WASHINGTON – When forty Catholics holding rosaries were handcuffed and led away by police at the U.S. Capitol in late February during a protest to show support for young undocumented immigrants facing deportation, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, prayed over the demonstrators.
“I ask God’s blessing upon those who are acting in civil disobedience, part of a longstanding tradition of not supporting unjust laws,” the bishop said as television cameras angled in and congressional staff watched from the rotunda balcony in the Russell Senate Office Building.
Catholic activists have a long history of taking part in nonviolent civil disobedience in the United States and around the world. But the bishop’s presence in Washington that day created a buzz. Compared to the 1980s, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released major pastoral letters on war, peace, and economic justice that received national attention, the Catholic hierarchy in recent years has put most of its advocacy muscle behind efforts to oppose birth control coverage in Obamacare, defeat same-sex marriage, and address a range of religious-liberty concerns.
In a sign of those shifting priorities, the last time the USCCB raised the possibility of civil disobedience for Catholics—and launched a major mobilization effort in parishes—came in 2012, as several Catholic institutions filed lawsuits challenging the Obama administration’s inclusion of contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act. “Some unjust laws impose such injustices on individuals and organizations that disobeying the laws may be justified,” the bishops wrote in church bulletin inserts used in parishes across the country. “When fundamental human goods, such as the right of conscience, are at stake, we may need to witness to the truth by resisting the law and incurring its penalties.”
In an interview, Bishop Stowe reflected on his decision to bless the Catholic activists arrested on Capitol Hill, and shared that he is in conversation with several bishops about ways to demonstrate greater public urgency in opposing the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. (Full disclosure: I participated in the civil disobedience action.) Young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, often called “Dreamers,” are of particular concern to church leaders because their fate is now uncertain after Trump rescinded an Obama-era program that offered them protection from deportation. The USCCB has written letters to Congress, lobbied lawmakers behind closed doors, and in February hosted a national call-in day for Dreamers. The bishop thinks more dramatic action is needed.