CNN Belief Blog: ‘Catholic Bishops’ Election Behavior Threatens Their Authority’

How dare Catholic bishops use their teaching authority to speak out in favor of religious liberty! That was the thrust of University of Dayton theology professor Vincent Miller’s November 8 post on CNN’s Belief Blog (which has a tendency to attack conservative ideas) titled “Catholic Bishops’ Election Behavior Threatens Their Authority.”

Miller complained that: “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.” He continued by bewailing the supposed partisan nature of the campaign: “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.”

Miller’s argument zeroed in on a letter written by Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria (which curiously enough he did not provide a link to): The bishop, Miller wrote, “juxtaposed the Obama administration's new contraception mandate with the scourging and mockery of Jesus.”

Miller ignores the fact that there were more than two candidates who ran for president – and that only one candidate had actively sought to force Catholic employers to violate their consciences.

Miller continued by demanding more freedom for the laity: “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.” But when a candidate actively seeks to force Catholic employers to violate what they see as divine law, the bishops, as protectors of the Church, are bound to oppose his policy.

Apparently what really bothered Miller was that the bishops hadn’t gone after that GOP too. “The Catholic Church will enhance its public authority by speaking out in a way that supports and challenges both parties,” he asserted. “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 Catholic Church does challenge both parties when they fall into error. But Miller displays the same absurd moral equivalence that many liberal Catholics hold fast to, giving moral equivalence to disparate issues.

The voting guide of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” punctures this claim: “In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions.”

The guide provides examples of issues that might disqualify candidates from receiving support from faithful Catholics: “A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.”

But instead of acknowledging this, Miller launched a predictable attack on the Ryan budget bogeyman: “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.”

This may be because Paul Ryan did articulate a vision of providing charity for the disadvantaged – a vision that sought to reduce government programs in favor of private charity. Like all liberals, Miller seems to believe only funs compelled from citizens and distributed by the government are the only legitimate form of charity. But concern for social justice does not necessitate the continuous funding of government anti-poverty programs.

Miller also left out the fact that he was a staunch Obama supporter. In 2008, he wrote an article in the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter in which he declared: “Obama has consistently offered a deeply Catholic vision of government and the common good.” In a 2009 article, he complained that “Right wing warriors cause damage to the Church.” 

“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.”

But when the Church is attacked, its bishops must respond – no matter who is attacking it.