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. TC

    People who allowed the Bishops to bully them should understand the difference between man rules and God rules.
    Over the history of the Church the actions of the hierarchy have resulted in schism at best and the reformation at worst.
    Our Church history is filled with examples of the the Church powerful being wrong. I am a ashamed of our Bishops and and our Church. If I am going to hell for supporting a party that cares about the poor, that wants health care for those who can"t afford it, that opposes the death penalty(we call that valuing life) I will go happily. Oh by the way I don't think my Peoria Bishop has the clout to send me there. He as former Chicagoan should know very well about clout or the lack of it. Phony sins make for phony threats. I will God judge me not a bunch of old status loving white guys

    November 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Good wordsmanship TC, Jolly good words! 🙂 🙂 🙂

      November 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  2. Rodeo_Joe

    Tickets to Heaven, Hocus Pocus, and the gravy train.

    Rome does not understand Democracy. It never will.

    November 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  3. Lamar

    For years Catholics justified fealty to the Democrats by doing the "balancing" you describe. This year, in the wake of the HHS outrage, they instructed on how to weight the balance. Like it or not, abortion is murder under Catholic doctrine and is inherently evil. In other words, there can be no justification for it. Funding for Medicare is a matter for the "prudential judgment of the laity" and does not involve inherent evil. Whether Catholics should, through the use of government, care for the elderly and the poor through private charity or by taking from some and giving to others, and whether the best way to fund it is through transfer payments or some other more sustainable means, are questions that do not involve right and wrong, and certainly not anything that should be part of Church doctrine. Unfortunately, both the President and Gary Johnson were pro-abortion, which disqualifies them as moral choices. I would have much preferred to vote for Johnson, but his views (not the Bishop's) were wrong on abortion, so I had to vote for Romney (who was at least much more pro-life than the others). Come on, you're a prof of Catholic theology. At least be fair in representing the reasons why the Bishops took this position.

    November 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • DB

      You don't get it, do you?

      I DON'T CARE WHAT THEIR DOCTRINE SAYS. It's not my business, it's not my problem. It's THEIR problem. They can believe whatever they want but the law and public policy shouldn't be based on what they believe. I simply don't care what they believe.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • lordnimrond

      You seem to conveniently forget, Lamar, that up until the workings of Jerry Falwell, the conservative Christian Right indicated, and I quote "life begins at birth."

      In 1968, Christianity Today published a special issue on contraception and abortion, encapsulating the consensus among evangelical thinkers at the time. In the leading article, professor Bruce Waltke, of the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, explained the Bible plainly teaches that life begins at birth:

      “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: 'If a man kills any human life he will be put to death' (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense… Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”

      The magazine Christian Life agreed, insisting, “The Bible definitely pinpoints a difference in the value of a fetus and an adult.” And the Southern Baptist Convention passed a 1971 resolution affirming abortion should be legal not only to protect the life of the mother, but to protect her emotional health as well.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Lamar, it's obvious these old white men did their best to get their followers to vote in the Old White Men's Party candidate. Bishops' main concerns are usually (1) Power and (2) Money. That isn't anything new.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer


      S3x is but a 'habit' just like drugs may be "habitual" along with gambling. The 'habitual tendencies' of individualists should not be criminal and should not be considered as such. Freedoms to choose one's habits should be a right of all people and not made illegal creating upon its people's mindest many phobias that instill many fears upon people creating many psychological illnesses.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  4. Bill

    Funny thing @ the Catholic church; The parishoners do not get to make the rules, nor can they only follow the rules that they agree with. It's kind of like sports (for you agnostic/atheist types), you've got to play by the rules, or not play in that league. The Church has backed off somewhat on ex-communication for all except the most aggregious cases, however withholding Holy Communion has been fairly common for those not following the church's teachings. In recent memory, both Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi have been spoken too by Church leaders on this issue, due to their support of abortion.

    November 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Primewonk

      " The parishoners do not get to make the rules, nor can they only follow the rules that they agree with."

      And yet, 98% of post pubertal Catholics use or have used birth control at some point in their lives. Perhaps you need to rethink your statement.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Bill


      If that is the case (I cannot confirm your stats, and neither can you), then they are in a state of sin, for which they must ask forgiveness and serve a penitence for.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  5. Lenny Pincus

    I think their clothes are a much greater concern.

    November 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  6. mrprincipal03

    It would have been nice had the bishops and the priests done their christian duty and taken the words and actions of Jesus Christ seriously, instead of pandering to their parishoners. They were judging and I seem to remember something from the bible, I'm sure it's in their's also: judge not lest ye be, but I guess they ignored that part.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      John 18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world"

      No Kingdom in this world is Christ's. Never was and never will it be! Damningly dumb christians who blindly set up shops and spread their beliefs that Christ will one day return when He has no interest in this world for it was not and is not and never will be Christ's domain! How dumb are christians? How dumb are Catholics? Dumb de dumb so dumb!

      November 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  7. Jim

    can't they just behave and go back to raping kids ?

    November 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Tom

      Note no female bishops in this club. Also note the boys never articulate the origin of its prohibition on contraception and 99 percent of Catholics don't know either.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • JFCanton

      They don't articulate it?

      The reason for the general prohibition is that acts that are not possibly procreative are deemed to be selfish and therefore sinful. I don't think that is a meaningful position for most people...

      But it can also be a good secular conclusion that contraception is not an ideal practice because it requires a barrier between partners, or taking risks (tiny ones) for a gain with no provable value. And a church is in the business of modeling ideals.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  8. refugeek

    I'm Catholic, and I'm angry that the Church pressured me to vote for Romney. They didn't explicity say "Vote for Romney," but it was totally obvious. I received exhortations in church, through bulletins, and through email. Abortion is a terrible thing, but, in this election, the Church seemed to be more concerned with preserving physical life than spiritual life. Spiritual death is infinitely worse than physical death. I stopped voting Republican after Bush attacked Iraq in response to 9/11. Iraq was innocent of 9/11. There's not much worse you can do than attack an innocent nation. The Church should be much more concerned with the spiritually deadly affects of racism, bigotry, elitism, hawkishness, intolerance, paranoia, and hatred – all of which are trait exhibited more by the right than the left.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      lol. You're not the only one who got angry. I know a few who were totally outraged.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • RYNO

      WOW, really, Iraq a innocent nation? The reason one is supposed to go to church is to reminded of the basics of what their religion is and to have those with an in-depth understanding (hopefully your priest has this) share how to practice the teachings and doctrines in the bible to the real world. This real world we live in is telling the church they have to provide abortions and condoms to those who work under the church umbrella. If you don't like the teaching so your church and how to apply godly disciple to your life in the real world, then don't go to church. Blaming the priests for explaining gods word and reminding you of your christina duties is not a reason to get mad at them, be mad at yourself.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • refugeek

      Hey RYNO – let us know when you find those WMDs.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • RYNO

      DIDNt say they had WMD, though Yellow Cake was found... I am saying they are not what I would call innocent. they were regular breaking UN sections, actively looking for WMD materials, and did kill tens of thousands of their own people. I mean that is why Obama went to Lybia right?

      November 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  9. Terry Smith

    My post doesn't show?

    November 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Rodents for Romney

      Oh no. Could it be the CNN word filter ?

      November 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Rodents for Romney

      If you pray REALLY hard, CNN will allow you to say naughty words.
      Like tit. CNN doesn't like tits. Nope. No tits. Lots of twits. But no tits.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      Terry Smith,

      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters or some html tricks to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
      co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, etc.
      co-on.....as in racc-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, drift-wood, etc.
      ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, sopho-more, etc.
      ho-oters…as in sho-oters
      ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
      inf-orms us…
      hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-oon… as in sp-oon, lamp-oon, harp-oon
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
      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.
      sm-ut…..as in transm-utation
      sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, t-itle, ent-ity, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, salt-water, 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!
      There's another phrase that someone found, "wo-nderful us" (have no idea what sets that one off).

      There are more, some of them considered "racist", so do not assume that this list is complete.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  10. DeeCee1000

    Pompous old fools wearing $1000 beenies.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  11. Saboth

    This is why I don't do organized religion. I don't need God's word translated by men with political agendas.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  12. Steve S

    I'd say the Catholic Church should stick to cleaning their own house first.
    Being a Catholic Alter Boy now days, ranks pretty close to the top in America's Most Dangerous Jobs.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • DB

      But didn't you hear? It wasn't the Church's fault. It was because of the gays and the hippies.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Maybe being an altar boy 35 years ago...

      The kernel in there is that immediately after Vatican II, psych/behavioral standards for priest applicants were relaxed below what are apparently the necessary standards, and that era turned out to be the source of a lot of these problems. Some of this was the same sort of thing that had been missed before and which no one can totally eliminate (pedophiles). Some more was a lack of attention to identifying gay men who were not going to be comfortable with celibacy... which yields incidents with older boys.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  13. Rodents for Romney

    Keep your Jeebus in your pants bishops.
    This is not a theocracy.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  14. Nodack

    So business can tell their employees who to vote for or risk being fired. Churches can tell their followers who to vote for or go to hell.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • teedofftaxpayer

      Then the Churches needs to start paying taxes. I'm personally tired of the Churches interferring with my life by influencing laws, politicians in doing things that supports their religion. Churches have become big businesses and should be taxed as such. Business owners who threatened their employees should be reported to the state labor board.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • DB

      What is it about the restrictions on political activity that come with TAX EXEMPT status that you don't understand?

      November 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Those restrictions aren't as restrictive as you apparently think they are.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  15. scranton1961

    First of all, I am a Roman Catholic.
    And I never pay attention to what the Bishops try tell us regarding political candidates.I have to look at a candidate in the big picture. No on one or two issues.

    And until the Catholic Church starts paying taxes, work on getting your own house in order. (is it any wonder the Catholic Church loses so many followers?)

    November 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Bill

      based on your post, I'd say that you are one of the followers that has lost the Church.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      Bill, most Catholics I know (and I know quite a few) were OUTRAGED that they were being told who to vote for this past Sunday.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Bill


      Glad you know a lot of Catholics. I'm impressed.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  16. God's Oldest Dreamer

    Catholicism did breed Christiandom. Time to cut off all their little weiners in order to stop their religious inbreeding.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  17. Robert O. Kan, MD

    There is a simple solution to this problem:

    For bishops to become involved in politics their church should no longer be tax exempt.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • John Lubeck

      YOU ARE EXACTLY CORRECT. The Catholic Church needs to be removed from tax exempt status. But that is only the beginning. Now that we have learned more about the Mormon's thanks to Mitt Romney, the Mormon church needs to be removed as well. And most of all, worse than both the Catholics and the Mormons (as horrific as they are) are the "social welfare" groups.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • teedofftaxpayer

      John Lubeck, add the Mormon Church to the same group as the Catholic. It's time to tax them.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  18. MS

    "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." – not true

    Church Teaching
    Life is a non-negotiable.
    Money is negotiable.

    Abortion is a non-negotiable issue where the Church is concerned, and if Obama were pro-life, he would have held more ground with the Church. The Church does not condone killing innocent babies before they are born. So, it's less about the political party, and more about the moral platform between pro-life and pro-death (or acceptance of a pro-death choice).

    November 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • jorgath

      Ah, but more Catholic teachings:
      Free will is non-negotiable.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • DB

      How do you reconcile that with the fact that the Church's own scriptures – defined by them as the word of God himself – defines a fetus as nothing more than private property?

      I await your answer.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      What a bunch of bs. The church killed countless numbers of innocent people worldwide during their reign of terror otherwise known as the 700 yrs Inquisitions. Don't give your idiotic "pro-life" bs.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Ace

      How about providing equality for ALL the children of God and providing aid and healthcare for the needy?
      Are those negotiable?
      And you DO know that the church didn't always condemn early-term abortion right?

      November 8, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • dnichols2

      Thats so stupid MS. As if anybody is pro baby death. Ridiculous, moronic, and intentionally divisive. Wow – maybe you should get a job with Fox News.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • JFCanton

      DB: Deuteronomy or whatever parallel citation that Jewish law came from is definitely NOT a source of Catholic law and wasn't intended to be a source of Christian law... although some Protestants have shortcutted to it, especially in the past.

      If you aren't familiar with the Catholic Bible, try looking up the letter of James, which was thrown out of the Protestant Bible by Luther. It is pretty much a statement of the liberal canon (and I would suppose the contemporary Jewish one).

      November 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  19. mike

    Religion is a global Protection Racket, The Church and it's Bishops and Priests and Pastors are the enforcers. They threaten eternal torture unless you join them and give 20% of your earnings to them. Many people are taken in and fleeced by these criminals.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  20. Will

    "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."

    While that statement is true for the Presidential race, it was not true in Washington, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota and Maine where Catholics soundly rejected the church teaching on gay marriage and voted to approve gay marriage. A huge thumb in the eye to the bishops. This is not new, Catholics in this country often define their own way when it comes to social issues....ask the nuns....they will tell you how it works.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • JFCanton

      For perspective, the vote in Maryland was 51-49 among self-identifying Catholics. Catholics (as well as Jews) often self-identify even if they don't practice. So this was by no means a measure of how churchgoers voted.

      As for the nuns business, that could only be more overblown if it was a blimp. The organization targeted was an umbrella organization. Kinda similar to a teachers' union. Does everyone like teachers who do what they perceive to be their job? Yes. Does everyone like teachers' union officials who do what they perceive to be their job? No.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
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