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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. I wonder

    I bet if young boys could get pregnant, the church would be all for birth control!

    November 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • WASP

      @wonder: nah they would still get them pregnant, they would just support abortions, instead. lmao

      November 9, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Mirosal

      no, they would deny everything, call it miraculous by the grace of "god", and celebrate it. Might even make a feast day out of it lol

      November 9, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • mk

      If they did get pregnant, they would insist that it was "god's plan", a "gift from god".

      November 9, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  2. hermittalker

    More efforts to align the USCCB with the GOP Agenda and call them politically Right. I wonder if during the debates on Slavery in the 19th century and in the Vietnam era debates or the 1960's Civil Rights debates their stand was criticized for being too Party A Y a or too Party B or if concern for the cost of the federal government's efforts to combat slavery or federal troops in Mississippi. It seems the Left of the media and academic world wants to paint fake pictures of the agenda and actual goals of the pope and USCCB.

    November 9, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  3. Duh

    A vote for Democrats IS a vote against religion.

    November 9, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Mark Yelka

      A vote against religion is a vote for being rational.

      November 9, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • AmesIA

      A good portion of 60 million people that voted for Obama are actively religious. Have you ever paused for a moment to consider how supremely arrogant it is to presume you have divine authority to judge the content of 60 million people's soul? Have you considered that your tone is that of the pharisees and not the disciples when you condemn others like this? Throughout the Gospel the sharpest rebuke was against those that drew the lines of who was loved by God and who was not.

      November 9, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  4. Rick McDaniel

    When Obama takes away every last bit, of the ability of the church, to dictate to the people, and Obama WILL do that.......then the church will cease to exist.

    The people, will not care.

    November 9, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • AmesIA

      Cue the scary music this is armagedon!....or not. We have a center right President that defeated a center left, center right, seriously conservative wing nut moderate. Our country, our churches and these same arguments will be alive and well for another run of the circus in 4 years.

      November 9, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • WASP

      @rick: i truly don't care right now because the church HAS NO POWER to begin with unless you surrender your own power to them.
      you friling idiot.

      November 9, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  5. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:–>>>>>

    The Topic headline:-––

    "My Take: Catholic bishops' election behavior threatens their authority."

    My Take: Catholic bishops' promulgation of a severely flawed religion both historically and theologically completely vitiates their authority.

    To wit:

    Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.

    earlychristianwritings.com/

    For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    November 9, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  6. Mark Yelka

    Who wants religion in government? Can you say, "Sharia Law?" Religion in government is poison for those with "different" beliefs.

    November 9, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  7. Mark

    Bishop Jenky, like many others like him, is the reason many Catholics are no longer. With all the skeletons in the closet, internal issues, and lawsuits one would think he has enough on his plate without concerning himself with politics. He might be better served strengthening CDOP churches and concerning himself with ministry to the least, the list, and the hurting but he chooses to pursue the national spotlight instead. He is losing souls, hemorhaging money and closing churches faster than any bishop anywhere. Keep fiddling away Bishop while the ship sinks around you. It is you that has to answer to God.

    November 9, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  8. timz

    What should really be at risk is the Church's tax exempt status.

    November 9, 2012 at 7:14 am |
  9. topview20

    TAX THE CHURCH!

    November 9, 2012 at 7:13 am |
  10. dep

    The Catholic bishops are not as monolithic of a group as the writer implies. Specifically, he opens this article commenting on their campaign using "Preserve Religious Freedom" yard signs. I do not know how widespread that campaign was on a national basis, but I can tell you that in the western-NY area I did not see a single one of those signs. Our local Catholic newpaper contained a pre-election article on the necessity to examine the positions of both candidates across the range of Catholic teaching.
    It would be interesting to hear from others whether the signs were prevalent in their area of the country.

    November 9, 2012 at 7:03 am |
    • David

      I am from south Georgia, and while this area, and a majority of the south, is dominated by Baptists, there are still quite a large number of Catholic churches. I, too, never saw a single one of the signs mentioned.

      November 9, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • Wayne

      There was a Romney Ryan sign displayed in front of my daughter's Catholic Church in South Carolina. But beyond that one example, there is no doubt to which party the correct "conscience" should lead the voter.

      November 9, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    November 9, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • Pete W

      Oh my gosh ... my dog is an athiest, but she appears to be in perfect health.

      Do you think if I beat her with a bible she will be healthier?

      November 9, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • G8R

      Pete, don't feed the trolls :)

      November 9, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • nope

      @pet...
      nope

      November 9, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • bwhitten

      Pete,
      Dog spelled backwards is God. Find another metaphor.

      November 9, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Mirosal

      Pete's dog IS god .. also, Pete might be a tad bit dyslexic?? lol :)

      November 9, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • TrollAlert

      "Ronald Regonzo" who degenerates to:
      "Salvatore" degenerates to:
      "Douglas" degenerates to:
      "truth be told" degenerates to:
      "Thinker23" degenerates to:
      "Atheism is not healthy ..." degenerates to:
      "another repentant sinner" degenerates to:
      "Dodney Rangerfield" degenerates to:
      "tina" degenerates to:
      "captain america" degenerates to:
      "Atheist Hunter" degenerates to:
      "Anybody know how to read? " degenerates to:
      "just sayin" degenerates to:
      "ImLook'nUp" degenerates to:
      "Kindness" degenerates to:
      "Chad" degenerates to
      "Bob" degenerates to
      "nope" degenerates to:
      "2357" degenerates to:
      "WOW" degenerates to:
      "fred" degenerates to:
      "!" degenerates to:
      "pervert alert" is the degenerate.

      This troll is not a christian.

      November 9, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.`

      November 9, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  12. notea4me

    As a catholic, the bishops are just a bunch of AzzClowns. They support conservatives that would allow the poor to starve while promoting capital punishment just to save some tissue. The bible has no position on abortion and neither should they. Nor should they force their beliefs on non christians.

    November 9, 2012 at 6:41 am |
    • Practicing Catholic

      What's an AzzClown?

      November 9, 2012 at 6:51 am |
    • Pete W

      Exactly.

      They yap about contraception (as if it was an issue Jesus discussed) instead of rooting out child molesters and the people protecting them from the catholic church; there are still MANY in the church, today.

      Overpopulation is a major issue they are facing by putting their heads in the sand.

      They have no moral authority and their parishioners can see that.

      For the bigger picture, no religious employer should have the right to pick and choose medical care options they pay for.

      Catholics not supporting birth control?

      What next? Mormons employers medical insurance not paying for lung cancer treatment since lung cancer originates from smoking, which is a sin?

      A Mormon hospital turning away somebody in cardiac arrest because "it appears this was related to their drinking too much energy drink, and consuming caffeine is a sin". So sorry, thank you, come again.

      November 9, 2012 at 7:07 am |
    • hermittalker

      An azz clown is someone, as in St Paul who becomes a fool for Jesus' sake- such as the pope, the USCCB and we who buck the media and dominant culture to cry WOLF when he is attacking the Chief Shepherd and His earthly Body, the Church

      November 9, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  13. Matt McBride

    I completely agree. I voted for Romney. The Church was doing well in the 80s and 90s in the US. It exhibited a nice contrast to the evangelicals who were making fools of themselves connecting to right wing politics(again I am conservative). The dignity of the mass, the expansion of contemporary music in the liturgy and the quiet dignity of the overall tone offered a respite from modern living and stress. What a great position the Church was in at that time. If you look at the church now you see things going backward in tone, message and overall posture. It almost looks like they are sabotaging themselves ..... Sooo strange.

    November 9, 2012 at 6:41 am |
  14. bear

    Check to see how many catholics Romney Ryan won, No one pays attention 75 year old white men dressed in gold. Went to parochial schools all my life and was taught to question my faith so as not to become a puppet.

    November 9, 2012 at 6:39 am |
  15. Charles

    Authority? They have no authority as far as I am concerned.

    November 9, 2012 at 6:34 am |
  16. scCatholic

    Mr. Miller wrongly states, "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."

    The Catholic Bishops have stated that voting for a pro choice canidate is a "mortal sin". Mr. Miller needs to talk to his Priest before he makes claims for which he is clearly uneducated

    November 9, 2012 at 6:24 am |
    • refugeek

      When the Church urged me to vote Republican I felt as though I WAS going against their wishes when I voted Democrat. I do feel as though my status as a "good Catholic" is being judged. The Republicans have also committed many sins. It's stupid to call voting a sin because then you commit a sin no matter which party you vote for.

      Before you accuse Mr. Miller of being uneducated you should attend to your own eduction (the plank in your eye) – first you shouldn't quote comments he didn't make, and secondly you should use learn how to use Google, and do a search on YOUR comment that "voting for a pro choice candidate is a mortal sin."

      November 9, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  17. Jonline

    As a Roman Catholic, I can say without hesitation that the Bishops have absolutely no authority over my, my soul or my thought process. They lost my respect and their ability to lead during the abuse scandals. When you fail to protect the weakest amongst, you lose the right to lead any of us

    November 9, 2012 at 6:15 am |
  18. veep

    These bishops deserve no authority.

    These are the same ones that didn't defend the children when they had the chance.

    November 9, 2012 at 6:10 am |
  19. saggyroy

    "...some of America’s bishops have risked eroding their own authority..." Authority !?! LOL – Like they have authority over anything.

    November 9, 2012 at 6:05 am |
  20. patw

    If the bishops have their way America will be a colony of the vatican.

    November 9, 2012 at 6:03 am |
    • jimmydean

      That's closer to the truth than you know.....

      November 9, 2012 at 7:08 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.