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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. mark

    Abor......tion is killing. Same attraction marriage is ? Death is great equalizer, for all arrogance will come crashing down. As John the Baptist said, the ax is at the foot of the tree. Republicans will do worse in the future because sin keeps on increasing.

    November 9, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  2. Elmo

    Their complaint about losing religious freedom due to Obamacare lost all credibility when out of the other side of their mouths they said they we must vote against allowing gay marriage, indicating that religious freedom doesn't apply to gay people.

    November 9, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  3. mark

    As Jesus said, how narrow the gate to life and how Jew who enter, how wide the road to death and many chose to travel. So many of you think that the only sin there is are those who call out your sins.

    November 9, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  4. mark

    Most people who call themselves Catholic go to Mass when ever they feel like it. You should see how crowded Christmas and Easter are. They chose to ignore the fact missing Mass without good reason is a sin. Only 25% attend Mass every Sunday.

    November 9, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  5. joe

    What's new here? The Catholic church has been using guilt for a millennium to get it's followers in line to it's views.

    November 9, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • mark

      Using guilt.....trying reading the scriptures..u do not have problem with catholic church, you have problem what the bible says. And in your eyes...it was written by men..God does not exist...and if God exists He can't be so straight laced!

      November 9, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  6. For Bill Deacon

    Religious hierarchical leaders, such as the Catholic Bishop Conference, Ralph Reed and the Billy Graham franchise found their ability to IMPOSE their religion on other Americans has diminished and will not return. Taken from a religious news source.
    Bill and the Bishops, your stand that those that do not adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church, (those things written in stone, abortion, life at conception and contraception) are the cause of more and more people saying they are ex-catholics. Keep up the good work, the more that escape your clutches the better. It is not just the crimes and cover ups committed by a few members of the church but the total adherence to a tired old doctrine that does not make sense in a modern world. Of course you and the Bishops will die as life long believers, but let us hope that your grandchildren are free from this malady.

    November 9, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • mark

      Most people who call themselves Catholic go to Mass when ever they feel like it. You should see how crowded Christmas and Easter are. They chose to ignore the fact missing Mass without good reason is a sin. Only 25% attend Mass every Sunday. As Jesus said, how narrow the gate to life and how Jew who enter, how wide the road to death and many chose to travel. So many of you think that the only sin there is are those who call out your sins. Death is great equalizer, for all arrogance will come crashing down. As John the Baptist said, the ax is at the foot of the tree. Republicans will do worse in the future because sin keeps on increasing. Pilate tried to wash his hands of Jesus death, and so are all of you. Supporting the party of death will not leave you unscratched. The people killed Jesus because he told them their ways were evil. If Jesus lived today, He would say the same thing and you would kill Him again.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • History repeats

      @mark
      OK, fine medicate youself and repost.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • panger

      @mark – What does the bible say about pride again? That's what I thought.

      November 9, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  7. Jimmy

    Ninety eight per cent of black baptist ministers supported Obama.Obama supports two men or two women getting married.The so called ministers could care less,they voted skin color only.You either believe the Bible you preach or you are just another fake.I will never have any respect for black ministers or catholic priests again.I also think we should tax any so called religious organization just as we do any other business.Religion is a business,if it wasn't bringing in the cash there would be no church and no preachers.

    November 9, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  8. BobRN

    I think Mr. Miller gives Catholics far too much credit when he writes that Catholics were, "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." It would be great if even a tenth of voters put that much thought into their vote. But, Miller does have it right when he says that Catholics, by and large, weigh "their own moral commitments against the candidate's professed values." I doubt seriously that the bishops' authority is being threatened by their speaking out politically, because I doubt seriously that many Catholics give a rat's patooty what the bishops, the Church, or Jesus have to say about anything, moral or otherwise. Like most voters, most Catholics vote for whoever they think will do the best for them, or whoever reflects their moral commitments, the gospel be darned (sorry, couldn't bring myself to say damned in the context, but you know what I mean). Catholics are just as self-serving as anybody, with the exception of those few who are committed to Jesus and His Church. Sadly, there just aren't enough of those to make much of a difference politically. Mr. Miller's column only serves to give these Catholics political cover for their self-serving ways. When it was suggested to Eunice Kennedy that someone write a book about her brother John's commitment to Catholic faith, she opined that it would be a very thin book. Such is the case for most who self-identify as Catholic.

    November 9, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  9. Jeb

    Jesus never gave us the option to be 'sort of' a follower of him. Pragmatic, worldly views that just go along the easy road are not compatible with Christianity. Jesus made this point over and over. Good Christian people can (and did) make a decision to vote for President Obama, but no good Christian person will approve of or accept his stance on abortion. Let President Obama know that many of his supporters don't agree with his view on this topic if you are a Christian or if you are instead a Christian of convenience follow the people of the church at Laodicea and keep your fingers crossed.

    November 9, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • nothing new here

      I would assume a REAL Christian would not be spending all this time playing politics....
      And I would assume that a REAL Christians would be adopting a whole lot of orphans and dependent mothers....
      But then again, I would assume that REAL Christians would actually practice what they preach for once.

      November 9, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • whocares

      Top Ten Signs You're a Christian in Name Only
      10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
      9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
      8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
      7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Al lah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
      6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
      5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
      4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
      3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some id iot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christian
      2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
      1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, catholicism and church history – but still call yourself a Christian

      November 9, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • whocares

      Time to remove their tax free status – NOW

      November 9, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Nii

      WHOCARES
      You do care a lot.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  10. Marietta

    The Catholic church is no different than the LDS church telling their members to vote for Romney. Ironically they sided for the same man but their church doctrine couldn't be more light years apart. LDS may say they believe in the Bible & Jesus, but their prophet, Joseph Smith, is first and foremost in their lives along with the Book of Mormon which holds more weight than the Bible, as they say the Bible isn't completely accurate. As a woman and a Republican, no church, company CEO etc. will force me to vote for one person over another and I don't vote along party lines. I vote for the person who is most in line with my beliefs and that is why I voted for Obama.

    November 9, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • mark

      Most people who call themselves Catholic go to Mass when ever they feel like it. You should see how crowded Christmas and Easter are. They chose to ignore the fact missing Mass without good reason is a sin. Only 25% attend Mass every Sunday. As Jesus said, how narrow the gate to life and how Jew who enter, how wide the road to death and many chose to travel. So many of you think that the only sin there is are those who call out your sins. Death is great equalizer, for all arrogance will come crashing down. As John the Baptist said, the ax is at the foot of the tree. Republicans will do worse in the future because sin keeps on increasing. Pilate tried to wash his hands of Jesus death, and so are all of you. Supporting the party of death will not leave you unscratched. The people killed Jesus because he told them their ways were evil. If Jesus lived today, He would say the same thing and you would kill Him again.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Nii

      Republicans would do worse because they are not letting their light so shine before men because of their charitable deeds. Sin has been the same from Adam and Eve. Everyone sins.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  11. DMR

    It is increasingly clear that it may be time to revoke the tax exempt status of the Catholic Church in the U.S. A key part in allowing a tax exempt status for churches is that they have no involvement in politics. The Catholic Church and several so-called Christian evangelical churches increasingly have chosen to ignore that little detail. Churches are a business, a big business, and since many religious organizations do not wish to follow the rules, tax them just as any other business. The United States was founded as a secular nation, not a theocracy. The United States is a nation of secular law, not a nation of church law.

    November 9, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • J.C.

      Not just the Catholic Church, but all churches. Billy Graham had full page ads in support of Mitt Romney, and he wasn't the only one flogging for votes for the right.

      November 9, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Dougster

      Amen! From this gay (and married to my husband of 30+years) atheist, I do not want my tax dollars indirectly going to these religious snake oil salespersons. They should, at a minimum, pay local taxes to support the public infrastructure ( fire, police, roads, utilities, government, etc.,,) that they take advantage of and that I now have to pay on their behalf. As the saying goes... If I have a fire, I call the fire department.... They can pray for rain....

      November 9, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  12. larry5

    The Catholic Church will just have to learn not to cross Obama. When Obama speaks they better listen and behave. They better not be praising any false Obama's or using Obama's name in vain. Now that Obama has handled the Catholic birth control problem he can focus on other problems in the Catholic church that bother him.

    November 9, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • nothing new here

      HAHA.
      How about Obama ending the "tax-exempt" status of these churches?

      November 9, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Rose

      Larry, sounds like you don't appreciate the fact that the President is already making exceptions to the Affordable Healthcare Act when he really didn't have to. The fact that your church (Catholic Community Services) and others receive money from the government to help the community means that they should be required to follow national laws/requirements just like any other business or organization that receives money from the government. . That would mean no "special" exceptions concerning contraceptions and insurance coverage. I'm also curious why these are in question when medications like "Viagra" are not questioned? Another double-standard? Just because that option is there, if your folks "don't believe" in that, they don't have to claim it. THen it would be dependent on the the individual's actions. Please leave it to the individuals actions/beliefs/responsibility but allow the options for difference and don't impose what you might believe on everyone else. Thank you for your time.

      November 9, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  13. mark

    why is my posted not working

    November 9, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • word filter help

      this is an older list, but it might help with some of the more common problems like
      words that contain t i t, such as Const i tution.

      “bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN “awaiting moderation” filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters to modify the “offending” letter combinations.
      ––
      ar-se…..as in Car-se, etc.
      ba-stard
      co-ck…..as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, lubco-ck, etc.
      co-on…..as in rac-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      cu-m……as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      cu-nt…..as in Scu-ntthorpe, a city in the UK famous for having problems with filters…!
      do-uche
      ef-fing…as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w……as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, etc.
      fu-ck……!
      ho-mo…..as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, etc.
      ho-rny….as in tho-rny, etc.
      jacka-ss…yet “ass” is allowed by itself…..
      ja-p……as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      ji-sm
      koo-ch….as in koo-chie koo..!
      nip-ple
      pi-s……as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      pr-ick….as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
      ra-pe…..as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
      se-x……as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
      sh-@t…..but shat is okay – don’t use the @ symbol there.
      sh-it
      sl-ut
      sn-atch
      sp-ic…..as in disp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      ti-t……as in const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at…..as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, etc.
      va-g……as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re….as in who’re you kidding / don’t forget to put in that apostrophe!
      wt-f….also!!!!!!!
      -
      There are more, some of them considered “racist”, so do not assume that this list is complete.
      -–
      Allowed words / not blocked at all:
      anal
      anus
      ass
      boob
      crap
      damn
      execute
      hell
      kill
      masturbation
      murder
      penis
      pubic
      raping (ra-pe is not ok)
      shat (sh-@t is not ok)
      sphincter
      testes
      testicles

      November 9, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  14. FLMom

    As a long time Catholic voter – also female – I don't want my church in my politics. Truth be, I voted against the amendments here in Florida (that are still mucking up the vote counting) that my church lobbied for. I will give my parish priest credit - he never swayed votes - he merely said for us to pray for guidance and vote as it's a great American privilege. And I prayed......and my mind was not swayed.....and I voted for the president to remain in office. Now some may say I voted against the church due to the abortion issue, but I have been a Catholic Democrat for a long time and despise the way Republicans try to "buy" my vote with their right wing agenda just because I go to church. When the Republicans come more to the center maybe they will stand a chance.

    November 9, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • nothing new here

      One of the best comments that I have read on this issue – thank you FLMom.
      And you are correct – people like you are just being targeted just for attending a church.
      Church attendees are just being used – it is ashame that more religious people haven't figured it out yet.

      November 9, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  15. Gerald

    I am a bit confused. Were the signs about religous liberty printed by the Catholic Church? Were they posted on church property? I didn't see any on Church property. Or were they posted on lawns of conservative Catholics who also voted for conservative candidates? Then it is Catholics voicing their opinions, excercising their freedom of speach, voting rights, and freedom of religion and this writer is way off base.

    November 9, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • nothing new here

      They have freedom of speech, but the rest of us have the freedom to ignore it.

      November 9, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • boyamidumb

      Get real! You know that the Catholic Church has ALWAYS been politically aggressive around the world, to protect its interests and wealth. That's fine, but in this country it should mean that they pay their fair share in the form of corporate taxes...as should every church. Maybe they should spend their efforts and wealth helping people as their Jesus instructed.

      A former catholic

      November 9, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  16. nothing new here

    Why does organized religion think it has to have all this power.
    If these so-called religious leaders actually read the Bible, they would know that Jesus was never a political leader.
    Jesus came to this world poor and humble, and left the same way.
    I think it is time for organized religion to eat a big slice of humble pie, and start paying taxes as well.

    November 9, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  17. Dora

    Supporting abortion is promoting to kill babies and supporting gay marriage is supporting fornication. The day of judgment is coming for each everyone of us and it is going to be so painful for many. The church has the support from the truly catholic believers.

    November 9, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Mirosal

      your empty threats are meaningless. It's like saying there's a monster under your bed. It scares little kids into believing, but as adults we know better. Nice try though.

      November 9, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Uptight much

      @Dora
      Jees Honey, go get la*id already, I am sure you maybe able to find a priest that prefers women to boys or maybe not.

      November 9, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • nothing new here

      The truly Catholic believers are going to be answering for thier own sins as well. There is no differentiating against sin – at least that is what the Bible teaches (and provided the reader believes it). And that is where your own religion is so silly – you think because you are personally against abortion and gay marriage, that makes you better than anyone else? Really? I would say that is a big problem with the RCC, too self-serving and self-righteous.

      November 9, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • nolapearl

      And yet you support an organization that condones raping children. I grew up Catholic and they have become an earthly organization that has nothing in common with Jesus and his teachings. They are about their own power. PERIOD. TAX THEM. That will get rid of the deficit! I would also suggest you read a real science book and an ancient history book also. You might learn the truth.

      November 9, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • Jason

      I am sorry to hear about your cat addiction.

      November 9, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • PraiseTheLard

      You're correct! I've just judged you to be a m0r0n...

      November 9, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • joe

      Supporting catholic families' soldiers in combat is condoning murder. Without fornication you wouldn't be here. Unless you really buy into that immaculate conception thingy. And you have no idea how 'painful' anything is going to be for anyone. That book was written in the bronze age by forty delusional dudes that thought the world was flat and the center of the universe.

      November 9, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • mark

      Most people who call themselves Catholic go to Mass when ever they feel like it. You should see how crowded Christmas and Easter are. They chose to ignore the fact missing Mass without good reason is a sin. Only 25% attend Mass every Sunday. As Jesus said, how narrow the gate to life and how Jew who enter, how wide the road to death and many chose to travel. So many of you think that the only sin there is are those who call out your sins. Death is great equalizer, for all arrogance will come crashing down. As John the Baptist said, the ax is at the foot of the tree. Republicans will do worse in the future because sin keeps on increasing. Pilate tried to wash his hands of Jesus death, and so are all of you. Supporting the party of death will not leave you unscratched. The people killed Jesus because he told them their ways were evil. If Jesus lived today, He would say the same thing and you would kill Him again.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • panger

      I gather from your post you only support marriage between a man and woman. Ok, that's fine, but what could also be used to describe the act married men and women do in the bedroom. Oh yeah, that's right – fornicating. So, then, do you support fornication or don't you? Which is it because you're really confusing right now.

      November 9, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  18. mark

    Why was my post not posted?

    November 9, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  19. Mark

    No representation without taxation.

    November 9, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  20. Mirosal

    Shouldln't the correct ti'tle of this article be "Catholic bishops' ERECTION behavior threatens their authority"?

    November 9, 2012 at 8:11 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.