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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. Nadia

    Guess you don't need contraception when your main target is young boys. (Haven't heard of one of them getting pregnant yet.... or maybe it's the "Akin" affect.) What HUGE hyprocrits we have as religous leaders in the Catholic church.

    November 9, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • mark

      you think that the sins of Catholic clergy wash away your sins? Keep dreaming.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Nadia

      mark, in whatever denomination you care to associate yourself with, the clergy, the priest, the ministers, whomever, CANNOT wash away your or my sins. And, Hyprocisy will not do it either. We will all be responsible for our individual sins... just as the Catholic clergy, etc.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • mark

      But you hide behind anothers sin by posting saying "Guess you don't need contraception when your main target is young boys".

      November 9, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • Huebert

      Mark

      So how should one respond to an organization that systematically protects child molesters?

      November 9, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Nadia

      Throw a rock into a crowd and the one who's hit will yell the loudest...
      Hiding... I think not. Unless hiding is synonymous with speaking the truth.

      November 9, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  2. Thomas

    Little Tommy asked the priest, "Father, what does St. Peter look like?
    The priest lifted up his robe and showed him.

    November 9, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  3. Fabjan

    I thought God gave them their authority. It shouldn't make a rat's @$$ of a difference what Obama or anybody else thinks.....assuming their church is the one recognized and sanctioned by God.

    November 9, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  4. Shaggy

    They have a vanishingly small authority anyway. What percentage of the planet attends Catholic services on a regular basis? What percentage of those actually pay attention and do what the priests say, instead of just attending out of habit?

    I mean come on, they tell stories about a Zombie that did magic tricks, and then re-enact the ritualized cannibalization of that Zombies body. And then they try to fondle your kids. And your concerned that some of them said things about how people should vote?

    November 9, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  5. T-Max73

    These churches (of which the RCC is the largest and most well-funded) have become blatant lobbyists for oppression of gays and women and health care. If they insist on sticking their noses into political matters they should be TAXED!! It's far past the time to tax the churches; they have enjoyed a free ride on taxpayers' backs for far too long.

    November 9, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  6. mark

    i'm gay (still in the closet), i over compensate for being in the closet by ranting on these blog sites because i get so confused while typing a complete thought into a sentence of words. Again and again the Pilates slides to and fro, my mind, a simple thing blowing in the depths of the Jews of the world and the Johns of the air ways to the sky...

    November 9, 2012 at 9:56 am |
    • mark

      What are you talking about? You make no sense.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • mark

      and you should know

      November 10, 2012 at 1:33 am |
  7. JWDT

    Mr. Miller may want to study previous Councils & Papal Encyclicals as well as pull his head out of the sand...Honor the decisions of the laity? so much for the Objective Truth of the Church, now we have the whim of the laity to rely on for Truth....Partisan politics has entered the Church e.g. Pelosi/Biden still claim to be Catholic, Liberal/Conservative Vatican Prelates versus Roman Catholic Vatican Prelates, etc..

    November 9, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • mark

      You are coorect, people think they can take a poll and the majority choses what is good and what is evil.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  8. Mike

    The bishops need to stop hyperventilating over the the contraception mandate. There are five practicing Catholics on the Supreme Court–four of which will definitely vote down this mandate if it is challenged. Justice Sotomayor probably won't, but if she doesn't, Justice Kennedy will.

    Now because of the publicity, every conservative business owner who doesn't like the president, which is every business owner, want's to drop the coverage and they will be allowed to once this is challenged.

    This was an incredibly short sighted political stunt by the president. He basically threw women under the bus for his campaign, and they love him for it. wow. .

    Disclosure: I voted for the president, but thought this mandate was very bad idea.

    November 9, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • tallulah13

      From what you are saying, the catholic Supreme Court Justices are the ones who will be throwing women, as well as the Const.itution, "under the bus." They are not empowered by their church. They are empowered by, and thus beholden to, the laws of the United States and to the Const.itution which is the ultimate arbiter of any legal decision in this land.

      Any Justice discovered to be putting his or her religion before the laws of this land should resign or be impeached.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  9. BADGUY

    This is not the FIRST Presidential election in which the hierarchy of the Catholic Church..and...its press...and...it's radio/TV outlets have "sided" with Republicans. It STARTED (albeit on a lower level) in 2000...got WORSE in 2004....got EVEN WORSE...2008..and got REALLY BAD in 2012! So..Obama's stand on Abortion...OR....his stand on Contraception rights for employees of Catholic "businesses" (like Universities and Hospitals) was NOT the "prime mover" for Official Catholic tirades against the Democrats. They've been "building up" BEFORE Obama and have just reached (an "apex"?) under his candidacy! WHY? Hmmmmmm? The Catholic Church has ALWAYS fought progressive-ism, Socialism, Communism. Without the help of the Catholic voters AND the Catholic Center Party in Germany in 1933, Hitler would NEVER have been granted sole dictatorship authority in 1933 Germany. The Catholic Church even AIDED Nazi Germans in their escape from Germany AFTER the allies invaded and subdued the Nazi War Machine. Even today, the Pope (an ex-German soldier of the Nazi era) has supported right wing authoritarian rulers in South America and Eastern Europe. Is it something, then, in the Catholic "gene", that slants the Church's hierarchy toward the right wing? .

    November 9, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  10. Jeff

    A liberal professor lamenting that all the bishops aren't as liberal as he is.

    How unremarkable.

    November 9, 2012 at 9:51 am |
    • TheSchmaltz

      No, that's not it at all. This is a liberal professor saying that the Bishops are making statements that the majority of Catholics don't agree with, and causing more Catholics to disregard them. They're trying to use political cloud they don't have anymore, which further weakens their position.

      November 9, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  11. Wayne

    I think this is a good comentary

    November 9, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  12. Aezel

    Heh I work near a Catholic Church in Minnesota. They had a giant "vote yes" sign up for the gay marriage ban. They had that thing down before the sun even came up after getting trounced. Too cowardly to remind people you got destroyed at the polls?

    I was surprised they had time out of their busy schedule of molesting children to put up the sign anyway.

    November 9, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Nigel Goddard

      The best religious people are the ones who lead by example. Most of the Roman Catholic clergy have had little intimate first hand experience with being part of a family therefore clumsily try to direct family values based on some ideal of which they themselves are forbidden from experiencing. For example, how many priests have gone to the pharmacy to buy products for the women in their life? How many priests have had to sooth the women in their life when monthly irritation comes along?How many priests have had the wonderful opportunity of holding their newborn child in their arms? It is one thing to live vicariously through the lives of congregation members and learn through texts at seminary school, but unless you have first hand family experience, you risk as being as distant from reality of the family as Mitt Romney, as well intentioned as he might be, from the 47% of electors he could care less about.

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

      Aezel, I'm sure you hold yourself out as an enlightened accepting person, but your post shows you are nothing but an ignorant bigot; well done!

      November 9, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  13. Ron

    Either you are a church (tax free) or you are a lobby (taxible)........

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

      I agree!
      Mixing religion and politics is like trying to mix oil and water.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  14. Freddie the Fez

    When churches campaign, directly or indirectly, it is time to stop calling them a church and start calling them what they really are: a lobbying group. Tax them. Imagine how much more money we'd have in the federal Treasury, and how we could relieve the tax burden on workers if these fat bishops began paying their share.

    November 9, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  15. rockysfan

    If churches want to play in the public arena then you comply with public laws. Don't want to play, close down your schools and hospitals, there will be someone to pick up your slack. You want to play in public realm, ante up the taxes like the rest of us have to do. Tax the churches, ALL OF THEM!!!! They want to hide pedos, they can pay taxes. Welcome to reality. Again, a bunch of OLD WHITE MEN telling women what we can and cannot do. Road to h e ! ! is paved with the heads of bishops!

    November 9, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  16. History repeats

    Intresting that the Bishops are ignoring what the majority of the laity think is right for them Some surveys indicate that 58% believe contraception should be allowed and up to 90% have used some form of contraception at some time themselves. Ignoring what the laity thinks and wants can lead to rebellion and reformation. Also intresting is the church has been selling indulgencies, for $13,000 you could get an audience with Ratzinger, will they never learn?

    November 9, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • rockysfan

      Sounds like the days of the Borgias all over again. How much do they charge for absolution? ROFLMAO!

      November 9, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • History repeats

      If you are member of the gang you are allowed to get away with almost anything and are protected from the civil authority. If just a dues paying member, I refer you to Godfather III, absolution can be very, very expensive.

      November 9, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Patrick

      Your under the mistaken impression that the Church is a democracy. But the Catholic Church doesn't exist to rule people, it exists to teach people.

      Critisizing that catholic church for disagreeing with its followers on contraception is like critisizing a history professor for disagreeing with his students about the Civil War. If the students think it was fought over a territorial dispute, the professor is duty-bound to correct that teaching, and instruct the students that it was fought over slavery.

      The church is obligated to teach the truth it believes in whether that truth is popular or not.

      November 9, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • History repeats

      @Patrick
      When the teachings become absurd to many they will leave, right, Martin Luther all over again. Some of the modern day popes have revised the teachings of the church, the acceptance of evolution for example, encyclias have changed the path of the church over history. I hope you do not make changes to catholic teaching that is the best way to see your power and influence diminish.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • History repeats

      @Patrick
      I missed commentting on the church exists to teach people not rule them. How would you explain all the punishments the church hands out if someone breaks the rules, penance, banned from communion and ex-communication? Is that not considered ruling in your world, I hope you are not a teacher, you would be despised by your students?

      November 9, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  17. Dennis

    The way Obamacare reads, as I understand it, if Catholic Charities or, say on a smaller scale so you can understand it, a regular Parish priest answers the doorbell at the rectory and two people are standing there. Both say they are hungry and need help as they are jobless and have nothing.
    If one of them is a Catholic, the priest can feed her, give her some new clothes and a place to sleep until she gets on her feet and generally helps her. The Feds will leave the priest, the Church and Catholicism alone.
    If the other woman says she is Jewish, or an atheist, or whatever, and the priest does the same for her, the Feds will come down on the priest, the Church and Catholicism for violations of the Affordable Health Care for America Act, and the Church will be required to pay for abortions, contraceptives, etc. for all their employees in their health care insurance that work for the Church. The Church can only help those that have the same beliefs as they do, i.e., Catholics.
    Is this the way it will work, or am I reading it wrong?

    November 9, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Sort of off base

      An exemption was granted, Feb 2012, that allowed insurance policies to exclude the contraception clause in contracts for religious organization that objected. The Bishops were not satisfied with that but wanted to expand the exemption to any business that simply claimed they had an objection on religious grounds, away to achieve their goals through the back door, so to speak. As it applies to your scenario I will leave that up to you, as I don't fully understand where you are coming from.

      November 9, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • clarity6

      Dennis, you are reading it wrong. In reality, many Catholic woman use contraception. Next time you are in mass, count how many kids per couple attend. At the most, families have 2 or 3 kids. Why do you think this is the reason? I am catholic and use contraception, as every woman I know. How many kids Ryan has ? I do not see him having a kid every year. Please stop denying the obvious. I am a democratic Catholic and proud to have voted for Obama.

      November 9, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  18. mark

    CN..N is so sorry you can't say abortion is mur... der and same "attraction' marriage is a si.. n...

    November 9, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Bull Moose

      Oh!! Now I get it! Little boys don't get pregnant....

      November 9, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  19. 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 9:23 am |
    • Ho5000

      Question: Does the Church accept the donations of the other 75%?

      November 9, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • Larry

      Please refer me to the specific scripture that requires church attendance on Sundays. I can't seem to find that. And for crying out loud, could you all stop talking about the god of love who intends to fry anyone and everyone who doesn't follow his rules. It makes you sound silly.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • refugeek

      Hypocritical smug windbag Pharisees were the party of death 2000 years ago. They drove people away from God by bashing them over the head with rules instead of welcoming them with compassion.

      Killing unborn children sends their souls straight to heaven. Killing thousands of Iraqis (where are those WMDs?) consigns many of them to hell. Both are terrible – however spiritual death is infinitely worse than physical death.

      The Republicans are guilty of many forms of spiritual death – racism, bigotry, elitism, intolerance, social injustice, warmongering, paranoia, hatred. I'm Catholic, and I voted Democrat – the lesser of two evils.

      At the end of the day, it's all about counting souls – who goes to heaven, and who goes to hell. Do the math.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  20. mark

    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 9:22 am |
    • Freddie the Fez

      No, Jesus would get away because he'd have better shoes and better arch support, and could run away faster. Also, his wealthy supporters would have had him living in Miami in a guarded, gated estate, traveling the countryside in a Mercedes. He'd still appear in pieces of toast or in windows, but only for wealthy donors.

      November 9, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • LilyM

      Perfectly stated. Mr. Miller's op-ed and those who call themselves Catholic but only pick and choose what is convenient to their own agendas are just modern day Pharisees – hypocrites! God have mercy on them, on all of us.

      November 9, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • DEcember 2012

      JESUS DIED ON THE CROSS TO SAVE EVERYONE. HE SACRIFICED HIMSELF SO WE ALL CAN HAVE ETERNAL LIFE. THAT IS THE CATHOLIC WAY.

      WHERE WAS THE OUTRAGE WHEN THE POOR ARE BEING TARGETED BY HARMFUL REPUBLICAN POLICIES? WHERE WERE THE BISHOPS WHEN THE NUNS ON THE GROUND KEPT IMPLORING THEM TO SEE HOW THE LEAST AMONG US ARE BEING PERSECUTED? OH YEAH, THEY WERE TOO BUSY HOBNOBBING WITH POLITICIANS BECAUSE THEY THEMSELVES ARE POLITICAL FIGURES!

      THIS IS NOT WHAT CHRIST DIED FOR. NOT ONE BIT.

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

      MARK and LilyM

      Well stated. I have asked what do they fear. There is never an answer. They are afraid of truth and justice. They would rather run from it and hide in their false ideals. There will never be the utopia they work so hard for. Only through Jesus will you see life.

      November 9, 2012 at 10:19 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.