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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. mrdeepblue

    Bishops DO NOT risk loosing authority.

    They just DID !

    some sip way to much Tea, this ones apparently have been raiding the "holly" wine supply.

    November 9, 2012 at 5:13 am |
  2. George

    If the catholic church seeks to influence politics in the U.S. then it should register as a foreign agent and have its tax exemption revoked. The property taxes alone would pump up our failing public schools. And perhaps we could set some money aside for treatment of the thousands of traumatized children who have been abused by priests.

    The Church seems to have forgotten the lessons of the Reformation

    November 9, 2012 at 4:40 am |
    • Robert

      You can't selectively enforce this. If you do if to the Catholic church, you must also do it for ALL churches

      November 9, 2012 at 4:52 am |
    • patw

      @Robert sounds like a fine idea.

      November 9, 2012 at 6:04 am |
  3. n8r0n

    Religious leaders are the ultimate partisan political hacks.

    It's disgusting that these ignorant hate-mongers get tax breaks in our society.

    November 9, 2012 at 4:24 am |
  4. Bootyfunk

    i was going to dress up like a child molester for halloween, but i couldn't find a priest outfit that fit me...

    November 9, 2012 at 4:16 am |
    • mdn7779

      Wife is Catholic, Bishops have no control over her she says, never did, never will!

      November 9, 2012 at 4:26 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      luckily as a woman, you're wife is safe - hide your sons!

      November 9, 2012 at 4:29 am |
  5. Chick-a-dee

    My second group of questions for republican Catholics has to do with the incompatibility of Catholic and mormon beliefs.

    Did your bishop say anything regarding Romney's specific beliefs as a mormon, especially in light of the fact that he is not just a member of the church, but he held the office of bishop in the Church of the Latter Day Saints? My bishop said nothing about any of these. I could not vote for a man who got so many of these very important points wrong so entirely wrong. Neither could I vote a man who aspires to becoming a god into the office of the POTUS.

    1) Mormons hold that Jesus and Lucifer are brothers—"Mormon Doctrine," pp. 192, 546-47, 589-90.

    2) Mormonism teaches that there are many gods, and that humans can become gods and goddesses in the Heavenly kingdom: "History of the Church" 6 p. 306; "Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball," pp. 28, 51-53.

    3) According to mormons The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three separate Gods. —"Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith," p. 370.

    4) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints denies the existence of original sin. It baptizes persons who have the use of reason, over the age of eight, excluding the mentally handicapped. The do not hold that baptism marks the soul for God and should a believer baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after renouncing his or her faith or having been excommunicated, wants to return, he or she must be rebaptized.

    5) Mormons do not believe in Hell. They believe it is permissible to lie in order to attain a "greater good".

    6) Mormonism teaches that God the Father was a man like us who progressed to become a God and presently has a body of flesh and bone. "God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!"—"Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith," compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith, pp. 345-47.

    7) The Mormon Church teaches not only are there many gods, but they once were mortal men who had developed in righteousness until they learned enough and merited godhood. It uses the term "eternal progression" for this process, and it refers to godhood as "exaltation."

    Given that Romney thinks it's ok to lie, doesn't believe in Hell, thinks Jesus and Satan are brothers, that he himself can become exalted and god of his own planet, (but I guess will settle for just being president while still on this plane), didn't "evolve" into being pro-life until he had a shot at the republican nomination and actually *SIGNED* a bill to legislate "ho.mos.e.xual marriage" in MA, how did you justify voting for him?

    I'll patiently wait for a legitimate answer.

    REFERENCE URLS:
    http://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/MRMNSM.HTM
    http://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/mormon2.htm
    http://www.ewtn.com/library/indexes/Answers.htm
    http://www.ewtn.com/library/theology/mormbap1.htm
    http://www.ewtn.com/library/answers/camorm3.htm

    November 9, 2012 at 4:04 am |
    • n8r0n

      Excellent post. I applaud your thorough use of logic to expose Mitt Romney, and his cult, as frauds.

      Now turn the spotlight around, and you'll see that your cult is just as ridiculous. Virgin birth? A man parting a sea to walk across? Burning bushes? God writing rules on stone tablets? Why should he be limited to the primitive writing implements of man's current technology? It's all a joke.

      November 9, 2012 at 4:29 am |
    • panger

      @n8r0n – I'm confused – why again are you assuming that Chick-a-dee sympathizes with Christianity or believes in Jesus? Because she pointed out the shortcomings of Mormonism? No where in that post does she even allude to being Christian. I know it's not unreasonable to read between the lines, but honestly, there aren't any lines to read between. And I'm not having a go at you – I just think it would be in your best interests to not make erroneous assumptions. Your other posts are spot on however.

      November 9, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Chick-a-dee

      @ n8r0n: You've been on this board long enough to know that I don't appreciate your commentary. I've been on the board long enough to know that nothing I could post would change your closed mind about whether the supernatural exists or how to learn from tradition, scripture and the magisterium as a whole.

      @ panger: There's no need to assume because I post on a regular basis. I am a Catholic in the Roman rite and I do believe.

      @ everyone else: Shall we interpret this silence to mean that there are no republican Catholics on this board and all the sniping comes from people pretending to be in order to create disharmony? Or, did you not investigate your candidate and know about these items before election day?

      November 9, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  6. catholicboyrichard

    Reblogged this on catholicboyrichard.

    November 9, 2012 at 3:28 am |
  7. Chick-a-dee

    While we have so many republican Catholics here, can someone please explain to me why none of the Bishops addressed voting for Romney as problematic in these areas?

    1) Romney portrays himself as a Christian, but no American Bishop corrected him or brought his error to the attention of their dioceses. Mormans are, in fact, not Christians. The Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on 5 June 2001, made this response to the dubium on the validity of baptism conferred in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
    "The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith answers a "Dubium" on the validity of baptism.

    Q. Whether the baptism conferred by the community "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints", called "Mormons" in the vernacular, is valid.

    R. Negative.

    The Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, in the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, approved the present Response, decided in the Sessione Ordinaria of this Congregation and ordered it published.

    Rome, from the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 5 June 2001.

    JOSEPH Cardinal RATZINGER
    Prefect

    TARCISIO BERTONE, S.D.B.
    Archbishop emeritus of Vercelli
    Secretary"

    http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFMORM.HTM

    November 9, 2012 at 3:11 am |
    • Chick-a-dee

      Not surprisingly, we find there are no explanations from anyone.

      November 9, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  8. when my doG looks in the mirror he sees God

    Yeah, if Jesus really were here, he'd slap those beanies of their brainless heads.

    November 9, 2012 at 2:49 am |
  9. abbgdmtb@yahoo.com

    The catholic church brought to by the ones that protect hide pedophiles. I was baptised as a caholic but as far as I am concerned the the church and what they stand foris out of touch in this day and age.

    November 9, 2012 at 2:33 am |
  10. ken

    Nevermind censors, it was a waste of time to post on your anti-Christian rant anyway.

    November 9, 2012 at 1:18 am |
    • Righteo

      Why is it ALWAYS the religious people who scream "censorship" even after they have been told the truth?

      I mean, its VERY funny when it happens (and it happens a lot), but why are they so prone to latching onto the least likely option? Oh, I forgot. They believe in an invisible man in the sky. They'll believe anything.

      November 9, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • Wally Wallabee

      How can we ever get religious people to understand the impossibility of their beliefs when you can't get them to understand something simple and obvious like how to get aroung the word filter?

      November 9, 2012 at 1:31 am |
    • Robert Lozoff

      Time for woman Pope, bishops and cardinals.

      November 9, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • geladius

      Supposedly there was a female pope that the Vatican wrote off from history. All equal under Gods eyes right? LOL RIGHT GUYS? Morons...

      November 9, 2012 at 1:56 am |
  11. Bootyfunk

    i wonder what the collective molestation count is for the group in the pic? 50 boys? 100? 1000? would anyone on earth leave their child alone with anyone wearing a white collar these days?

    November 9, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  12. ken trying again

    What was the "naughty" word, calling the article "foolish"!?

    November 9, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • Blessed are the Cheese makers

      Doc.ument

      C.um

      Example

      November 9, 2012 at 1:15 am |
    • Dippy

      Document. Cum. Hm, works for me.

      November 9, 2012 at 2:43 am |
  13. geladius

    "President Obama’s narrow victory"

    Now I know there's a large majority of you religious sort that don't like science, but come on math too? 332-206= 126 electoral votes.

    Thou shall not be missed. This isn't medieval Europe, the vatican doesn't own this country nor shall it ever.

    November 9, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • Practicing Catholic

      50%/49%

      November 9, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  14. ken trying again

    Still waiting

    November 9, 2012 at 1:08 am |
    • Try this

      Why are you waiting? There is no human censor there.

      Here are some no-no words, complete with ways to fix them:

      gra-pes

      despi_cable

      atti.tude

      circu,mstance

      November 9, 2012 at 1:27 am |
  15. ken

    Why did you not post my comment?

    November 9, 2012 at 1:03 am |
    • CNN

      It's a conspiracy. We read your post in a millisecond, then we don't post it if you are so incredibly dangerous to oour nefarious scheme that you must be eliminated.

      Or it could be that you put a naughty word in there, like the ti.t in Consti.tution. (Hint – find it, do what I just did).

      November 9, 2012 at 1:08 am |
  16. BOOGER

    Well, after YEARS of being (defacated) on by these guys because I'm a christ killer, it delights me to NO end that they've got no clothes on....

    November 9, 2012 at 12:40 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      Yup. The Romans killed Jeebus, (if there even was a Jeebus). There was a standing order in the Pax Romana to execute troublemakers. There was no way he merited a trial, or any attention form either high placed Jewish authorities, or Roman aristocrats for that matter. He as a common crook, who created a disturbance in the temple. The entire city was based on a temple-based economy. It would be like a wacko/nobody creating a disturbance in Disney World, and expecting Florida to do nothing.

      November 9, 2012 at 1:01 am |
    • Hummmmmbaby

      Generally I don't like Jewish food much, but there is definitely a special place in my heart for Jesus-On-A-Stick.

      November 9, 2012 at 1:09 am |
    • Mirosal

      I'm not Jewish either, but I'd like an order of koogle to go please .. and to show I'm not Jewish, let me have an order of scrapple along with it lol :)

      November 9, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  17. JP0

    The country, and the world, would be much better off without religion. Unfortunately, that would require that everyone think for themselves instead of having someone tell them what to think. I will never forget a friend of mine who converted to Roman Catholicism. He said it was great. He never had to think. The church already had answers to all the questions. The analogy between the church leader as shepherd and the non-clergy as sheep is a powerful analogy to those who know anything about sheep. Never mind, what the shepherd does with the sheep in the dark of night.

    November 9, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • BOOGER

      Spot on, JPO, spot on!

      November 9, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  18. snowyowl

    Thanks for this well-written opinion. However I believe that we are well past the tipping point for the declining authority of Catholic bishops. They are obviously blinded by the single issue of abortion, and fail to realize that there is much more to being pro-life than merely being against abortion. Opposing abortion is a one-dimensional solution to a multi-dimensional problem. Millions of Catholics, myself included, find the Republican world view to be increasingly inconsistent with the teachings of Christ. Choosing Obama over Romney was one of the easiest moral judgements that I have ever had to make.

    November 9, 2012 at 12:34 am |
  19. Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

    Are sashes given as a badge for a certain number of boys molested ?

    November 9, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • Inspector Clouseau

      No. The pink sash means their diocese has paid out more than $1,000,000 to victims of abuse.

      November 9, 2012 at 12:34 am |
    • Badda Bing

      No. The sashes are to keep the aliens from exploding out of their chests again.

      They get merit badges for each child molested, an a medal for each priest shuffled away from facing the law. They wear that stuff at their private orgies with withthe boys' choir.

      November 9, 2012 at 12:58 am |
  20. Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

    Where and how does one obtain a pink beanie ?
    Those are cool beanies.

    November 9, 2012 at 12:28 am |
    • therealpeace2all

      Yay... it's Fluffy !!! We were hearing a bit much from "Rodents for Romney" ;)

      Peace...

      November 9, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      He gets out of his cage. Sneaky little twirp. He is almost obsolete. I keep telling him, his days are numbered.

      November 9, 2012 at 12:36 am |
    • Badda Bing

      The Vatican hospital gives those nifty yarmulkes to every patient who has had a lobotomy.

      November 9, 2012 at 12:59 am |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.