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. Tom from Atlanta

    I was raised catholic and at the age of reason discovered that there is no god. These con men make a great living off of fools.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • JFCanton

      And you probably even have proof! How 'bout that...

      November 8, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Mohammad A Dar

      some of them are "con men make a great living", isn't it all about making a great living by picking what you love?

      November 8, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  2. Jack Drennan

    Are unions TAX EXEMPT?

    November 8, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  3. Honus

    All the so-called Catholics who voted for Obama should read the letter from Paul Ryan's bishop.
    As Catholics we can disagree on such items as to how to help the poor the best, what is a 'just war', etc. These are areas where intrinsic evil is not involved. Where intrinsic evil is involved, there is no room for disagreement (if you want to call yourself Catholic).

    Obama and the DEMs were pro-abortion, and anti Catholic Church. That should have been enough for most rational thinking Catholics, but unfortunately that group is not as large as I'd like.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • JoJo

      Honus: the Democratics are not pro-abortion. They are pro-choice. I voted for Obama. I am MORALLY opposed to all abortions (except possibly in the case of loss of life of the mother), I have never been involved with one or recommended it, and have always expressed my moral opposition to it. However, I am against CIVIL punishments for abortions conducted in the first trimester, though I do not approve of them. Although they are often related, there is a difference between MORAL and CIVIL law. This is NOT a theocracy. We don't put people in jail for committing adultery or missing Mass on Sunday.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • klur

      I am appalled at the idea of abortion and can not inderstand why any mother could kill their own child. BUT, this is my personal choice based on my beliefs which I do not have the right to impose on others. Freedom of religion is part of the foundation on which the USA was established. Catholics or any religion has no right to legislate their beliefs.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • refugeek

      There are MANY reasons why a RATIONAL person would see the Democrats as the lesser of two evils. As a good Catholic then, it would be my DUTY to vote for Obama.

      Do you really think you're qualified to judge who is or isn't a good Catholic?

      November 8, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Honus

      refugeek – For this election I do feel qualified. It is very easy to tell on this topic who is a good Catholic.

      November 8, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • JFCanton

      JoJo: I'm not sure what civil penalties Republicans as a group would favor. However, your reasoning is why I didn't have a problem voting for Obama the first time. We only get two choices in most presidential elections (unfortunately). I'm also not sure how "pro-abortion" Obama is; I would like to think that we can get a compromise similar to what Italian or French law allows if it can be guaranteed that drugstores throughout the country will be permitted to dispense contraceptives.

      November 8, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • refugeek

      Your name should be Hubris, not Honus.

      November 8, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      @KLUR................. You need to grow up, IT IS NOT A CHILD! It is an embryo. It can't exist on its own. If you can call an embryo a child, then a child molester can call a kid an adult. We need to educate people. People need to see an abortion so they will stop with the "killing child" nonsense.

      November 8, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • thomas c. Murphy

      Your logic is as sharp as your namesake was a ballplayer

      November 8, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      His namesake was also a bigot.

      November 8, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Ethically, there can be very little difference between different stages of human development. Calling it an embryo vs. a fetus vs. a born child is useful for scientific description, but those terms have no existential meaning; there is no determinate boundary from one to the next. Implantation might be an identifiable significant event since so many fertilized eggs don't manage to do that. After that, termination is definitely killing *something* significant and is therefore wrong to *some* extent.

      It's ridiculous to call abortion murder; but it's also ridiculous to regard it as a sacred right for a woman merely because there is some uncertainty as to the new life's right to occupy the womb of that woman. When the clock starts ticking on the pregnancy, so does the meter on the potential significance of the new life. It doesn't just spring into humanity when it becomes independently viable.

      In other common-law matters we don't switch from a state of no rights to full rights; the change is gradual. The same should be true with this matter.

      November 8, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      @JF Canton..................Bottom line, A woman needs TOTAL control of her body. It is HER body first and foremost. She should have the right, the choice, the option to do what she feels is necessary. As far as different stages is concerned, Damn right it does make a difference. Once the child is born, it has full rights. Until then the mother comes first. You sound like a male. What if someone told you what to do with your body. I don't think you would like it one bit.

      November 8, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  4. JoJo

    The Catholic Church officially, but very quietly, opposed the War in Iraq from the beginning as not meeting Christian Just War criteria. At least 100,000 human beings died, countless others were injured, and a trillion tax dollars so badly needed for safety nets for the poor here at home was spent in that unnecessary holocaust. When the Catholic clergy speaks even-handedly as forcefully against unjustified warfare and callousness towards the poor, as most strongly espoused by the Republicans, as it does against the Pro-Choice movement and contraceptives, as advocated by the Democrats, I'll take them more seriously.

    "There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. ……It was right to resist the war.” Pope Benedict XVI

    November 8, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  5. notogop

    If they wish to get verbally involved in politics, let them pay the price the rest of us do. Tax the hell out of these pious windbags and see how vocal they are then.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  6. God's Oldest Dreamer

    Bill Deacon, "The Catholic Church provides more services to the poor than ANY other organization on earth."

    Back up those words of yours if you please!

    November 8, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Numbers are hard to come by. Catholic Relief Services alone had the 23rd largest budget of any US charity in 2010, and all the larger ones had much bigger admin costs (literal and per dollar) except for two distribution-oriented ones (Americares and Food for the Poor). Catholic Charities had the second largest budget, but no details were available. In both cases about 2/3 of their funding is from the government. (Government is a significant contributor to almost all large charities, which is a matter that the GOP has to answer if they actually think that charity can replace the role of government...)

      Put it this way: Catholic organizations are a big enough deal in foreign aid that some people whine about them not providing contraception... to which the correct response is, fine, you think it's the way to do it, you provide the money...

      November 8, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  7. Mark H

    I am Catholic and I voted Obama. I preferred a real Christian, not a Mormon.

    Here's why:

    Google "ExposeRomney"


    November 8, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Honus

      So instead you voted for a pro-abortion, Catholic Church hating, muslim sympathizing candidate....congratulations!

      November 8, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Mark H,

      Well ain't your words special! ?

      Voting for someone to hold any political office should not be based upon religious affiliations! Dumb Futz!

      November 8, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer


      Go crawling back into your mother's cave and leave the scene already! Dumber Futz

      November 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      @honus ................ I guess you didn't like the results. That's ok. Continue to watch with your bigoted friends on faux news and cry yourself a river.

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

    I could care less what the Catholic Bishops think anyway – after all, they could care less about children once they are born, but they sure care about contraception. Just sayin

    November 8, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  9. Mohammad A Dar

    leave the presidential politics alone moron Cat-holic bi-shops, your politics is turning off churchgoers.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  10. Bill Deacon

    I'm heartened by my brothers and sisters here who support the Catholic Church, her teachings and her Episcopate. May the peace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  11. Iowa Catholic

    I voted for Obama without hesitation, and I am a Roman Catholic.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • kiki

      You and almost all my family.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Alan Aversa

      And you realize he is pro-sodomy, pro-child-killing, pro-atheism, pro-contraception, pro-euthanasia, and anti-Catholic (forcing the Church, with the HHS Mandate, to be complicit in funding the intrinsic evils of sterilization, abortion, contraception)?

      November 8, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • refugeek

      @Alan Aversa – you sound like one of those crazies who thinks Obama is the Antichrist. One of the many reasons people voted for Obama was to keep people like you out of power.

      November 8, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Alan Aversa

      @refugeek: He certainly is AN anti-Christ—by definition, because his policies oppose Christ—but God knows whether he is THE Anti-Christ.

      And, yes, many of those who supported Obama certainly want those who are religious to have less influence, in part because they think it justifies their immorality.

      November 8, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  12. Joe

    The stupid comments about Catholicism aside, this is still America. The Catholic Church itself gets to define what is and what is not acceptable Catholic belief and practice (and thus, by extension, who is, and who is not a Catholic in good standing). Part and parcel of that right is chiming in when people who publicly profess to be Catholic (Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi), advance public policies that are directly contrary to Catholic belief. (FYI – the Catholic Church does not categorically bar the death penalty.)

    November 8, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  13. John Patrick Grace

    Politics is full of moral issues that call upon the conscience of clergy and laity alike. Preachers are not bound to skirt moral issues with political implications. However the balance that the writer advocates must be respected. Preachers should propose a moral course for their listeners, not hold a gun to their heads. And they must also respect their listeners' own weighing of complex issues. That's all. Separation of church and state does not mean politics and religion do not intersect and that religious voices have no place in the public forum. Our founding fathers gave God a pre-eminent place in
    their writings, including The Declaration of Independence. Citizens have every right to do the same.

    John Patrick Grace
    Huntington, West Virginia

    November 8, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Most reasonable response acknowledgement

      November 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  14. Ali Gator

    Edwin is correct. Pull their tax exempt status. If they wish to act outside the strictures of the exempt status then take away the tax exemption.

    ali gstor chomp chomp chomp

    November 8, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Jeff

      I agree If they are involved with trying to persuade voting for either party, their tax exempt status should be pulled.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  15. Craig

    "Prophets are respected when they are perceived to be an independent and fair voice." False statement. Politicians are respected when they are perceived as such; prophets seem to get martyred more often than respected. And its well within the bishops' rights (and responsibilities) to inform Catholic voters when a politician's views are incompatible with Catholic doctrine. Whether Catholics actually vote in accordance with Catholic teaching is a different story. And the last few elections its been a decision between the lesser of two evils. The two-party system, with each party digging in its heels against the other, ensures that america fails

    November 8, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  16. Rich

    You are a Protestant. Quit giving your opinion as if you are the head of the Catholic Church. Their policies are not to win elections but to support their religion. You are a cafeteria Catholic. Please go elsewhere!

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

      And know this because you're some kind of terrific judge of who is the most catholic? gtfo

      November 8, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Armand

      I, myself, am a recovering Catholic. I am not wearing this as a badge. I am simply stating that some of us Catholics are leaving the faith because of the politics and corruption within the organization. It's an embarassment to the faith and I will not continue to support it. If I did, I would then be a hypocrite in the eyes of God. I will face my maker with good will.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Armand, just curious why you would choose to leave rather than stay and correct?

      November 8, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  17. greg

    There is just a morally defensible case for *not* voting for the Republican party the initiates unjust wars, and lives by economic injustice. I am a pro-life Democrat, and just as pro-life as the next pro-life person next to me in the pews at church. I happen to put more weight on the wider, societal, global, meaning of 'pro-life'. That is the result of my own prayerful deep consideration of how to vote...

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

      @ greg: I like your stress on the whole of life & not just before birth... (something Republicans tend to miss)
      but if you believe the 54.5 million abortions since Roe v. Wade were murder, how do you consider the quality of life for the poor as more important than so many not having life *at all*?

      November 8, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Iowa Catholic

      Thank you greg. I am with you.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • kiki

      @Russ Roe v Wade is settled law a s the right to privacy in the first trimester is solid. The president can do nothing about it so choose a president based on things he CAN do.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Russ

      @ kiki: the President has the power to nominate Supreme Court Justices... who serve *life-long* terms... who decide what is or is not consti.tutional...
      it is possible to overestimate presidential power – but you are forgetting something in his basic job description.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      Cant we move on from pro-life? Since people don't care about them after they are born, why worry about them before they are born!

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

      @Russ No Republican president has tried to touch Roe it's campaign talk and nothing more. Roberts has signaled he doesn't want to revisit the right to privacy because the ramifications extend well beyond Roe.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Russ

      @ kiki: again, you're underestimating the nature of the supreme court.

      1) they power is held jointly, not individually. and that power depends on their composition – which is something a President helps decide.

      2) these are life-long appointments. and the day will come when all the current appointees are gone – including Roberts.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • kiki

      @Russ I do understand I just don't believe that the right to privacy will be overturned for first trimester abortion despite the make up of the court. So I don't choose a president based on that possibilty.

      November 8, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  18. Edwin

    When a religion starts campaigning for one candidate over another, that religion should lose its tax-exempt status.

    November 8, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Rich

      And quit forcing abortions on my religion jerk!

      November 8, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • sam

      No one's forcing abortion, Rich, you idiot.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      @Rich Keep in mind YOU end up paying for these children if the parents cant support them. Through school taxes and public assistance. Does that change your position.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Alan Aversa

      Taxing churches would be a great blessing since it would purify them of all the Communist, sodomite, child-molesting, perverted "priests."

      November 8, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  19. David Crosby

    Time for the Bishops to be marginalized with the rest of the religious right...They are the failed past..Not the future....

    November 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  20. Ken Margo

    The best way to silence the catholic church concerning political positions is easy, stop supporting the catholic church. No matter the religion, the money rules all. If enough people tell the church they'll withhold their money until the church stays out of politics, thrust me the silence will be deafening.

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

      replace "Catholic Church" with "unions" in your comment. Whats the difference?

      November 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      There is supposed to be a "separation of church and state" If the church is getting involved in politics TAX 'EM like everyone else!

      November 8, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Alan Aversa

      You can tax the Church all you want, but she's not going to disappear. She's outlived all tyrannies for over 2000 years. When politics kicks the Church out, nations self-destruct.

      November 8, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      @Alan..................Once the money is gone, so will the church. Catholic schools are closing because of lack of funds. Less individuals are identifying themselves to any particular religion. Since the bigots in this blog think Obama is anti-christian, and he won the election it proves the church is losing it's influence.

      November 8, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Alan Aversa

      @Ken: The church in particular regions, yes, but the entire Church, no

      November 8, 2012 at 6:57 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.