of the clout they used to hold, they would do well to consider the community organizing tactics that their own parishes have adopted in many poor urban neighborhoods. It is an approach that relies heavily on building consensus.
Guided by the writings of Saul Alinsky, coalitions of houses of worship have organized around specific issues, such as a plan to build low-cost housing. The community organizers' first step was to secure the enthusiastic support of parishioners, demonstrated through massive rallies. Once pastors really do speak for their people, they are then in a position to demand that elected officials of whatever party support their agenda.
Obama once was a community organizer for just such a church-funded coalition, working from a Catholic rectory on Chicago's South Side. Like the Chicago politicians he encountered as a young man, Obama knows that a church's grassroots campaign is only as effective as it is unified.
I'm not sure how many bishops know that.
Moses wrote a book on St. Francis of Assisi's peacemaking with the Muslims in 2009 that's been hailed by Jon Meacham.