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My Take: Catholic bishops' election behavior threatens their authority
The American bishops staged a rigorous campaign against the White House's new contraception mandate.
November 8th, 2012
10:18 AM ET

My Take: Catholic bishops' election behavior threatens their authority

Editor’s note: Vincent Miller is the Gudorf Chair of Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton.

By Vincent Miller, Special to CNN

President Obama’s narrow victory among Catholic voters this week will be seen by many as a political loss for the U.S. Catholic bishops, who appeared to be openly opposing Obama during the presidential campaign.

The Catholic Church was well within its rights to conduct its campaign on religious liberty, but its “Preserve Religious Freedom” yard signs were clearly designed to be placed alongside partisan candidate signs. And they were - in very large numbers.

The technically nonpartisan nature of the Church’s religious liberty campaign was further drowned out by a small chorus of strident bishops who left no doubt about how Catholics ought to vote for president.

In a letter he ordered read at all parishes last Sunday, Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria juxtaposed the Obama administration's new contraception mandate with the scourging and mockery of Jesus. Jenky declared that “electoral supporters” of pro-abortion rights politicians reject “Jesus as their lord,” as did the crowd that roared, "We have no king but Caesar.”

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Such forceful statements were never balanced by significant challenges to the Republican presidential ticket.

There is more at stake here than politics.

Though I agree with the bishops that the exemption for religious employers in the White House contraceptive insurance mandate is too narrow, the bishops’ posture toward the administration during the election poses a major risk to the Church because it left the impression that there was only one legitimate Catholic choice for president – Mitt Romney.

The result is that half of the Catholic electorate felt it was being judged as voting “against the Church,” even though such voters weren’t actually dissenting from Catholic teaching. They were, instead, making the complex decisions that any serious voter must, weighing their own moral commitments against a candidate's professed values, the policies they propose and how much is likely to be accomplished on a given issue given the political climate.

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Voters must weigh the mix of positions of both candidates, not just the objections against one. This year, they had to weigh, among other things, a new problem with religious liberty against the Republicans' earnest proposal to replace Medicare’s guaranteed coverage with a subsidy for private insurance.

By putting voters in a “with us or against us” bind, some of America’s bishops have risked eroding their own authority. They imply that specific political judgments are matters of Church teaching, when by Catholic tradition, the more they descend into the details of policy, the less certain their judgments become.

Bishops must allow room for and respect believers' own specific political judgments. The Second Vatican Council taught that it is primarily the responsibility of the laity to undertake the secular work of inscribing “the divine law…in the life of the earthly city.”

The way out of this crisis is for the bishops to carefully respect the necessary limits involved in the task of forming the consciences of lay believers. They must teach moral principles and, yes, argue for their specific application, but always in a way that respects individual judgments about how best to enact these principles.

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At times this formation might even require forceful challenge, but it should never assume ill will or ignorance when the faithful vote differently than they desire.

Trusting laypeople to make the political decisions that are properly theirs gives them room to embrace the Church’s doctrines, even if they cannot enact all of them in their voting choices. This is essential to sustaining a Catholic identity separate from the divisiveness of partisan politics. This election season like none before left many Catholics feeling like the Church gave them no such room.

The Catholic Church will enhance its public authority by speaking out in a way that supports and challenges both parties. Prophets are respected when they are perceived to be an independent and fair voice. When the deep coherence of Catholic moral teaching is communicated, it can free people from our partisan moral straightjackets. But when parts of this teaching are passed over in silence, the Church puts itself in a partisan straightjacket.

The official Church response to the candidacy of vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan displayed this failure to forcefully challenge both parties. In the spring, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had challenged Ryan’s proposed federal budget for failing to put “the needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty” first. But the bishops were largely silent on this issue during the campaign.

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The response of Catholic voters, however, displayed a decidedly Catholic instinct for the common good. Introduced as a “faithful Catholic” by Romney, Ryan brought no significant bump in Catholic support for the ticket.

Indeed, Ryan’s radical budget and ideologically driven plan to end Medicare as a guaranteed benefit program did what decades of work by Catholic social justice advocates had never been able to achieve: It activated a gut level Catholic concern for solidarity and the common good. President Obama’s Catholic poll numbers peaked in the weeks following Ryan’s selection.

The Catholic Church can never turn its back on the moral dimension of politics. But it must beware the divisiveness that even the appearance of partisanship can bring into the Church. Teach and preach the fullness of the Church’s doctrines forthrightly and forcefully, but honor the decisions of the laity. The danger is not that the Church might inappropriately interfere with politics, but that partisan politics will infect the Church.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Vincent Miller.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 2012 Election • Barack Obama • Catholic Church • Mitt Romney • Politics

soundoff (1,317 Responses)
  1. Bob Inmo

    After sitting through a political rally one Sunday several weeks ago, my wife and I decided we would not be return to church until after the elections. While I am a firm believer of the Catholic faith, the church is not without its faults. The hypocrisy of the Homily compared to the video we watched that day were almost laughable. The homily focused on giving to help the poor, teaching the uneducated, and taking care of the elderly. All of these were in direct conflict of the Romney/Ryan agenda.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • A.T.Steelman

      Do I understand you correctly that you believe the Romney platform to be MORE important than the Churches? Sure glad that THE Convention put God back in the platform.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  2. guest

    The bible says that life begins at the first breath and also if a husband causes a wife to miscarry (presumably because he has beaten her) then he owes her compensation which would reduce the unborn child to property.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Can i get the verse for that?

      I dont not believe you, but i would really like to know where in the bible it comes from. Genesis is rich with reasons for christians to support marijuana legalization, be nice to have the verse and book correct to use in a pro-choice argument.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • mike

      The Bible is 20% History Book and 80% lies.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • DB

      You lie. The Bible says no such thing at all.

      The Bible defines a fetus as private property, nothing more. Go look it up, sunshine.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • David

      Exodus 21:22-24.

      When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
      If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life . . .

      So yes, the bible does not consider the life of a fetus equal to that of the life of the mother.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  3. mike

    Religion is a global Protection Racket, The Church and it's Bishops and Priests and Pastors are the enforcers. They threaten eternal torture unless you join them and give 20% of your earnings to them. Many people are taken in and fleeced by these criminals.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Criminology 401, "Church monopolies with governmental assistance."

      November 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • not me

      How does this group of pedo hiding bishop expect people to listen to them for guidance on who is the most moral candidate? Do they not believe thier own bible? God ordains all leaders of the world.. so they can sit back and leave that to the people and they can work on finding new places to hide their pedo priest.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • todd in DC

      Now, can we remove the churches' tax exempt status?

      November 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Structure

      Intresting that the Mafia/Costa Nostra use the identical orginizational structure as does the Catholic church. The priest is a soldier, a bishop a boss/capo, etc. and of course the Vatican still is a great place to launder money, don't believe me, ask the butler.

      November 9, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  4. Watching from the outside

    Seems to me that God likes Obama more than Romney ;)

    November 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • mike

      I know, right? I mean, if there is a god and he did care about getting his policies forced into life, then Romney would have won.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Nick G

      The Bishops of the Catholic Church are out of touch with their parishioners. They have been against all Catholics running for President / VP (except for Ryan who is a right wing kook). Catholics don't listen to the bishops anyway. Many Catholics don't go to mass every Sunday as required by the Church. And most Catholic women have used contraceptives. Many Catholics have left the Church. All the Bishops care about is abortion – yet they are greatly responsible for many abortions as they fight against the use of contraceptives. They say nothing about the poor, the homeless, the sick, etc. Maybe they should read the Bible some day. It is hard to respect these Bishops who are so narrow-minded.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  5. Tired of Catholic Politics

    I'm tired of the church interjecting belief into politics. They've done so much more harm than they can imagine.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  6. and then the catholic church wonders why

    So many of its perishes are losing congregants at such a rapid pace. I was catholic, once, attended a catholic grade school until after 5th grade, received the sacraments of communion, baptism, reconciliation, and confirmation. I got confirmed only to please my dad, but i was already beginning my disillusionment as early as 6th grade. Outside of Easter and Christmas up until college, i stopped attending weekly service. After my freshman year (in which i made a few earnest attempts at going to the local catholic church) i outright left the church. I'm openly gay and that factored in to the disgust i was feeling every sunday. That and the holier-than-thou arrogance most at the pulpit exercised.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  7. mike

    If alter boys could get pregnant the church would change its stance on contraception.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  8. PrimeNumber

    At first I thought that those guys in robes were bench sitters on the US highest court. Then I realized that the guys in red represent two thousand years of experience on this planet. Compared to that, the american Premier is playing at it.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • 2 thousand years experience?

      well by those standards, Obama has 200+ years experience (the standards being that they sit where others have sat for 2000 years, but by no means have they the experience of the last 2000 years).

      November 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • BRC

      Ha, unfortunately their organizations track record in those 2000 years is far from spotless. Now, if you're going to base wisdom on how long their fan club has been around, shouldn't we just completely ignore the bishops adn listen to the Rabbi's?

      November 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  9. Concerned Catholic

    Can someone help me understand how the Bishops can possibly reconcile their support for Romney over Obama? Romney is a Mormon and Mormons are clearly heretics in the eyes of the Church, Obama is a Christian after all unlike Mr. Romney.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • DB

      That's a silly thing to say. Obama is a Protestant, which the Catholic Church also considers heretical. It's either their way or the highway (to you-know-where), in the eyes of the Church Mormons, Protestants, Jews, and all other non-Catholics are effectively the same.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • jorgath

      Easily. From a Catholic perspective, any Protestant is a heretic too...at least pre-Vatican II. Since Vatican II, Catholic teaching has been that ALL religions have some truth to them, but the Catholic Church has more truth than the others.

      All animals are equal. Some are more equal than others.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  10. Bill Hannegan

    If the Bishops spent more time on helping the poor and feeding the hungry, instead of diddling altar boys while focusing on abortion and incest, they might be marginally relevant in the 21st century.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  11. EternalFlame

    Perhaps these Catholic bishops should explain the results of their partisanship with the bishops in France, Spain, Australia, and other countries currently opposing gay marriage, abortion and contraception.

    The Catholic church is in the process of repeating this error globally, and after years of playing "hide the pedophile," they really can't afford to.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  12. EJM

    "Prophets are respected when they are perceived to be an independent and fair voice."

    This theologian seems to not have read the Old Testament (and New) or forgets that the most effective prophets throughout biblical/ salvation history were those that were hated and punished by others, even put to death in the case of John the Baptist. Furthermore, the Catholic Church teaches that our bishop have an obligation to teach and this is precisely what they were doing. This theologian also seems to have just have read one line of some nameless Vatican II text (he's attempting to quote from Lumen Gentium which he forgets to mention) and didn't get a chance to read Gaudium et Spes or Missio Ad Gentes which clearly explains the Church's teaching authority in the world through her Bishops and more... come on CNN you have to do a better job of being antiCatholic and anti Magesterium by getting at least someone who knows what he's talking about not some 'theologian' who does a poor job of forming an coherent and well researched argument. I expected more from you guys.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • mrdeepblue

      Put it this way, what he said is what WE think.

      What Jesus said and did and what the church stands for are diametrically opposed.

      And DO NOT make me quote the Biblical references for that, 'cause I might just shame you.
      Church has NO place in teaching POLITICS. Or calling into question Secular Laws of the land. If the church does not like the Laws of the land, PLEASE LEAVE. and don't let the door hit you on the way out.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • DB

      I wish you could see yourself the way the rest of us do when you rant about how everybody's against the Catholics.

      I have nothing more to say to you, because I know it would be a waste of time. I've learned from experience that it's impossible to win an argument with an ideologue.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • It also says in the bible

      that christians must follow the laws of the country/state they live within. This country clearly states that if you teach partisanship from the pulpit, you are no longer tax exempt. I hope these bishops have filed with the IRS lest they want to be condemned to fiery pits of hell.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  13. MylesJ

    You know, there was no noise or coverage about this on the west coast. That is because the priestly classes have lost most of their influence by messing with the kids, etc. Comments like the bishops came out with only drive more people form religion.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  14. AndrewO

    The church, and its leaders, have no place telling people how to vote. It's up to the individuals to decide what issues they agree with, or disagree with. Of course, that requires an acknowledgement of individual choice, which isn't exactly prevalent in the catholic church.
    At the end of the day, though, the US was founded on the principle of separation of church and state. If you want the state to stay out of religion, keep religion out of the state. Can't have it both ways, guys.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  15. DB

    I'm utterly DISGUSTED by the very notion that employers should have the "religious freedom" to force a way of life on their employees through economic warfare.

    Catholics – and everybody else – have the freedom to live their lives however they want. If they don't believe in contraception or abortion, that's their choice and I respect it. But that's as far as it goes. Oral contraceptives are MEDICATION and abortion is a MEDICAL PROCEDURE, and they should be covered by the health insurance that employees pay for with their premiums. If an employer is ideologically opposed to certain medications or medical procedures, that's just too bad! Nobody forced you to go out and hire an employee. That receptionist that answered a Want Ad and came to work for you simply because she needs to earn a living doesn't care about your religion. It's not her concern, and it's not her problem...it's YOUR problem. If you can't reconcile her needs with your beliefs, you need to get out of the labor market. Period.

    Employees have NO CHOICE but to limit themselves to the health plans offered by their employer. To allow employers to arbitrarily decide which medications and procedures they want covered is to allow them to engage in economic warfare against their employees. I will never accept that and I am immensely grateful that Obama and the Dems took a stand against it.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • In agreement

      I agree with all of the above, so glad to hear it!! Someone has to tell the Bishops that we all read and write now, the Mass is in English, it's the 21st Century and we all believe and try to do what the man in sandals told us to do: feed the poor, take care of the sick, be just and merciful, to forgive, to include those who have been excluded and to treat others like we want to be treated. These are not easy tasks and the Bishops are stumbling blocks in the way of accomplishment. Better they get out of their robes, put some sweats on and get their hands dirty with honest labor in the interest of their fellow man.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Sure, abortion is a medical procedure-an *elective* one. Who is obligated to cover elective procedures?

      The contraception mandate suffers from a lack of clear connection to efficiency. Say it costs $20 a month. You're committing $20 for EVERY person on the policy, or $240 a year. Childbirth is $8,000, or roughly 33 of those births. Superficially a good deal. But a LOT of those women would pay for the contraception on their own, or otherwise take steps to avoid getting pregnant, if the service were not provided. We were not drowning in babies before contraception was available at all. So our real gain provided by a guarantee of contraception is a fraction of that.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  16. God's Oldest Dreamer

    Anyone care to join me in a 'pity-party'? Oh you poor poor Catholics! Have we trounced too hard upon your,,, uh,, diaspora? You know what that means, diaspora? The egg that falls from the nest gets suashed and goes splat while the eggs that remain in the nest get fed to become just like their parents. Fly away little birdie and make your own damn nest! So much for Socialism 1984.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  17. mrdeepblue

    I WAS a Republican, and a Catholic. I am neither a Republican or Catholic right now.
    I will not be dictated what I should think or what my morals should be. I lost total respect for the church, in ITALY and the rest of the world the Church PAYS the taxes of the land, and health-care, WHICH covers ABORTION in the cases enshrined in law, AND CONTRACEPTION. why don't these so called Bishops try a move like that in Italy?? because they would be thrown to the Lions in the Coliseum.
    I want the Church, ANY church OUT of Government ans Schools. Misogynistic fools is what they all are.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Detox does a brain good!

      Welcome to the resistance

      November 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • mrdeepblue

      thank you "bro" I SAW THE LIGHT !

      in the beginning of the last century, priests told people who to vote for, NOT this Century !

      November 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  18. max

    The Vatican is a bubble inside Rome with little connection to the outside world.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      I do tend to disagree with your fantasia. The 'vatican' is more like the body of an octopus and its tentacles, the churches, are found in nearly every part of the world. Don't let its tentacles suckers catch you sleeping! You just might end up becoming the 'bread and whinery'basket.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  19. AGeek

    I prefer to think of it as a referendum from the majority of the citizens; get your #$(*ing religion out of our political process.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  20. billy davis

    Let me get this straight? The Catholic Clergy is outraged by women getting Birth Control but silent on Preist raping boys. Oh, that's right they are the ones doing it.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • luvUamerica

      Exactly. Most probably these Bishops who are anti-Obama are also probably those who are in the closet.

      I wish these Bishops would go to countries that are run with Catholic principles. Most of them have significant problems with poverty. Send them to the Phillipines and Guatamela. Sooner the Vatican changes it's policies, the better off some of these countries suffering will be. These Bishops are the of the same cloth who burned people at stakes because there believed differently. They are of the same cloth, of people who declared that the world was flat.

      Yes, they do have to change with the times. I bet, if you take those Catholics who are anti-Obama, they would me fall in this following category:

      1. White Male (the nuns have already revolted against the church)
      2. Over 57 years old
      3. Predominantly in the South and Midwest
      4. Predominantly in the rural areas

      There is word that one could associate with these Bishops. Racism.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Um... those countries are "run with Catholic principles" BECAUSE they are poor.

      The Americans overall who were anti-Obama are basically the same group... do you want to call those entire areas of the country racist?

      November 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.