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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. DrJStrangepork

    If you need the Catholic Church to make your life decisions for you, then you have bigger problems than who to vote for to be POTUS.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  2. James PDX

    Despite what these bishops are saying, requiring the church to offer healthcare choices to its members is not infringing on their religious liberty. Requiring the church to force their members use these options would be. The church simply knows that, given the choice, most Catholics will go against church doctrine when it's not convenient to them. Research already shows that the vast majority of Catholic women are taking advantage of some form of birth control. What the church needs to do is stick to only preaching actual biblical doctrine instead of continuing to make up their own as they have over the centuries, thereby second guessing their own god.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • DrJStrangepork

      I never saw their argument as sound in that either. The church has long held that the exercise of free will against temptation is what makes people righteous. I didn't think it was the church's job to eradicate temptation, but it was supposed to train its congregants to resist it. They must not hold their work in high regard, if they don't trust it in real world applications.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  3. Rainer Braendlein

    If a Catholic becomes a Christian, he has to forsake the Roman Catholic Church immediately.

    Why?

    Actually, the head of the true Christian Church is the invisible Jesus Christ. The pope has stolen Christ's office as divine head of church. Of course, the pope as a human dwarf is somewhat overcharged to rule "God's body", the Church. Hence, the RCC has become a pis-spot of heresies. The pope always predetermines Catholic counciles, and hence the decision of such a council is always the pope's decision but not God's decision.

    Who established papacy?

    607 a. D. the criminal emperor Phocas (emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire) made the Roman See the highest one on earth. Phocas was a tyrant like Adolf Hitler. Possibly Phocas is also responsible for the emergence of Islam because during his reign Muhammad lived in Arabia. Phocas soldiers certainly committed a lot of crimes in Near East and Muhammad as a merchant became eyewitness of that. Phocas' soldiers were only nominal Christians, and hence Muhammad draw the conclusion that Christianity must be a very bad religion (of course, Muhammad made a mistake because the reason for the misbehaviour was not Christianity but their lack of faith in Jesus).

    Conclusion: Phocas, the ba-stard, gave as two Antichrists: the pope, the Western one, and Muhammad, the Eastern one.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • James PDX

      Well said and informative.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • bioteacher1

      I'm unaware of any evidence to support what you are claiming.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  4. CTObserver

    Quite right, sir. The Church needs to be able to take politically unpopular stands, but it cannot stoop to the tevelofballdlypartisna politics without grave damage to its integrity.

    Also ... the bishops try to project an authority that hat been perhapsfatally damaged by the child abuse scandals. How tone-deaf can they get?

    November 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  5. Lola

    That's all good and well, but step inside any Black church during and election and they are actively promoting the Democrat candidate.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • DrJStrangepork

      Any church telling its congregants who to vote for is messing it up. I think any church that wants to take a political stance should have to give up tax exempt status. Basically, teach their respective scriptures and allow people to apply them in their decision making process, but if the "church" wants to just come out and say 'vote for this guy' then they need to pay up for that right just like any other tax payer.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  6. Gonfis

    So if anyone believes they should vote from the perspective of their belief system that is being partisan. Interesting how the media and its selected commentators always apply the term partisan to both conservatives and those with religious beliefs in a negative manner. The media in the US has unfortunately lost any respect as outlets for news and information as regards government and/or the economy. Most just want to be famous for being on TV and rubbing shoulders with actors and actresses. Oh well, as the Democrats have said for years, the electorate is ignorant so promise them anything you think they want and they will keep you in power. It's no mistake the vast majority of those over 30 do not trust the government.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Kathy

      Well Said!

      November 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • john1513

      Now you get it: tolerance only goes one way. If the administration (and its media) doesn't want to be criticized by religious groups, then don't attack religious freedom.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  7. MJBillings

    Bill Deacon: in your short remark to Colin, let me respond. It seems quite a stretch to state that without the Catholic "influence" we would be speaking Arabic. Historically, that could have occured about six hundred years ago WITH the Catholic Church totally in control of Europe at that time. But it didn't.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • JFCanton

      It would make more sense to give them credit for the existence of the US. Without the Ottoman threat gone (and this was specifically the work of the Poles), Europe wouldn't have had the resources to explore.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  8. john1513

    All issues pale in comparison to protecting the innocent lives of unborn humans. If you disagree, you don't understand Catholicism. Without the right to life, there are no other rights. Romney was the obvious Catholic candidate.

    The Catholic Church does not need to appease politicians; Catholics need to learn their faith.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Christianity is a form of mental illness- FACT

      And they need to stop touching little boys

      November 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • john1513

      And you need to learn arguments.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Paul12

      You appear to be saying that the Catholic faith is exclusively about opposing abortion, which of course it is not. In fact, you deny the essence of your faith when you ignore the other very relevant political issues – feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, etc. You might also consider that the Christian response to the problem of abortion is not necessarily to criminalize it, which in my view amounts to merely throwing stones, as the Right-to-Lifers appear to be working exclusively toward. Rather, I would say it is to help provide positive alternatives to abortion and demonstrate compassion for those in the unenviable position of having an unwanted pregnancy. I suggest that you are the one missing the point on the faith you claim to speak for.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • G to the T

      "Rather, I would say it is to help provide positive alternatives to abortion and demonstrate compassion for those in the unenviable position of having an unwanted pregnancy. I suggest that you are the one missing the point on the faith you claim to speak for."
      Best quote in the comments so far. Great work Paul

      November 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  9. cubsfankevin

    Secular history provides ample evidence that the early Christians remained politically neutral and refrained from warfare. Says the book The Beginnings of Christianity: “The founders of Christianity guarded with sedulous care against the development of anything like a disposition to interfere directly with the established political order.” Similarly, the book On the Road to Civilization notes: “Early Christianity was little understood and was regarded with little favor by those who ruled the pagan world. . . . Christians refused to share certain duties of Roman citizens. . . . They would not hold political office.”
    Regarding the early Christians and military service, German theologian Peter Meinhold said: “Being a Christian and a soldier was considered irreconcilable.” In his essay “An Inquiry Into the Accordancy of War With the Principles of Christianity,” religion writer Jonathan Dymond wrote that for some time after the death of Jesus, His followers “refused to engage in [war]; whatever were the consequences, whether reproach, or imprisonment, or death.” Dymond added: “These facts are indisputable.” Only when “Christianity became corrupted,” said another writer, did Christians become soldiers.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  10. dan

    This is different from what our nation's black preachers were doing.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  11. Emma O

    As a committed and unwavering Catholic, I was embarrassed by the Catholic Bishops' decision to dabble into partisan politics with improper foundations. I still worship my God in a Catholic church, but the Bishops have lost my passion for their causes. What an arrogant error of judgement.
    Emma

    November 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  12. SlayFalseGod

    The Church is just looking out for its own good ..... they crave power over all

    November 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  13. Jim Hahn

    The Catholic Church is marching itself slowly (and has been for quite some time) into irrelevancy. As more and more women find their own voice and vision for their future (aside and apart from their husband's), and as they become a more conscientious and powerful part of the electorate, a group of celibate men making decisions about women's health and family planning will become as effective as a rotary dial telephone.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • john1513

      1.2 billion, 2,000 years: sounds relevant

      November 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • James PDX

      And yet that number keeps dropping, the number of devout as well, not to mention the number actually practicing their religion. It is nothing like Old Testament practice and nothing like what Christ and his Christian followers practices. It's what they purposefully designed it to be; a way to gain wealth and power by corrupting someone else's religion.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • G to the T

      Odd that they're only gaining converts in "third world" and "underdeveloped" nations now. Seems as though education is a fairly effective antidote...

      November 8, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  14. ajk68

    What Mr. Miller is missing is that people are to follow their "well formed" conscience.
    It is the bishops' role to form these consciences.
    The fact of the matter is most Catholics have not formed their consciences – they vote (and act) by sentiment.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      true

      November 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • john1513

      This

      Why are people shocked that Catholics should practice Catholicism. The cafeteria is closed.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • MJBillings

      Really. I beg to differ. Any person, no matter what faith they practice, pass on their values to their children in the home. Children learn their values by observing the actions of their parents. If those parents behave in a moral fashion and attend church services and pray in the home as well as in church then the next generation will grow to adulthood secure in their faith ready to share those values and faith with the grandchildren. I have seen it first hand in my own family as a very proud grandmother. And this faith is not limited to the Catholic church.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • James PDX

      More likely, they vote (and act) based on reason and self interest; like any intelligent person should.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  15. Rainer Braendlein

    If a Catholic becomes a Christian, he has to forsake the Roman Catholic Church immediately.

    Why?

    Actually, the head of the true Christian Church is the invisible Jesus Christ. The pope has stolen Christ's office as divine head of church. Of course, the pope as a human dwarf is somewhat overcharged to rule "God's body", the Church. Hence, the RCC has become a pis-spot of heresies. The pope always predetermines Catholic counciles, and hence the decision of such a councils is always the pope's decision but not God's decision.

    Who established papacy?

    607 a. D. the criminal emperor Phocas (emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire) made the Roman See the highest one on earth. Phocas was a tyrant like Adolf Hitler. Possibly Phocas is also responsible for the emergence of Islam because during his reign Muhammad lived in Arabia. Phocas soldiers certainly committed a lot of crimes in Near East and Muhammad as a merchant became eyewitness of that. Phocas' sodiers were nominal Christian, and hence Muhammad draw the conclusion that Christianity must be a very bad religion (of course, Muhammad made a mistake because the reason for the misbehaviour was not Christianity but their lack of faith in Jesus).

    Conclusion: Phocas, the ba-stard, gave as two Antichrists: the pope, the Western one, and Muhammad, the Eastern one.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • john1513

      Would you exchange one pope for 40,000 popes?

      "You are Peter and upon this rock I build my church" – J.C.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      @john1513

      In this situation the Father spoke through Jesus. The Father meant that Jesus is the rock.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      Peter you are Peter with all your dreams of temporal rule in Israel but my church I will build in the meek and humble Jesus.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  16. Andrew

    The good news is now we know there is no catholic god. Because how can a real god ever pick the wrong side in an election?

    November 8, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • WASP

      @andrew: XD HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHHAAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHA

      November 8, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Sly

      Barry Bonds is God, and He voted for President Obama.

      And give God a break, mistakes happen – He's only human you know.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  17. SlayFalseGod

    Keep your " good Book ' in your homes and not mine.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  18. David

    With regard to the bishops' moral authority:

    That ship has already sailed.

    As a Catholic, I can tell you that their handling of the last three presidential elections has been largely the same in it's clear, strong and predictable partisanship. I was actually pleasantly surprised by their statements agains the Ryan Budget.

    What bothers me more is the consistently arrogant and dismissive tone they take towards those in the Church who disagree with their position.

    When coupled with their (mis)handling of abuse scandal; it is really very hard to take them seriously at all.

    The funny hats don't help much either....

    November 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  19. Michael, Chapel Hill

    When it comes to the Liberals, they will annihilate those whose opinion is against theirs. Tolerance it for others not for them. (Communists also behave that way-we do not call them that here because it is a yukky word.)

    November 8, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Damocles

      Liberals are communists? Really?

      November 8, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Sly

      That's how we roll, and how we'll roll for the next 12 years under Presdent Obama and then President Clinton.

      Life is good on top baby!

      Yee-haw! I'm still sipping champagne. Contratulations to President Obama, and to America! Our great nation will continue to prosper!

      November 8, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • WASP

      @hill: nahoy, choska amerikanski. :)

      November 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • SlayFalseGod

      Yes – we have annihilated Mittens political career !
      Now get back to bashing gays and fighting your war on drugs and preventing women from from getting medical care – you freedom loving guy you.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Ztom

      Yes, and all Conservatives just want to take all the tax money from the poor and give it to large corporations. Conservatives also hate women.

      See where broad inaccurate stereotypes gets you? Some day you will learn to think for yourself. Until then, please stay away from message boards. You display your ignorance too much.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • The Truth

      It's funny how liberals have no problem with religion and in fact the majority of liberals are religious, and yet we get ignorant comments from the right saying things that litteraly make no sense. Take this for example "they will annihilate those whose opinion is against theirs." This is a total lie as we do not want to take anyone right to their own brand of religion away, we simply want others to keep their opinions where they belong, in each individuals PERSONAL life, PERSONAL conversations and PERSONAL decisions, not in our PUBLIC school, not on our PUBLIC money, not in our PUBLIC courthouses and certainly not in our PUBLIC government.

      Imagine if you will for a moment, a group of people at a large social dinner with a meal prepared by a famous chef. Now there are many people from many walks of life with many different eating preferences and several alergy issues. If the Chef decides "I will make one dish for all the guests, I do not care what their preferences are! They need to learn to eat like me!!" And prepares a sumpuous peanut duck with liver sauce but doesn't tell anyone whats in it, he just says "This is good! Eat!" and many proclaim "Wow! This is the best thing ive ever tasted!" And the chef will smile at the praise, but alas, several other guests and falling out of their chairs with anaphylactic shock and may die because the Chef chose not to allow for food choices because he felt he knew best...

      Who's freedom is being denied if we tell the Chef to prepare additional food items or to at least inform all guests what he is putting in his food allowing them the choice not to eat? The Chef's? Who only serves what he wants, diner be damned? Or the diner who was unknowingly fed harmful substances all while being told "It's very Good! Eat!"

      You may think you have the best "spiritual food" for others and America, and you can eat all of it you like, but don't claim persecution just because the rest of America doesn't want to take a bite as they have severe allergies to your brand of righteousness, which has included in the past (and in some places continues today) extreme racism, bigotry, chauvinism and hatered all in the name of organized religion.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  20. John Blackadder

    The Cathoic bishops stepped over the line separating Church and State. By endorsing a political candidate, they have violated the law on tax exemption, and they should lose that exemption.
    The same is true of the right-wing Evangelicals who endorsed Romney. The Founders had the right idea on separation. Religion has no place in politics. we don't want to go back to the 16th Century, or behave like some Moslem countries. Enforcing religious belief in law is anathema.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • ajk68

      They didn't endorse a candidate. They informed their population of an important issue for Catholics.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • DF

      It is spelled Muslim

      November 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • pdxmum

      DF...it can be spelled a number of different ways.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.