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. Pinewalker

    They have just as much right to speak and be heard as that Black Panther getup wearing "poll official" dutside the PA polling station did. Get over yourselves!

    November 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  2. A Fluffy Little Bunny

    Look at these clowns, with their bling and pink beanie hats. Please keep your silly religion out of my government.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      A Fluffy Little Bunny, "MY government"?

      I wouldn't go as far as to claim any government being mine or even yours. Government is an authoritative 'ent-ity' that need always be kept in the societal limelights.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • A Fluffy Little Bunny

      There you go again with your lofty and condescending bloviation. Yeah, "my government". Of "my country".

      Figure it out, professor.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  3. James PDX

    If a religion is clearly out making political statements, they should absolutely lose their tax exempt status. If they don't like it, they can feel free to outsource their religion to another country. Tax exemption is the bribe religions willingly accepted to stay out of politics. Either reject the benefit or shut up.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  4. epluribus

    Miller You are a conniving idiot

    November 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  5. Kathy Kunz

    Oh my gosh, so now churches should change their opinions to match what is popular in society. Wow. The church stands for what it believes in – if you don't like it then find a religion that suits your beliefs- not the other way around. I am so tired of Democrats pretending that they are the truly compassionate – the Bible says render under to Ceasar that which is Ceasars and unto God that which is God's. It never says tha Ceasar is God. The government is not the only way to help the needy and in many instances,it is is the most ineffective. The church is established to help man develop his moral framework – not the other way around. The Catholid church didn't get involved in politics, politics came looking at the Catholic church – telling them to cover birth control. By the way, I am not Catholic.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • James PDX

      The government required reproductive health benefits because it is their job to look out for the physical well being of its citizens. If the physical and spiritual well being are at odds, then give the choice to the citizen and leave it up to them, which is what Obama did. He even compromised so that religion wouldn't have to be the ones providing this service; the insurance companies will. Note that this would likely all be moot if the Catholic Church would actually follow biblical doctrine instead of continuing to make up their own over the centuries.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Greenspam

      In the case, one of the 10 Commandmants is "do not work on Sabbath Day". How come churches are not calling everyone who works on Sundays sinners?

      November 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Kathy

      Since its the governments job to look out for my physical and mental well being, I sure could use a good massage from all my work stress today. could you have the government send someone over for me?

      November 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  6. vince

    Jesus' ministry was primariy to the poor, the suffering, the disenfranchised - the bottom tier of the economic ladder. Christians of all denominations should be highly focused on helping the poor and the suffering as their prime motivation without judgment (Jesus spoke quite a bit about not judging). Universal healthcare is the best way for the poor and suffering to get the healthcare they need. Programs to help the poor like medicaid need to be expanded and built upon. The Bishops, if anything, should have come down on the side of Democrats, and those few Repbulicans, that build on specific programs to feed the hungry and provide medical and housing assistance to the poor. You can argue about which programs work best, but then you are judging. You can argue about the fact that maybe some programs help keep the poor in poverty, but again you are judging. You can worry about long term issues later, right now the poor and needy need help today, this minute, with health, housing and food issues - they cannot wait for policy. Only the government has the reach to actually do somethign about it by mobilizing all it's resources. The bishops need to worry less about abortion - which Jesus didnt' say one single word about in the testaments - and worry about about how they and the country are not fulfilling our primary responsibility as Christians...

    November 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Greenspam

      Jesus would have been called a socialist by Republicans if he were alive today.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  7. Rynomite

    "Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria"

    Awesome. A nutjob in my hometown.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  8. The Truth

    When US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said “sunlight is the best disinfectant” he was speaking of transparancy in government, but this can also be applied to religion. With technology giving more people more access to more information faster and more efficiently then ever, cults and the more established religious groups will continue to lose their grip on humanity as they lost their grip on reality long ago, and the masses are finaly getting access to the information that proves it. I do not fare thee well Religion and do not wish you the best as you burn and decay like a classic vampire caught by a sunrise, and the last thing we shall all hear is your hissing and gnashing of your teeth before one last poof into dust.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  9. thomas morrissey

    the Catholic bishops came down that the key issues on which to judge voting for or against a candidate were the bishops' three absolutes: abortion, gay rights esp. marriage, and contraception; in their view everything else was a morally neutral issue. If one steps back for a moment to look historically, then the ideal cadidate for these bishops was way back in 1933, a man who totally opposed abortion, gay rights and contraception; Of course there a few other issues with him – treatment of minorities, war mongering and destruction of civil liberties but these would not be absolutes. Many leaders of the Catholic Church supported this candidate and so he became chancellor in G ermany and led the world into World War II.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  10. Davey Jones

    "Such forceful statements were never balanced by significant challenges to the Republican presidential ticket."

    Well the republican ticket didn't attack our religious liberty like the democratic one did.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • The Truth

      I fail to see how NOT forcing everyone to adhere to your Christian laws or values in America is an attack on your religious liberty, unless of course you believe that it's your RIGHT to push your personal beliefs on others.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • bioteacher1

      I completely agree with that.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • bioteacher1

      I meant I completely agree with Davey Jones. Democrats talk like a ban on contraception is being debated. What is being debated is whether someone can be forced to pay for something they don't agree with.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  11. Dan

    The Bishops are out of touch with allo but the right wing Catholics. Some people are wired to want absolutes and to need strict rules, and they are in power in the Catholic church. The ones on the ground who actually practise the universal truths that go beyond doctrine: mercy, helping, tolerance etc - are the nuns and in the soup kitchens. The Bishops need a lesson in humility – so do the evangelists who were doing the same ungodly politicising in the name of God from their pulpits.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • bioteacher1

      This is the line of argument from liberals that I find most frustrating. They attack rightwingers for having absolute beliefs. So suppose someone argues that we can kill people for being gay (some people in this world do), you can't say they are absolutely wrong? Your argument is empty.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  12. Lar5

    There is a GOP war on women. The GOP is the party of NO. The GOP has handed the reins over to the Tea Party and religious nuts. The GOP is living in the 1900's. That's why the GOP lost and will continue to lose unless it enters the 21st. century and understands that all people are created equal,not only old white Christian men! The American people do not want a Catholic theocracy. John Kennedy had to give a speech during his campaign to promise his religion would not have any effect if he was elected. This should be true today!

    November 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • A Fluffy Little Bunny

      GOP blah blah blah war on blah blah. Blah blah GOP blah blah party of no blah blah blah.


      November 8, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Kathy

      since you quoted John Kennedy – you might want to remember that he was the one that said ask not what your country can do for you – ask instead what you can do for your country? Wonder what he would think of the modern day Democratic Party.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • bioteacher1

      So it was okay to be against abortion in the 20th century but not in the 21st century? What difference does it make what century you live in, whether abortion should be restricted or not? Have we learned something new to make us change our minds?

      November 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  13. Jeff from Columbus

    @chill: The issue isn't the Catholic Church's position on abortion and birth control. If it is, then you're saying that the Federal Government gets to decide and legislate on a religion's beliefs. You really want to go down that road?

    That's the issue. It IS about religious freedom. With the HHS mandate, Obama has said he has the power to decide which religion's beliefs are right and which are wrong. That's a VERY dangerous prededent and one that can be abused.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • WASP

      @jeff: obama hasn't said anything of the sort, stop listening to propaganda and do some research.
      HHS only makes INSURANCE COMPANIES cover the cost of providing LIFE SAVING MEDICINE to women that need it to regulate a problem

      November 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • WASP

      obama hasn't said anything of the sort, stop listening to propaganda and do some research.
      HHS only makes INSURANCE COMPANIES cover the cost of providing LIFE SAVING MEDICINE to women that need it to regulate a problem YOUR GOD messed up while creating them.
      the policy targets ALL COMPANIES, not just religious companies. universities,hospitals are open to the public and higher people of many faiths, thus if an employee at a CATHOLIC HOSPITAL wants insurance to cover a hor/monal issue then obama agreed with them just as the government agreed to pay for your "LITTLE BLUE PILL" THAT HELPS males with their little problem. lmfao

      November 8, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • iRex

      The health mandate says that the employer can't make medical decisions for the employee, they have to provide them with a health plan and after that its all between the employee and their doctor, which is how it should work.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Jeff from Columbus

      @WASP: Wrong. This mandate requires ALL insurance plans to cover birth control and abortion-inducing drugs. The Catholic Church is an employer and, as such, pays for part of the health insurance plans for its employers.

      Because of this HHS mandate, the Catholic Church must now pay for health insurance coverage of birth control and abortion-inducing drugs. This isn't propoganda. Sorry.

      Its the Federal Government forcing a religion to either violate its faith or violate the law. If you're good with this, don't complain when the next President – who might be a Republican – uses this precedent to take away freedoms YOU care about.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Reality Check

      @Jeff from...
      The way it works is this: Insurers will create policy not including contraceptive coverage in the coverage for religious organizations that object. That was the compromise agreed to by the government, Feb,. 2012 and still the Bishops do not think it is enough. With 58% of the laity agreeing with the plan the Bishops are overriding the concensus of their own flock, after all they know better.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Reality Check

      Oops second "coverage" should read contract.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  14. 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

    Believers – fuck 'em all! Idiots....

    November 8, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  15. God's Oldest Dreamer

    People will always be that, people. Their 'natures' are based on inclement generationed structural conditionings within societal barricades of indecisive moral relevancies.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • evelyn

      So true – and gods will always be just myths of people.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer


      Many a myth are enlightening and even sometimes are a way to build up one's character.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • A Fluffy Little Bunny

      Just a note: Speaking like an academic snob in a CNN comment forum wastes your time and makes you look like an äss.
      You're welcome.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      A Fluffy Little Bunny,

      Don't you know Fluff-N-Stuff-It that the academia crowds are looking or a few goodly recruits from which to grow their serpentine propensities?

      November 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  16. mark

    The behavior of church officials is slowly eroding its membership base. I quit with the church during the 2004 election. We were told that we could be excommunicated for voting for Kerry since he was pro-choice. However, the church had no issue with Bush starting a war that killed millions, based on fraudulent information. The church will go the way of the Republican Party by aligning its fortunes with them, out of touch and slowly going extinct. It should also loose its tax exempt status since it's become a political organization.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      Interesting that you were threatened with excommunication for voting for Kerry. How many believers do you think have been excommunicated for actually having an abortion? Given that believers have about 700,000 abortions per year in the USA, the number for catholics should be about 200,000 per year. Surely that would be an alarming number of excommunications, worthy of being reported in the news.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  17. AvdBergism source of filthyRainerBraendleinism©

    Absurdity of no taxed Christian Captain Crunch dogs. NO DOGS!

    November 8, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Rodents for Romney

      No even some for Bippy ?

      November 8, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  18. Meatwad

    I think those dudes have really pretty dresses ya'll. I bet they keep cupcakes under their caps in case they need a snack.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
  19. Rich

    Well, its okay for the black churches to go all out and support the Democrats but there is hell to pay if any other church, IE the catholics, or the protestants say anything apolitical in their sermons, pulpits or places of worship. Hypocritical stance by this author.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Jason

      I assume you have an instance of this happening in your back pocket.; you know one where they heaped praise on Obama and slammed mitt romney and called him names and made their flock feel that they HAD to vote for him. You know so taht when someone like me asks you to prove it you can.... NEVER HAPPENED. He had black support, and Reverend Wright didnt do what the bishops and "TV preachers" did. plus that was in like 2007... so please feel free to back your previous statement with a fact, an event, a news clipping, something... anything...

      November 8, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  20. MrHighMighty

    Wise piece from Mr Miller. If the Catholic Church (and "evangelicals") would stay out of politics, they would protect their credibility, and gain effectiveness in teaching about the Gospel and Christian values, so that perhaps more people would live their lives in a way that the Church favors. In other words, people don't pay attention to hypocrites, and the Church could reduce abortions and other immoral behavior in society by not taking sides in the convoluted realm of man's politics. Or in other words again, instead of raising hell about insurance mandates, the Church should focus on understanding why its teaching is not changing people's lives.

    November 8, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Papa Govment and mama cherchies jus luv to see their bo-peepies squirm. Phobiatic isms runs the handy dandy gauntlets of opinionated servitudes be it the governing bodies or the religious idiocracies.

      November 8, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Kathy

      Did the Catholic church stick its nose in politics, or did politics stick its nose in the Church?

      November 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • bioteacher1

      The problem with that point of view is that religious groups were a major part of the abolition movement and the civil rights movement. Should they have kept their noses out of those too?

      November 8, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
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