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. scientificpoetry

    The picture looks like a pedphile convention. The importance of the Catholic Bishops continues to evaporate as each day passes...

    November 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  2. BananaSlug

    Tax the Church. It's become nothing more than an anti-science/reality political party for people living in a fantasy world. Do you see the light?

    November 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • ChicagoLoop

      I agree.

      November 9, 2012 at 12:51 am |
  3. Joe

    Catholic bishops were against President Obama from the beginning of his first term. The church hierarchy has become too partisan. Some of the deacons and elders at my catholic church have no shame in taking a partisan stand during sermons and other communications. I go to church to pray – to Jesus; not to listen to the political speech. It is time the bishops recognize that not all Catholics are Republicans.

    November 8, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • JoeDekalb

      Deacons and elders? Are you sure you're talking about the Catholic church ? Or are you another one of these 'pretend to be' Catholics? I think you're talking about the Mennonites.

      November 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • susan

      @ joe
      I believe the majority of Catholics agree with you. I was raised in Cincinnati (yes – the famous Hamilton County that gave Karl Rove a meltdown) and most Catholics I know are more concerned with social values than one issue politics. The Catholic Church's priorities are not in touch with American women – hence we tune them out (the old white conservative bishops) more often then not.... no birth control? back street abortions? Social Security demolished? no WIC or Medicaid for children? It seems there are a lot of old white men who need to realize we're not going to go back to the 50's – and yes, we love our God just as much as they do!

      November 8, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
  4. SAM246

    So, maybe we should fire all the liberal professors in our academic system.
    where are all the young liberals coming from?? They've been brain washed!!!

    November 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • GaryB

      You;ve obviously never taken any busniess classes. 80% of my business instructors were unabashed Republicans, and they had no problem trying to steer students towards their beliefs.

      November 8, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Yes – brainwashed! Unlike children raised in a catholic household who are taught the ways of catholic religion before they have developed independent thought!

      Troll fail.

      November 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • hfranqui

      Professors pay taxes and understand politics at deep complex levels. And not all college professors are liberals. On the other hand the Church pays no taxes and when they intervene in politics is usually to do somethig against the common good of the people. Why so hell-bent against contraception but won't lift a finger to punish child molesters and rapist in the Church- heck they spend millions covering that up- I bet that makes Jesus cry. And I'm a catholic ashamed of my Church's behaviour.

      November 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  5. Sue

    Getting back to the article... Our catholic bishops fall way short of Catholic Social Teaching when they encourage "the faithful" to vote one issue, specifically pro-life which in actuality is really, for soooo many, "pro-birth" Once that baby gets here I often wonder where the cry is to suppport the poor mother who has to raise her. Real pro-lifers concern themselves with the needs and dignity of all and certainly don't turn there backs on the babies that they fought so hard to save.

    November 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Jerry

      And how many sermons have you heard concerning becoming a foster parent or an adoptive parent. I have heard none.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Catholic

      Democrats believe you can kill an unborn child, republicans believe you can kill someone for committing a crime. Catholics believe in life from a natural birth to a natural death. At least we are consistent, and all you have to do is look in a community to see all the good the catholic church does. If the church is so outdated, why are so worried about what we do or say? If you haters are so convinced that you are so right, why do you attack us with such venom? When did joining a church cause us to lose our ability to influence those who impact our society? Jeremiah Wright certainly doesn't have a problem getting involved in politics, neither does Jesse Jackson, or Al Sharpton why don't you attack them the way you attack catholics? Oh that's right, they are minorities and liberal, the rules don't apply to them.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • ChicagoLoop

      @Catholic: You're wrong. I'll tell you why people chastise the Catholic church and not Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, it's because of the wide and deep reach of your corrupted, political, business organization you hide under the umbrella of religion. The Catholic church has its own BANK and Vatican City is considered a NATION. Sit-up and take notice at the corruption that lies at your feet! Those who criticize the church to which you are so beholden have opened their eyes to the truth and reality of Catholicism, and the deceit in which it is shrouded. Open your heart and mind to the world around you, and LEAP into the 21st century.

      November 9, 2012 at 1:01 am |
  6. John the Guy

    @Bill Deacon
    Well lucky for us Catholic's in good conscience or bad for that matter, do not rule the state, if they individually or as group do not want to use contraception or have abortions that is their choice and their right. The problem in my mind is that the Bishop's want to control what goes on beyond their flock and influence, and expressing an opinion is different than forcing your beliefs on people that do not believe as you do. The teachings of the Catholic Church, and any good Catholic do not apply to me or the majority of the population.

    November 8, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I'm not making the argument for theocracy John. I am addressing the faithful such as Mr. Miller. who claim adherence to the catechism but,as yet, none have been able to assemble a thought process supporting their politics which embraces the teaching.

      November 8, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  7. Colorista

    These guys are not the only church representatives out there spewing/funding a political agenda. As a country, we have got to crack down on ALL of this infiltration by religious groups of all cloth into our political system. The problem is that many who belong to organized religions look to their clergy for guidance in other facets of their lives. Many clergy have abused that trust by overstepping their bounds into the political arena. As a country, if we value the separation of church and state, we cannot stand by and let these abuses continue.

    November 8, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  8. Colin

    I'm amazed at all the bigoted responses here. You used to be able to stand up for religious freedom in this country without getting shouted down by a bunch of mindless liberals. Right on Bishops!

    November 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Reasonably

      They can shout their agenda – we can shout against it. Or do you not believe in freedom of speech?

      Door swings both ways...

      November 8, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers


      Taking an opposing position to yours and the churches does not a "bigot" make.

      Quit being a drama queen.

      November 8, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  9. Dave

    I agree with Mitt. We should close loopholes. Let's start with tax exempt status for churches whose leaders sell out for some petty political issue.

    November 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • coloradom

      Dave, I understand where you are coming from, but if Churches that endorse certain political parties aren't allowed tax exempt status, neither should any other non-profit who endorses a candidate.

      November 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Ed

      The signs that the Church made simply said "Preserve Religious Freedom". Now if any individual decided to put that next to an Obama or Romney sigh – what is the problem with that? It has nothing to do with the Catholic Church – it is an individual's decision. Also if any of you think that any church is somehow violating "seperation of Church and State" by making a sign that only states "Preserve Religious Freedom" – well you don't know what you are talking about. Also it is perfectly legal for any church to talk abount any issue – they just can't directly endorse a candidate.

      November 8, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  10. Larry

    SEPARATION OF CHURCH and STATE!! What do they not understand about that statement? Organized religion is becoming more of a hindrance in our lives with each passing day. Wouldn't the world be better off if all those men were actually working for a living?

    November 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  11. jacquelynfgerlach

    Not really sure how devout "Catholics" can still claim they are Catholic at the same time they are voting for candidates who support abortion....yes, I understand supporting the poor is important, but since when is that more important (to devout "Catholics" at least) than protecting unborn babies? A fundamental Catholic belief is that life begins at conception - looks like many people who at least consider themselves Catholic are a bunch of big hypocrites.

    November 8, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Another core belief of the Catholic Church is that the death peenalty is wrong. So according to your thinking, how could a single Catholic vote for any republican candidate?

      November 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Catholicism is chock full of hypocrisy – why stop at abortion?

      November 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Smikal

      Plenty of catholics would disagree. Might I council my catholic brothers and sisters, both left and right, to think before you speak. There's nothing Christian at all in seeking to castigate another.

      November 8, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • profbam

      You have to remember that being pro-choice is not being pro-abortion. Also and more importantly, if abortion is made illegal it will simply move into a black market and the rate will increase. Thus, the policies promoted by the Catholic Church are designed to increase the number of abortions, but the bishops are too dense to understand the problem. To a large extent, technology has passed this argument by: misoprostol, mifepristone, alprostadil, cocaine–women have choices that you cannot control. Thus the number of abortions in Mississippi has gone down over the last dozen years, but the number of miscarriages and still births has gone up. So when you voted Republican, know that you voted to increase the number of abortions. Ponder that one for a while.

      November 8, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • FlawedLogic

      I was thinking the same thing about the death penalty. Unfortunately, though not altogether surprising, there is no politician whom alines completely and unequivocally with Catholic teachings. So for those voting based on their religious beliefs they must still decide which beliefs mean more to them and which they are willing to compromise on.

      November 8, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • gino

      Where does it say in scripture that life begins at conception? For Thomas Aquinas life begins at birth. There have been as many views on this as there have been theologians in the last 10 centuries. Bishops, not Jesus, made this stuff "fundamental."

      November 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Prior RCC

      Another hypocrisy (tangential, but showing the complexity of trying to take a political position on one issue):
      The Bible says "Thou shalt not kill." How many Catholics are gun-owners and/or NRA members? I understand guns can be used for hunting, but many handgun owners (except Paul Ryan, of course) don't have them just for hunting... It's not, "Thou shalt not kill... unless someone is threatening you, your family, or your property."
      Would Jesus be a gun owner?

      November 8, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • Jerry

      As I was told once by a nun, there are many issues not just one. I personnally don't believe in abortion so guess what I preach to my children against it. I am also for every american recieving health care, every woman having access to contraception and every child being fed and cared for. I also believe the rich in this country are getting a free ride at the middle classes expense. Those are some of the things I look at.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  12. Just Saying......

    Why limit this just to what Catholic Bishops did? What about the preacher who on Sunday opened jacket to show a t-shirt with OMG – Obama's My Guy printed on it? Separation of church and state is much broader than one faith. Got to take on the traditional and new wave of churches as well.

    November 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Jerry

      No argument here, lets tax them all.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  13. Fred Evil

    I have no sympathy, they are doing it to themselves. If they were half the man that Jesus was, they would all recant their fanatical devotion to the GoTP.
    But they are too busy working on the 'camel vs. eye of a needle' conundrum for their rich buddies.

    November 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  14. Zep

    Who really cares what these guys say, advise or think?

    November 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  15. SensibleJoe

    It's interesting to note that America's Roman Catholic bishops suddenly became a lot more vocal against the Obama administration only after the government took a bishop to court on charges of aiding and abetting child abuse - and successfully prosecuted him by the laws of our land. Mere coincidence? Were the bishops hoping Republicans would turn a blind eye to the criminal scandal in their ranks?

    November 8, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  16. James

    The problem with being a one-issue voter is that, invariably, you end up tolerating all sorts of evil as long as it isn't the ONE thing you happen to be against. The Catholic Church has reduced itself to a one-issue theology. Sorry. Life is not "one-issue"...

    November 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  17. robCM

    Their tax free status should go away.

    November 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  18. cesarbarroso

    Bunch of losers, get a job, get a life, get out of your cage, and you will understand of a human being life really is!

    November 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  19. Just Saying....

    Shame on them...

    November 8, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Cal McCallen

      BLACK churches have been politicizing their sermons....forever. Unabashedly! NOT A WORD against it from the lib media. But the minute a Catholic church prosthelytizes from THEIR pulpit- HOLY HELL BREAKS LOOSE and NOW it's an issue. Your hypocrisy is showing. Again!

      November 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  20. Ruth C

    It you all keep trying to force your religion on us, you will keep losing

    November 8, 2012 at 11:57 am |
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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.