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. jpzipp

    Get Religion out of politics end of story. If they continue being political TAX them!!!!!! and I am Catholic!

    November 8, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Look at religion for what it really is. It is a TRADE in which the winning of one's habitualized moral brevities or the short attention spans of one's moral rememnbrances becomes religions' main course. Tax religion for the trade that it is & has always been! Hold accountable what is made mention of in the words of Jesus which said in John 18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world". If this world is not Christ's kingdom then what is this world we live in to be?

      November 8, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  2. kumarrr8203

    Vincent Miller-how could a serious Roman Catholic support Obama--a man who is the most radically pro-abortion president in the history of our country? Abortion is intrinsically evil. Obama condones it- supports it. You should NOT be chair of a Theology Department!

    November 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      Another phony pro-lifer! Are you willing to support the children you want so badly to be born? how about offering the mother services to ensure she and her baby will thrive? It's amazing how people say g-od wants these children to be born, then the same people say screw em' once they get here.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • cog in the wheel

      That may be your personal belief (that abortion is intrinsically evil) but the majority of other citizens do no agree. Neither Obama or anyone else is forcing you or any of the women in your life to have an abortion.

      What Obama and the rest of us DO insist on is that you not impose your personal belief on everyone else. If a woman desires to abort a non-viable fetus, that is her decision (per the law of the land.)

      November 8, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Ken, that is a false dichotomy. The Catholic Church provides more services to the poor than ANY other organization on earth. A position as pro-life does not in any way mean that one is not socially progressive. So get off that argument please. It doesn't contribute to intelligent discussion.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • sam


      November 8, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • JRHer

      I guess you missed the jist of the article. He was only poinying out that you shouldn't demagogue a fellow Catholic because they voted for Obama. Yes, he's pro-choice but maybe the voter felt he was better suited for other issues they find more pressing at this very time. No realistic person is ever going to 100% agree with every position a candidate has but they have to choose based on what they feel is most important in their minds.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      @Deacon..... The same church that has molested children? The same church that supported Mutt Romney even though the man wanted to cut and gut programs people with children need! Considering more and more children are homeless, hungry and don't have healthcare, OBVIOUSLY the church isn't doing enough!!!!

      November 8, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • refugeek

      I'm Catholic. I didn't FOR Obama, I voted AGAINST the Republicans – the greater of two evils.

      If I have to vote Democrat to keep the Republicans out of office, then so be it.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  3. Robert

    People of good will can disagree about how to go about addressing poverty. Vincent Miller and others on the left seem to think that if someone disagrees with their favored approach, then they must have no empathy or concern for the poor. Paul Ryan's approach is a valid one and a more comprehensive one than the Left offers, because it takes into consideration larger issues that the Left ignores, such as the effects that unfunded mandates and unbearable debt loads will have on the poor. Issues such as abortion and the Obama Admiisration's attack on religious liberty and conscience rights are much less nuanced. Abortion is an intrinsic evil according to Catholic teaching. Freedom of Religion and conscience are guaranteed by the first amendment and are unalienable human rights. The bishops did exactly as they should have. They support initaitives from the Democrats that are consistent with Catholic moral teachings and oppose those that are not. Likewise for initiatives from the Republicans.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      You must be a good Chess player? I say this because you have a familiarity with much of societal progressives,,, ?

      November 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  4. Over and Done

    The Catholic Church lost its moral authority when we learned that priests molested children and then covered it up for decades!! But, Catholics need jobs first if they want to help the poor and homeless, so they made a big mistake voting for the abortion lover Obama.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      The Prez wants to end abortions by making birth control easier to get! Don't you get it. Children cost ALL of us money. If the parents can't take care of the kids, the cost falls to the taxpayers. Why don't we tax pro-lifers an extra 5% to support the children they want so badly to be born!

      November 8, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Alan Aversa

      Why tax children when children contribute to society? They become its future workforce, they drive its economic growth.

      November 8, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  5. Billy ZAp

    I went to Catholic grade school, with a New Testament in my desk. We had to write a lot of Jesus papers! I learned one thing for sure: Jesus was not a Republican! Don't give a dime to these Bishops with their cushy jobs and women cooking and cleaning for them. Make a donation to Catholic Worker, they feed the poor!

    November 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  6. Sandy in Georgia

    This is not the 15th century. Good Christians can have beliefs that differ from the Bishops and still be good Christians, whether the Bishops like it or not.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • RYNO

      But good Christians can't have beliefs that differ from GOD's, regardless of what century were in!

      November 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  7. Brian

    There is nothing worse than dogmatic theology. It gave us the Catholic Inquisition and the current government in Iran among other things.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Sandy in Georgia

      So true.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • JFCanton

      What other kind of theology COULD we have? There have got to be some rules for it to be meaningful.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Brian

      Judaism and Buddhism have no dogma.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Brian:
      Mao & Stalin were the two worst tyrants in known history (by death toll). They were both atheists.
      Are you saying they had a dogmatic theology?

      November 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • sarah

      @Russ: Atheism was not a inherent characteristic of Mao & Stalin, it was mostly a requirement among many other things necessary for them to accomplish their immediate goals. And many would argue that Stalin was affected by religion at various times in his life. Atheism is not defined by those particular implementations of Communism. On the other hand, the various inquisitions were very much validated by and, at the time, highly a characteristic of Christianity.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • JFCanton

      How is the reliance of Jews on the Talmud any different in practice?

      November 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Sarah: do you really believe that one's foundational beliefs are peripheral?

      1) It sounds like you're saying "sure, that was Mao & Stalin's foundational assumption, but it had nothing to do with everything else they did in life." That's simply denying the meaning of 'foundational.' Or do you think atheism is a peripheral concern? It certainly sounds like you think it's important.

      2) that's exceedingly hypocritical. to say "Christian's core beliefs are the cause of their actions, but atheist's core beliefs had nothing to do with theirs."

      November 8, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • sarah

      It's not hypocritical, Russ. The mistake you are making is trying to define atheism in terms of implementations of communism where religion was not allowed. I'm just saying inquisitioners murdered in the name of Christianity. The same cannot be said across the board like that for all atheists.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Russ

      @ sarah: i did not say across the board. i was responding to brian's claim that dogmatic theology was the worst problem we've got. considering what two atheist's did in supposedly a-religious states, that pokes a pretty big whole in his argument. but at no point was i advocating the (similarly flawed) opposite extreme.

      nonetheless, it is hypocritical to paint your enemies with such a broad brush (i.e., caricature) without using the same brush for all parts of the spectrum.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • JFCanton

      If you look at the history of the inquisitions, their original intent was to prevent the spread of loopiness through civilized means. The usual reference is to the treatment of the Cathars, who were themselves not tolerant and generally had a belief system incompatible with reality. The problem, as always, was that petty wannabe tyrants got involved.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  8. ssmith

    "Catholic bishops' election behavior threatens their authority" More troubling, it also threatens the church's tax exempt status.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • RYNO

      How does a Bishop telling his flock to check their politics against their belief in good threaten their authority. Isnt a Christian leader supposed to remind the believers the put GOD first. Total confused on why so many would think it is not a church leaders role to lead.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      A lot of "Christians" prayed Obama wouldn't get a second term. I guess G-od loves Obama!

      November 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  9. ChristianDem

    Honus, hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you did indeed vote for George W. Bush you will be going straight to hell upon your death. As you know, Bush took great joy in executing people while Governor of Texas. If you voted for him, you voted for his policies and beliefs. Oh, and he killed lots and lots of innocent babies in Iraq. Sure they were dark-skinned babies, but they were babies nonetheless.

    November 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • RYNO

      Christina Dem, really sounds like your taking on GOD's role of condemnation. Your statement is not only disingenuous, but out right foolish.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  10. Justin

    The catholic church is just like the republican party – they just don't get it. Both represent old men of wealth and power who seek nothing more to maintain it, while failing to realize that they are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

    November 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      I cite peer progression in all religions to be nothing but habitual hogwashing.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Same goes for the people in the branches of governmets.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  11. veggiedude

    These bishops forgot they are against the death penalty and never bring it up. How about getting back to basics of your own faith first??

    November 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      The right to life is most basic and precedes opposition to the death penalty both in theology and logistically.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      @Deacon ............Women need to be able to control THEIR bodies. MIND YOUR BUSINESS with that life is precious crap. Bush killed thousands of innocent IRAQIS looking for WMD's shouldn't being a christian have prevented that!

      November 8, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  12. RES

    The Lay people are the Church not the bishops! Jenky is an embarrasment to Christian peace and love. The bishops protect themselves and not their church or members.

    November 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  13. Rodeo_Joe

    In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull called "Summis desiderantes", which specifically condemned the use of cannabis as Satanic – all due to a severe Climate Cooling which had been blamed on Euro Pagans and their practices.
    Rome is STILL shilling this ignorance.

    November 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Are they?

      I mean, it's a reasonable position to take to discourage people from using psychotropic substances... because even if some or even most people can tolerate it without totally fouling themselves up, some definitely can't. Better to have many people inconvenienced than a few people ruined. Maybe the church hasn't seen fit to issue an update since 1484 because the behaviors of the bad potheads haven't changed in 500 years.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • JRHer

      @JFCanton What role does alcohol play in all of this then? I would contend that alcohol is far more destructive than pot. Thoughts?

      November 8, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Something I said here seems to have hit the word filter. Summary was that human society (and recent human physiology) evolved with daily use of alcohol. The same isn't true for marijuana.

      There also is not necessary intent attached to use of alcohol in moderation, while the ostensible purpose of smoking pot is to get intoxicated. I don't think there would be a church objection to its use medicinally, just recreationally, and really the church ought to have the same objection to recreational alcohol use (under gluttony) even if they don't tend to push it.

      November 8, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  14. KT

    Very disappointing that the head of Catholic Theology at University of Dayton does not know the difference between weighing the mix of positions of candidates and being complicate in selecting a candidate that is actively forcing a behavior that is contrary to Catholic teaching.

    November 8, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • MPS

      But I bet he knows how to spell complicit.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • refugeek

      The Republicans are also guilty of many sins. How would you like to see your tax dollars go towards yet another unnecessary war? Or social injustice. Or the death penalty?

      By that logic, you sin no matter who you vote for.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  15. adrienne

    I voted for President Obama– without hesitation. The bishops have bigger concerns they should be dealing with in the Catholic Church than how I cast my ballots in elections.

    November 8, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    November 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Huebert

      Lets test that claim 😀

      November 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Test it Huebert

      November 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  17. 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 establishing many psychological disorders filtering throughout the social spectrum of mainstream civilities. Let the people decide their own habits to live with and keep governments out of the habitual trades!

    November 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      I almost forgot! Religion is itelf a trade for the people's spiritual habits in order to bring individual brevities under control.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  18. Marc

    This guy can't be Catholic because he sure doesn't know Catholic teaching. Yeah yeah, he works for a University so he must know what he's talking about. Catholics are perfectly welcome to decide what teaching they will follow and what not, however, they should also accept that that makes them a heretic. They must also accept that IF they leave this world without being in the state of grace, their next stop will be very very unpleasant. The Bishops authority is not the question, they have it. They are saying in the strongest terms possible to their flocks that mortal sins are just that..mortal.

    November 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • MPS

      I'm guessing he knows a lot more than you. What your post demonstrates is that you know how to be an active cult member.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer


      I cite religious peer progressions in all religions to be nothing but habitual hogwashing. Religions are but trades much like the s3x trades and drug trades be they legal or not. America's gambling trades are nowadays leveraged but nevertheless is a part of society as are the blackmarket trades of s3x and drugs. It makes little to no sense to wage political warfare on such trades. C'mon people! Wake the hell up!

      November 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Marc is correct. The proper tiitle for the article is "Pro-Choice Catholics neglect authority of the Bishops"

      November 8, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  19. adrienne

    I am a Catholic, and I am African American. The bishops have no authority to tell me how to vote. I believe the needs of the people I encounter every day– the poor, sick, outcast, etc.– are of paramount importance. Bishops should butt out of politics!

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

      Why then declare yourself to be Catholic adrienne? Is it for peer relief or just a way to be recognized? I'm stumped!

      November 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I agree adrienne. If you don't understand your faith, either learn more about it or find one that suits you better but it isn't very practical to go to the church and then condemn their very thoughtful teaching. They really are not making this stuff up as they go you know!

      November 8, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  20. Jerome

    As a catholic you are a practicing pedophile enabler, nice religion. Also your religious freedom is not at stake, judging from catholic history everyone else's is though.

    November 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Isn't cherry-picking more pleasant if you actually get something to eat?

      If this is how people actually think, we need more stringent criteria for who gets to vote.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Funny from a guy who probably wouldn't even have a name if it weren't for a Saint

      November 8, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
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