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. John Hinkle

    As a parisioner who had to listen to two official letters from the bishop about OBAMA attack on freedom of religion.
    and after listening to my local priest proclaim that he was a Republican during his homilies
    and after getting a last minute “YOU know who your pastoral conscience suggests you vote for” at the last mass before the election,
    and after reading all the pronouncements by the us conference of bishops as they were published throughout the election year

    November 27, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  2. the AnViL

    this should be very simple. the catholic church – and any other religious organizations who choose to attempt to influence politics in any way – should immediately lose their tax-exempt status.

    enough is enough

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

      You come up with that yourself simpleton?

      November 15, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  3. louis

    As long as I can remember, it's been said that we should never argue politics or religion. How true. I am so sick of both, I could vomit.

    November 15, 2012 at 12:42 am |
  4. epluribus

    Miller should be excomunicated

    November 13, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  5. veggiedude

    This wasn't the first time the Catholic church was on the wrong side of history. Remember WWII?

    November 13, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • gerald

      I'm betting you don't and weren't old enough to. So you latched on to some propoganda revisionist history long after the fact. A book like Hitler's Pope that is verifiably false. Actually the CC did not take sides in that war, nor does it in any war because God loves all men and wants them to come to a knowledge of the truth.

      November 15, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  6. Paul Sartre

    The people who scream the loudest about the danger of the Church intruding into government affairs, don't utter so much as a peep when the government intrudes into Church affairs. The Obama Administration shoved the Church, and the Church shoved back. Election over. Move on.

    November 12, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • == o ==

      Bull. The church was shoved. Give me a break. Time to take names and start taxing the fuggers.

      November 13, 2012 at 7:47 am |
  7. Gerald

    I didn't see any lawn signs for freedom of religion next to signs for political candidates on church property anywhere. Is this guy claiming that Catholics as private citizens can't have such signs on their lawns?

    November 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • keith a dewey

      I saw many. West side of Cleveland along the shore in big expensive houses.

      November 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Gerald

      Did you read my WHOLE POST. Key phrase "on church property". Engage your mind. YOu might find that that other side has a point. You don't.

      November 13, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Gerald

      BTW, what does expensive houses have to do with it? Are the rich not allowed to have lawn signs either? Ah good old class envy.

      November 13, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  8. Confused

    I am confused at how the Catholic church can tell me how to vote and they cannot even control their own priest lustful desires for young boys. They have continually run from this issue but can say that "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.” does that mean that pedophile preiest that represent the church reject Jesus as their Lord? Just wondering how if sins are ranked like the BCS!

    November 12, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  9. steward

    Sometimes it seems to me that Catholic priests, especially Bishops, have never bothered to read the entire Bible in context of place and time, but only read the Lectionary excerpts. I certainly get shocked looks from modern Christians when I suggest that homilies on "the Good Samaritan" should place it in modern context by renaming it "the Good al-Qaeda" or "the Good Taliban" or "the Good Hamas" – because, at the time Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth allegedly lived, the Jews regarded Samaritans the way we regard al-Qaeda or the Taliban or Hamas today.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:04 pm |
    • Nii

      there is nothing allegeThat is a historic fact. The part about it being alleged is an 18th century Deist concoction swallowed by our Modern Atheists.

      November 12, 2012 at 2:38 am |
    • Nii

      Sorry that didn't post well. There is nothing alleged about Christ being an actual person who lived in 1st century Palestine. That is an historic fact. The part about it being alleged is an 18th century Deist concoction swallowed by our Modern Atheists.

      November 12, 2012 at 2:41 am |
  10. bobby

    The world is more than religion, but not more than family. Prosperity is the result of family, and as my posterity is not crawling or walking on the earth, that prosperity is less for most. Once fulfilled, then shall people really know happiness, peace, prosperity. But only in righteousness, without force, not by the ways of men.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • EvolvedDNA

      bobby..i am very happy, have great family and a successful one at the and we are atheist..all of us. You sound like you have away to go to shake off the shackles of doubt and enjoy life .. and look at each person as a human being first rather than the type of god he has dreamed up.

      November 11, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  11. bobby

    People who are against abortion should be careful, when they let their "seed" fall on sheets, or floor or somewhere else. God in the old testament killed Onan (Genesis 38:9), because he left his seed on the ground. In God's eyes, any misuse of the procreation power, might be considered as evil. Those who throw stones, should not live in glass houses. In this biblical case, Onan was supposed to get the woman pregnant. Instead he left his seed on the ground. Written in the name of Jesus Christ. The same is true, when men oppose someone's marriage, or someone's children.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • steward

      Although the common exegetical reading of that passage is against letting the seed fall, it seems obvious to me that the sin of Onan was greed. In Jewish law as given in the Old Testament / Tanakh, if a man's brother died without issue to carry on his line, the man was to take the widow as a second wife, and the child(ren) would be considered those of his late brother and would inherit. However, if for some reason the widow never conceived and subsequently died, the surviving brother (Onan, in this case) would get the goods.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • Nii

      Thanks for that beautiful explanation. I wonder how that passage became a passage on abortion anyway.

      November 12, 2012 at 2:44 am |
  12. Richard

    I for one do not care much for what the catholic church says. No one will dictate to me what I should or should not do. This is not the age of the Spanish Inquisition. It is not that simple that what they say I must obey. Besides I find the Catholic church out dated in it's views. People will always do what they want regardless. What will be next, looking into peoples bedrooms? You got to be kidding! Using Condoms in their eyes is like interfering with the process of life. well read a biology book for once and learn how the women's body interferes with the process of conception.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • Chick-a-dee

      So Richard, what causes you to seek out articles about Catholicism on a belief blog?

      November 12, 2012 at 4:09 am |
    • junior

      Truth is constant, has no shelf life. Will one day I awaken to the fact that 1+1=3 someday?

      November 12, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  13. Charlie Dominguez

    Too many church officials believe that the laity will do as they say.....that is the minority of Catholics, the very few. I don't listen and in fact get turned off by the church imposing itself when it comes to elections.

    It will always be easy for men to impose their views as to health choices where women are directly effected. No one believes in abortion; but some of us believe that women have to decide, and that the church's responsibility is to teach the reasoning against the choice to have an abortion.....but those teachings, is where the church is to stop.

    November 11, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • Reality

      Leaving religion out of the equation:

      The reality of se-x, abortion, contraception and STD/HIV control: – from an agnostic who enjoys intelligent se-x-

      Note: Some words hyphenated to defeat an obvious word filter. ...

      The Brutal Effects of Stupidity:

      The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill (8.7% actual failure rate) and male con-dom (17.4% actual failure rate) have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or co-ndoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.- Failure rate statistics provided by the Gut-tmacher Inst-itute. Unfortunately they do not give the statistics for doubling up i.e. using a combination of the Pill and a condom.

      Added information before making your next move:

      from the CDC-2006

      "Se-xually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psy-ch-ological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars."

      And from:

      Consumer Reports, January, 2012

      "Yes, or-al se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-

      Here's a crucial message for teens (and all se-xually active "post-teeners": Or-al se-x carries many of the same risks as va-ginal se-x, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of or-al cancers in America in people under age 50.

      "Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about," said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. "They view it as a way to have intimacy without having 's-ex.'" (It should be called the Bill Clinton Syndrome !!)

      Obviously, political leaders in both parties, Planned Parenthood, parents, the "stupid part of the USA" and the educational system have failed miserably on many fronts.

      The most effective forms of contraception, ranked by "Perfect use":

      – (Abstinence, 0% failure rate)
      – (Masturbation, mono or mutual, 0% failure rate)

      Followed by:
      One-month injectable and Implant (both at 0.05 percent)
      Vasectomy and IUD (Mirena) (both at 0.1 percent)
      The Pill, Three-month injectable, and the Patch (all at 0.3 percent)
      Tubal sterilization (at 0.5 percent)
      IUD (Copper-T) (0.6 percent)
      Periodic abstinence (Post-ovulation) (1.0 percent)
      Periodic abstinence (Symptothermal) and Male condom (both at 2.0 percent)
      Periodic abstinence (Ovulation method) (3.0 percent)

      Every other method ranks below these, including Withdrawal (4.0), Female condom (5.0), Diaphragm (6.0), Periodic abstinence (calendar) (9.0), the Sponge (9.0-20.0, depending on whether the woman using it has had a child in the past), Cervical cap (9.0-26.0, with the same caveat as the Sponge), and Spermicides (18.0).

      November 11, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • cybermonkeytech

      Reality, why, at the top of your post, do you say the. Pill has 8.7% failure, when you cite a list at the bottom of your post that states 0.3% as the number?

      November 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Reality


      Failure of the pill first noted is the ACTUAL failure rate. At the bottom of the page are the numbers for the failure rates calculated based on PERFECT use. If you do the math, the ACTUAL failure rate results in ~one million unplanned pregnancies. For PERFECT use, there would be ~35,000 unplanned pregnancies from the use of the PILL. The Guttmacher Insti-tute has all the statistics on-line.

      November 11, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  14. Mickey1313

    Those who vote with their bible are imoral terrorists, bent on turning our great nation into a theocracy.

    November 11, 2012 at 12:58 am |
    • bobby

      Yes, you are right. That many people quote the bible to prevent them from being jealous. The commandments of God are proclaimed by Jesus, but interpreted by men. And thus we have the commandments of men, feigning that God is the true force behind them. However, the real purpose of the commandments of Jesus, is to reduce the amount of harm we do to others. But people who cannot control themselves, such as the rich, famous, powerful, have a hard time when someone gets their "due".

      November 11, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  15. Arvoasitis

    The ages old Catholic problem: spiritual leadership versus administration of a rigid bureaucracy; where is the proper balance between idealism and pragmatism? In such bureaucracies, leaders tend to rise through persistence rather than intellect, insight or effectiveness.

    November 10, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      A scattering is upon us in these trying days and Age. Leave your wantings behind and never take wind of one's longings for the weightiness of one's longings will smite even the most influential. Carry away nothing and leave. Head to the places inside one's being and do not keep ajar your door for many will want to enter in and should not. Your loving this Life is for the world to have and you should not heed the rumors from others as to just what is truly right. It is therefore best for mankind to simmer in their juvenile pottages never rationalizingly 'assaying' one's diffuse detriments, the very smallest of life's grains. As smitten breeds, our splendors reveal one's characters to be traitorous to one's analogous fold. Where then does Life end and living begin?

      Who before this day's Age is found worthy of goodly praises? Who after us will find peace set before them? Who in today;s timeline is this "son of man" that many should fear him for his worthiness stance? Who above can see the below? Who that is below can see what be above? From the very smallest crevice to the most high chasms, the Sea of Nothingness is the Holy Spirit. May the elemental gods find favor in this found son of man that he may not be afflicted with this world's power but rather he should carry upon him the angst from his manhood till his natural death.

      November 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
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