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. Paul

    You can be sure that Professor Miller would never write an article criticizing Catholic leaders who espouse left-wing causes, of which there are many.

    Miller's real problem – one he shares with most left-wing academics – is that he has a fundamentally totalitarian mind set: he can't tolerate anyone whose views don't agree with his own. You can bet his students know the "right" things to say in their essays if they want to pass.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      He plainly states that the Bishops have a right and duty to promote their religiously held beliefs. He just believes (rightfully so) that they stepped over the line into pure politics this time.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Jerry

      Agree with Paul. Vincent is guilty of the same thing he purports to accuse the bishops of doing.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • JFCanton

      I don't think he accuses them of that exactly... and really the bishops are much further over toward the middle than others perceived to be on the right. Check out most of the National Review the past couple days, for example...

      November 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • G to the T

      "The official Church response to the candidacy of vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan displayed this failure to forcefully challenge both parties."

      Sorry – where's the liberal bias?

      November 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  2. SP

    The article needs better statistics. Supposedly, half of Catholic voters voted for President Obama. Does this reflect the voting pattern of ALL Catholics or only Catholics who regularly attend Mass? Also, what percent of these Catholics are Hispanic? Approximately 75% of Hispanics voted for President Obama, likely for reasons unrelated to religion. Therefore, a sub-analysis of non-Hispanic Catholics would be informative.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • The Truth

      "Therefore, a sub-analysis of non-Hispanic Catholics would be informative."

      see "We really don't care about the brown Catholics, we want to know what the more imprtant White Catholics have to say..."

      November 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • JFCanton

      The response betrays some lack of knowledge of the situation, though.

      Many people identify as Catholic but do not meaningfully practice. This pollutes most statistics on Catholics themselves: it is like conducting a study on Yankee or Cowboy fans and picking up the all of the frontrunners in addition to the New Yorkers and Texans.

      Hispanic Catholics, on the other hand, overwhelmingly do practice (not necessarily more faithfully, but by going to church). Romney threw away their votes, so it doesn't tell us much to include them in the set.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  3. irunner

    Partisan politics has already infected organized religion. Not sure which I hate the most – partisan politics or organized religion. I left the Catholic church in the late 70's and don't miss it a bit.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  4. William Demuth

    I just realized

    If they put Obama on Mount Rushmore, his ears will make great half pipes!

    November 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      They should put Romney on Rushmore, literally. No need to carve, he's already made of stone.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  5. J. Davis in Knoxville, TN

    Why do you think so many have left the Catholic Church? The bishops are too autocratic, behind the times, and can only see one issue–prolife. Obviously, as shown in the recent election, they have little regard for women either. The Catholic Church is way too conservative–it once wasn't like this. It's the militant ultra pro-life groups who gave taken over. What is Catholic about Paul Ryan's philosophy of every man for himself; I think the main mission of the Church is to help the poor.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Jerry

      I dont mind that many have left the Catholic Church. The purge is good. I seldom agree with the those who state their reason for leaving. Yet, I am equally conscious of the many who convert, precisely because the church stands for Jesus in the market place. For all the comments of people leaving, the church has grown at a double digit percentage rate per year for years. That says something as well, I would think.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • JFCanton

      The advances for women's rights and abilities cut both ways. What they gain in parity to men is theoretically good, but it also puts them in danger of being just as much of an object because they're still the ones with the womb. The availability of contraception, for example, makes it harder for them to deny their men.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  6. Jules

    I think Joe Biden got it right in the debate when he said he personally opposes abortion yet he does not believe he has the right to force his views on everyone else. My position is that I oppose abortion yet I don't think my womb is any of the government's business and it is also none of the bishops' business.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Bob58

      This 54 year old life long Practicing Catholic couldn't agree more....

      Pro-Choice does NOT mean Pro-Abortion

      Planned Parenthood does NOT mean Mandatory Abortion.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Zandigra

      Joe Biden's position on the life issue is cowardly and totally lacking in moral conviction. In the debate he said he accepts the teaching of his church that life begins at conception. Ergo, abortion is the taking of an innocent human life. Yet then he makes the stunningly non-sensical statement he doesn't want to impose his view on others. Huh? What is his view? That life begins at conception and that abortion is murder. So we have a cowdardly VP who thinks that innocent human life isn't worth defending. I suspect that in the 1930s and 1940s there were some folks who may have thought that the Nazi's were murdering innocent human beings who happened to be Jews and Gypsies. But didn't speak up because they didn't want to impose their views on others who clearly disagreed. Joe Biden's position is no different. He is complicit in an intrinsic evil against humanity and should not avail himself of the Eucharist until he has confessed this and been reconciled to Christ.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • Huebert


      What Biden realizes is that his personal opinion is not the law of the land. He is content to live by his religious principals, while allowing other people to live by theirs. His position isn't cowardly, it's cogent, understanding, and practical.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Absolutely correct Z!

      November 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Zandigra

      Martin Luther King's position on civil rights was not the law of the land (at the time) either. So you are advocating that Reverend King should have kept his opinion to himself? Interesting, but I respectfully disagree.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Primewonk

      @Zandigra – In that case, any catholic voting for any republican for any office is a coward. The republican party supports the death penalty, and even the expanded use of it.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Zandigra

      Not at all. You offer a flawed analogy. When one votes for a candidate of a particular party they are not voting for the platform of that entire party, they are voting for a candidate. As you know, most candidates do not embrace every single plank of their parties platform, nor are they obligated to do so. For example, there are more and more pro-life Democrats being eelected to office at every level. There are also pro-choice Republicans who have been elected. I am pro-life and I have voted for pro-life Democrats, even though the platform of that party endorese unrestricted access to abortion on demand, which, by the way, is a position held by less than 25% of Americans. There's no hypocirsy in my voting for a pro-life candidate who belongs to a party that does not embrace a culture of life. Working from within to change flawed policies is an admirable thing.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Huebert


      Not at all what I'm advocating, but nice attempt at a straw man though. Abortion is a personal choice that does not directly affect anyone other than the woman having the abortion. King's was fighting against one group of people unjustly forcing their will upon another group. Which is exactly what you are trying to do.

      If you decide to respond please don't resort to intellectually dishonest tactics.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Zandigra

      The only inteellectually dishonest tactic was yours in your most recent reply. Abortion only directly affects the woman having an abortion? Every abortion procedure stops a beating heart and ends a life. The unborn baby is directly affected. This is the cowardly choice the VP has made. He is a coward and according to the teachings of the church he claims to follow, he exists in a state of mortal sin.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Huebert


      A fetus is not a baby. And cows have beating hearts but you have no problem ending their life for a burger. The only PERSON affected by abortion is the woman undergoing the procedure. Thank you for refraining from intellectual dishonesty.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Rewriting history.

      @jules and bill deacon
      Pope Piusl XII actions during the Holacaust remain controversial. For much of the war, he maintained a public front of indifference and remained silent while German atrocities were committed. He refused pleas for help. The hypocricy of the catholic church rears its ugly head over and over again, your posts prove it once again.

      November 9, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  7. Jules

    They oppose abortion yet condone pedophilia. There is something so wrong with that picture.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Zandigra

      Please name and quote the bishop(s) that has verbally condoned pedophila? Any other strawmen, Jules?

      November 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Huebert


      They implicitly condone pedophilia by protecting predatory priest.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  8. Gordon Burnet

    Religion crosses the line when it gets involved in politics. Churches take tax credits because they are neutral. If they want in politics, give up the tax benefits they receive.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Golmer

      The first mistake in the Article: Implying the Catholic church somehow has "Authority." It has Zero authority.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Robyn Guimont

      I also think that if the church wants to weigh in on political discussions and attempt to sway their members to vote one way or the other, then they should be required to pay taxes.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Bob58

      It has Authority over Catholics ..... if you haven't noticed, we're a very large part of the Population.....

      November 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • william Lee

      How come the tax exemption issue never seems to worry the black churches? What would Jesus do? Call the tax lawyers? The RCs should have the same freedom to guide their faithful.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  9. Penelope Pitstop

    The hubris of the whole Catholic clerical heirarchy is just staggering. They are doing more to recruit atheists than the entirity of atheism could ever hope to do.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • The Truth


      November 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  10. Guest

    Journalism's integrity was the real loser during this election cycle. Religion has been politicized forever.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  11. wolfpackbob

    Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of HHS, Kathleen Sebelius claim that they are Roman Catholic yet they actively oppose the Roman Catholic position on abortion. Is Ms. Pelosi a SanFrancisan Catholic? Is Ms. Sebelius a Topeka Catholic? They have made up their own version of their faith which is their right. But whatever they call it, they are not Roman Catholic. And proposing this absurd idea that the flock should lead the sheperd to where the sheep want to go? Well that's kinda like President Obama "leading from the rear", also absurd. When all the sheep are leaders, you will devolve into multiple and subjective moralities where everyone's unique view of good and bad is equally valid. If it feels good to me when I hurt you, well, your pain is irrelevant. That subjective morality is on full display in America.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Damocles

      Da, comrade, I too yearn for the days of one strong dicta.... err... person who will tell the peasants exactly what to say and think and feel. Will it not be a glorious day when everyone knows his or her place and will want for nothing?

      November 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • alpg49

      I'm tired of the arguments. It's not about religion, it's about separation of church and state. Even Jesus wanted them separate.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      That't right bob, those 2 should just follow the church's teaching of morality, the same church that determined allowing Priest's to r@pe children is a moral decision. They are a bastian of morality for christ's sake! (pun intended).

      November 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Mickey1313

      You are truly ignorant. They realize that no mater what their faith dictates, it is unlawful and unethical to impose your theistic beliefs on the population at large. Freedom of choice is the point of the american system. If you don't agree with abortion, DON'T GET ONE!!!

      November 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Bob58

      I'm a lifelong practicing Catholic ...... MANY Catholics disagree with the Churches stance on Abortion.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • wolfpackbob

      There would be no problem if the state (Obama) did not impose mandates on health providers that counter their views on life and death. President Obama clearly has crossed the magical wall of "separation of state and church". Even in defense of the country, servicemen were previously allowed conscientious objector deferrments to serve in a manner other than what was counter to their belief. Why now? Why now impose the state into core beliefs of faith? No one asks President Obama that question. And today, no one will.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Bob, if you are a lifelong practicing Catholic I don't know what you think you've been doing. The doctrine isn't up for popular vote.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  12. Bob

    Just keep those bishops OUT of the business of running the country.

    Otherwise, they should call themselves the Catholic Taliban

    November 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  13. Rainer Braendlein

    Benedict your are Benedict with all your dreams of temporal rule but my church I build on the meek and humble Jesus, the rock.

    If a Catholic becomes a Christian, he has to forsake the Roman Catholic Church immediately.


    Actually, the head of the true Christian Church is the invisible Jesus Christ. The pope has stolen Christ's office as divine head of church. Of course, the pope as a human dwarf is somewhat overcharged to rule "God's body", the Church. Hence, the RCC has become a pis-spot of heresies. The pope always predetermines Catholic counciles, and hence the decision of such a council is always the pope's decision but not God's decision.

    Who established papacy?

    607 a. D. the criminal emperor Phocas (emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire) made the Roman See the highest one on earth. Phocas was a tyrant like Adolf Hitler. Possibly Phocas is also responsible for the emergence of Islam because during his reign Muhammad lived in Arabia. Phocas soldiers certainly committed a lot of crimes in Near East and Muhammad as a merchant became eyewitness of that. Phocas' soldiers were only nominal Christians, and hence Muhammad draw the conclusion that Christianity must be a very bad religion (of course, Muhammad made a mistake because the reason for the misbehaviour was not Christianity but their lack of faith in Jesus).

    Conclusion: Phocas, the ba-stard, gave as two Antichrists: the pope, the Western one, and Muhammad, the Eastern one.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • WASP

      @rain: the meek shall inhereit the earth..............................only after we're done with it. lmfao

      November 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Bob58

      Catholics not only are Christians .... they're the original Christians.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Beware Rainer posts

      Oh mein Gutt, fiehen.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  14. cubsfankevin

    Daniel 2:44

    November 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • WASP

      @cub: austin 3:16. see i can post BS also. 🙂

      November 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Damocles

      Cat 7:22 'Meow'

      Be comforted and warmed by Her Furriness.

      Cat Rules

      November 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • WASP


      November 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • irunner

      Beer 16:30 Thirty?

      November 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Damoclaws can haz cheezburger.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  15. steve

    Religion and politics don't mix. Our Founding Fathers knew it and for the most part our politicians knew it, until the last 30-40 years when the religious extremists started to get a foothold in politics. This is a horse that will be very difficult to get back in the barn and it may be the beginning of the end of the democracy started in 1776. Unless we can craft a new amendment removing this cancer from politics, we may be a divided country for decades to come.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  16. Bob

    Tax the pedophiles.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  17. Neocon13

    They should stick to doing what they do best: sodomizing young boys and covering it up.'

    November 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  18. gjgVT

    @ ajk68... and the jim crowe laws didn't stop black people from voting either...

    November 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  19. Kieffa Haufmann

    We should be very careful when we use God for political reasons.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  20. Jerry

    I really am having a difficult time calling myself a catholic anymore. No one pays attention to their views on BC, they are so wrong it is pathetic. They attack the nuns and shield the pedophiles, how on earth can they look in a mirror. Maybe if women would be allowed to have a voice things could change.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
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