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. N.Shapiro

    The bishops have lost cedibilityover their handling of child abuse.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  2. john316

    The Churches are more than welcome to become political....as long as they are willing to lose their Tax Free status....in fact ..since they are so political anyway....I wish that it would be eliminated altogether...and make it simple....most of the larger churches are actually money making corporations anyway....let's make it simple and remove the tax free status...it's not like we don't have enough churches....right? They already do that in the MidEast and other locations where the church actually controls the country........ours could get some pointers.....I'm sure the churches would be all for it....let's do it....

    November 8, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • bobby

      I have been to catholic, methodist, lutheran, baptist, presbyterian, Jehovah witness, episcopalian, mormon, churches over the past years. I have enjoyed church very much. Most churches are not political. They are a body of those that look forward to Jesus returning to the earth, with love, fellowship, kindness, faith, works, miracles, etc. What is wrong with that?

      November 11, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  3. apep morlock

    Are they in process of modernizing their views? Why are they wearing pink yarmulkes then…?
    I am an atheist so please pardon my ignorance...

    November 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • ME II

      It was breast cancer awareness week and the "I like boobies" t-shirts hadn't arrived.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Because they did a poor job in bleaching out the rectal blood of the altar boys they just had for lunch.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • krussell

      I was raised catholic, and I have no idea why they wear those stupid hats.
      Beenies would be more fun.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • The Man Upstairs

      Your ignorance will be forgiven you my son.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • ME II

      The hat: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zucchetto
      The color, I think, denotes the rank of Bishop. Why it looks pink, I'm not sure. I think it's supposed to be violet, but why violet, I'm not sure.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • bobby

      I have been to catholic, methodist, lutheran, baptist, presbyterian, Jehovah witness, episcopalian, mormon, churches over the past years. I have enjoyed church very much. Most churches are not political. They are a body of those that look forward to Jesus returning to the earth, with love, fellowship, kindness, faith, works, miracles, etc. What is wrong with that?

      November 11, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  4. Rudy Flyer

    Mr. Miller – please don't forget the lever that was pulled that set the Bishop's actions in motion. Obamacare: which did not "honor" the decision of churches and forced a contraception mandate. Please don't be so short-sided and ignorant of history whereby socialist and communist countries outlaw and/or limit religious freedoms. An Obama-led government tramples all over religious freedoms and you criticize them for speaking out for core beliefs, sorry but honoring the laity decisions, when blatantly wrong seems hypocritical to me.

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

      @Rudy Flyer,
      As long as by blatantly wron gyou mean not what you agree with. Obvisously the people who cast their votes for Obama didn't feel it was wrong, and since this is subjective, not objective, it's up to each person to know what is wright too them. also,The church's were respected, it was religious affiliated businesses that were mandated to comply, and they can just get over it. I have still yet to see an individual who lost their religious rights/freedoms form our government's actions within the last 4 years (at least I haven't seen it happen to anyone who wasn't doing something crimnial and detestible).

      November 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Except, of course, that your post is pure and utter bullshit. Churches were alwaays exempt from these provisions. Business that were run by religious groups were not exempt. And why should they be? Is a cafeteria in a Catholic hospital exempt from relevant health code laws?

      But Obama caved, and even exempted these groups, divorcing religion from the insurance mandate entirely, and resting it solely on the various insurance providers.

      All this is immaterial though. 89% of Catholics use or have used birth control measures at some point in their lives. Perhaps your umbrage would be better directed at why your church has not excommunicated all these folks.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  5. David

    Wow; not sure which is more impressive, the outright hypocrisy or the anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon bigotry. Black Southern Baptist preachers have always been loudly political and I don't remember the moral outrage when they openly supported (and campaigned for) Obama in 2008. Stop crying.

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

      Ahh David. You are fogetting the American way: I can only feel good about myself if I tear another down. I am right and you are wrong. My OPINION is fact, and your opinion is wrong. So, lets all be for the promotion of the American way and be anti everything.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • William Demuth


      Most readers in this blog LOATHE any form of church government collusuion, and scream bloody murder WHENEVER it happens

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

      ANY church that openly endorses a specific candidate should lose it's tax exempt status.

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

      William, please post the link to the corresponding CNN editorial attacking Black Southern Preachers for supporting Obama.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  6. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:-->>>>>

    The Topic headline:

    "My Take: Catholic bishops' election behavior threatens their authority."

    My Take: Catholic bishops' promulgation of a severely flawed religion both historically and theologically completely vitiates their authority.

    To wit:

    Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.


    For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

    November 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  7. Thomas

    The Roman Catholic bishops seem to want the State to impose resistrictions, they themselves cannot achieve through moral persuasion.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Mary

      You got that so right, Thomas.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  8. moderatedoug

    So, it is ok for the thralm of hollywood morons to urge women to vote pro-choice, but when the church urges voters to consider not voting for a candidate who has enacted legislation that causes them to defy their own beliefs, they are just supposed to be quiet and not say anything. I don't have a dog in this fight, but it just amazes me how the liberals can villify christians, but christians can't fight back. If Romney had enacted legislation that prevents muslims from taking their prayer rugs into government buildings, would any of you have criticized the muslims for campaigning against him? You are such hypocrites!

    November 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Of course we would have.

      Their absurd beliefs are just as pathetic as yours.

      You see at least some of us realize we hate and try to apply it equally, so let me be clear.


      November 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • BRC

      CHRISTIANS are welcome to personally push for, argue for, and vie for whatever they want. It's the CHURCH that isn't allowed to make a political push. the Church (any church) has made the agreement that it exists fo rthe spiritual realm only, and that it will stay out of state affairs, that's why it doesn't pay taxes. If it starts meddling in political business, then that dynamic is obviously different, and they should start paying.

      And, as always, no individual was required to violate their personal beliefs, and that's what matters. Also, there are places where prayer mats aren't allowed, when it is excessively impracticle.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  9. comicvs

    Exactly. I'm Catholic and heard one of these homilies. It clearly directed you to vote for the "Pro-Life" party. I didn't because that party is of hypocrits. They are not pro-life when they don't try to end abortion, or start wars in countries that don't threaten us, or support the death penalty. There is evil in the pro-life party. I chose the lesser of the two evils.

    November 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Samantha

      the lesser of two evils? Oh I forget, you have Obama "I will reduce the deficit" math.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  10. cupquest

    Dem Catholic here!

    November 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  11. Steven

    I am a Catholic who is anti-abortion. I deeply resent, however, the bishops' partisan intrusion in this political campaign. The American Church has a long tradition of activism for social justice. Many of my brethren felt supporting Romney on the basis of one issue was ludicrous considering his overall policies. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

    November 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
  12. Monomachos

    From many of these comments many believe that everyone is free to say what they believe – except bishops and others of faith. Hmmm.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      You are free to believe as you wish as long as it does not trump my right to believe as I wish and as long as it is not used to dictate how a country is run.

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

      They are free to express thier ideas. They just cannot do it as representatives of a TAX FREE ORGANIZATION. Unless they want to start paying taxes.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • Samantha

      They are free to express thier ideas. They just should not be confused as representatives of a TAX FREE ORGANIZATION when they are speaking their personal opinion.

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

      To be fair, there should be no tax-exemptions for any group and that includes the Democratic and Republican Parties, neither of which pay taxes. Political parties in many other countries pay taxes.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  13. CCrowell

    Luther had some very good ideas on this general topic.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Huebert

      95 good ideas.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  14. bryan

    separation of church and state is a two way street friends. the church doesn't control the government, nor should the gov control church policy/practice.

    for all those so critical of the church, spend some time with practicing catholics. ask them who their favorite priests are in your area...then talk to the priests. they're wonderful souls who've dedicated their lives to serving god and people.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • JimD

      Not to mention being such wonderful role models for altar boys!

      November 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • unitoo25

      Tell that to my friends who were molested by Catholic priests and then told that their silence would pave their way to heaven. Five (5) percent of all US priests have been found to have committed molestation crimes. How many more have not been discovered. It is happening to this very day. How many priests have ever turned in another priest? Exactly where do you find their credibility ? This is an organization that harbors criminals.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • G to the T

      They aren't trying to control Chruch practices. The Church can do anything it wants. BUT when it goes outside of political nuetrality (the whole point of the article) they lose their status as being "outside" of the government and should be treated as such (i.e. taxed, no exemption for religious beliefs, etc.).

      November 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  15. apep morlock

    Their prayers proved to be ineffective

    November 8, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • krussell

      No. The Democrat's prayers were answered.
      God is saving many good people from poverty and suffering.

      Isn't that the way Christians are supposed to do it?

      November 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • A.T.Steelman

      Do you not think its at a bit early for this comment, Judge? Do you have any statistic regarding Church going Catholics voting. Or, is Church attendance unimportant to you?

      November 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • A.T.Steelman

      Mr. Krussell Yes, my understanding of scripture is that good works are VERY VERY important but will not get you to heaven. The Bishops have a DUTY to remind us about EVIL in the world and the SECOND COMI(NG is very REAL. We are all allowed free will to make our own judgements understanding that there ARE consequences.. Thank you Bishops!!!

      November 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  16. The Churches

    I am tired of Churches messing around in US politics. Each Church that exists as a not-for-profit (to give donors a tax break) voluntarily agrees with the IRS to a standard of behavior that reinforces the separation of church and state. If they want to forego the tax exemption, welcome to the world of politics. Otherwise, in my view, it is time for the IRS to hold the churches accountable to the pledges they made when they sign up for their 501 (3) c exemptions.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Samantha

      I am tired of people confusing churches with their members. Why does a Catholic Priest not have the right to an opinion? He may belong to a church, but just because he does is not reason to say he can't be involved in politics.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • JimD

      Samantha: I agree with what you're saying. The problem with it is that some time ago when a priest served in Congress (I believe his name might have been Drinan) he was prevented from running for reelection by his superiors because he was too liberal. The Bishops seem to allow priests to have opinions as long as they agree with them but not to express, or have, opinions if they disagree with them. The same thing that they are now trying to do with individual Catholics.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • bob

      "Why does a Catholic Priest not have the right to an opinion?"

      he can have a opinion, but he shouldn't use religion to make people vote one way or the other, the end result
      would not be a free country.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • A.T.Steelman

      Then you WOULD NOT be if favor of the Black Churches busing their entire congregations to the polls as many did?

      November 8, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  17. Paul

    Take away their tax exemption and also any Catholic who votes for a Mormon is the ultimate hypocrite. Go read he book of Mormon.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Catholic who considers the church a "moral" guide and supports them is the ultimate hypocrit.

      And yes I am a confirmed catholic

      November 8, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  18. Nice picture

    Looks like they didn't allow any of the many sick, homeless or poor they declare they are helping into the meetin,. even a mother superior or two would make it look less like a P2, Masonic meeting. They should bring the joint up to date, get rid of the robes, sashes and beanies and show in $1,500 Armani banker suits.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  19. barbarianofgor

    Beyond sick...

    Catholics supporting a MORMON candidate over a black man who happens to be a Christian. Also that the Mormon is clearly a puppet of globalist bankers and the British Crown, one man's Opinion.

    And for what? Abortion? Don't like abortions, don't have 'em.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Pattypal

      Amusing irony, huh?

      November 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Samantha

      seems "the black man" supports abortion, so how can you call him a Christian?

      November 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • A.T.Steelman

      Yes a Mormon who happens to have an excellent moral reputation. And a declared Christian leader who publically declared his disbelief in very important parts of Christian Scripture.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • G to the T

      @Samantha – because the "life begins at conception" was ONLY a Catholic belief until very recently when the religous right decided to change their stance on it to match the Catholics. MOST Christians didn't believe in "life at conception" until fairly recently.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  20. GIUK

    This story is a great example of why the church needs to lose its tax exemption.

    November 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • tc

      Lose tax exemption and Welfare program will increase in cost along with decrease in Third World population. Catholics support the poor and needy

      November 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Muzak

      Directly from the IRS website:
      "To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, it may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates."

      tc: If churches lose tax exemption, that will not cause the welfare program to increase. It will cause more non-profit, non-religious affililated orgnizations to start up and take over the charitable reigns.

      When any religion tries to inject itself into politics, the very core of what America was founded upon is in jeopardy.
      Churches are tax exempt, yet forbidden to influence politics for that reason.

      November 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • CarrotCakeMan

      tc isn't telling the whole truth. The vast majority of "charitable work" that Catholic Charities does is done WITH TAXPAYER DOLLARS.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • cybercmdr

      In fact, only a small fraction of donations (see http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=fi&page=cragun_32_4) actually go to help the poor. And you're right, the third world population may decrease, if the Catholic Church stops demonizing birth control.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Inconveniently for the relevance to this topic, the Catholic Church isn't mentioned once in the article and may not even have been part of the research.

      Also, while I would agree that donation directly to a church is not an efficient means of giving to charity, the tax benefits of their exemption are dubious because 1) income is only taxed after expenses, and 2) churches usually serve as public facilities, which are also not taxed.

      November 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
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