There are many lingering questions in the aftermath of the recent elections here in America. Among them is the role that the Church does or should play in giving Catholics direction on how to vote. What should the clergy say? How far should they go? When are voter guides too specific and when are they not specific enough? Is it enough for the Church to preach principles and let Catholics connect the dots?

And, even if one concludes that the Church should not endorse or exclude particular Candidates by name, what about specific issues? Should the Church in such cases also preach only principles or should the Church specifically ask or direct Catholic to vote “No” on “Proposition ##” and “Yes” on “Proposition ##.” Is that going too far? When?

A recent article by Vincent Miller, at the CNN Belief Blog provides some reflections that may be helpful in framing a discussion. I would like to excerpt his remarks and make a few comments of my and elicit your thoughts.

As per usual the author’s quotes are in Bold, Black, Italics, and my remarks are plain red text.

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.

Hmm… I think a lot of conservatives would take issue with the premise that the Catholic Bishops, as a whole, openly opposed President Obama. It is clear the Bishops stood opposed to the threats to religious liberty contained in the HHS mandate. But most conservative Catholics with whom I spoke found the American Bishops far from clear on the need to oppose Mr. Obama. Indeed I personally got a good amount of “hate mail” directed against me personally, but more often directed against the Bishops, by politically conservative Catholics who thought the Bishops and pastors should have led a clearer charge against the President’s re-election and should have stated that no Catholic can vote for a candidate like Mr. Obama.

….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.

Again, many politically conservative Catholics who wished the Bishops had been that forceful, would disagree here with Mr. Miller. Though he does cite the example of Bishop Jenky of Peoria, (in a section not included in these excerpts), Miller’s contention, that the Bishops left a clear impression that Catholics could only vote for Mr Romney, would be strongly disputed by many on the Right.

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. 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.

And here, I think we come to the critical question. For the slightly more than one half of Catholics who voted for President Obama, voted knowingly for a candidate who stands foursquare against many critical Catholic teachings. And in this sense they did vote against, or choose to disregard, what the Church teaches.

But, as Vincent Miller opines, is that what they were really doing? Were they dissenting against Church or her teaching explicitly, or were they weighing what they consider to be many critical factors in how they voted?

There is an increasing movement, especially on the political right, in the Church, to speak of the non-negotiables. These non-negotiable’s include the Church’s fundamental moral teachings such as abortion, redefining marriage, euthanasia, and so forth. In calling them non-negotiables, it means the Catholics should never vote for anybody who holds positions in these area contrary to the Church teaching. Exceptions to this rule would be rare, if not nonexistent.

To a large degree, I am compelled to agree, and do not see how I could ever vote for a candidate who is pro-abortion, sought to advance physician-assisted suicide, or supported the redefinition of marriage. And I would personally hope that all Catholics would begin to hold this view. If we were really to stand together on these issues, we would be a formidable political force.

However, it would seem that even a large percentage of church-going Catholics do not see matters this absolutely. Instead, as our author describes, they weigh many factors when going to vote. Perhaps, even though they are opposed to abortion, they are also passionate about immigrants’ rights and the fate of the health care plan. And while many of us in the pro-life movement would wish that abortion always trumped every other issue, many Catholics, simply do not see it this way.

This is also influenced by the fact that many do not see that abortion is likely to change much, no matter who is elected. Many will debate that premise, but it remains true that even having passed through eras of largely Republican-controlled government, abortion still remains largely legal in this country. There are other factors that weigh in on how Catholics vote, but suffice it here to say that the non-negotiables rule is not one that holds sway with many who seem to be more prone to weigh many factors.

As a priest who is personally convinced of the “non-negotiables” argument, I do wonder however the degree to which it can be considered a binding norm on the faithful, which I must preach. I am cautious of simply articulating it from the pulpit since the pulpit does not belong to me and I am careful about preaching things as binding on the faithful from the pulpit, when they may be matters that are still the realm of prudence, rather than expected discipline. The norms from the USCCB do not for example adopt the non-negotiable rule.

The notion of weighing many factors was also mentioned by then Cardinal Ratzinger in his 2004 memo “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.

Thus, while there are many legitimate debates to be had about what is meant by a proportionate reason, I am not sure I can preach the non-negotiables approach (even though I like it) as binding on Catholics and I also understand why Bishops have been careful about that as well.

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.

But again, I must ask, which bishops? I can think only of a very few, really only two who could really stand accused of what Miller accuses the whole body of doing. Again, most conservative Catholics see just the opposite and many go so far as to call the Bishops ineffectual. Thus, if there is an impression of a “with us or against” mentality it comes more from fellow Catholic laity.

But now we come to Mr. Miller’s suggestion, that I specifically want to ask you about.

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 (I think crisis is too strong a word) 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 (avoid saying always) in a way that respects individual judgments about how best to enact these principles. At times this formation might even require forceful challenge, but it should never (avoid saying 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.

I think there is a lot for conservative Catholics to agree with here. I have been hearing for years a deep resentment on the part of the faithful at the way Bishops in the recent past interjected themselves into the “political arena” when they wrote pastorals on economics, nuclear weapons, Immigration, capital punishment, racism, poverty and so forth. There was particular concern especially on the Right that the bishops were predictably left wing on these matters and that they should stick to theology. Fair or not (for many of the issued covered did involve important moral principles), most did think of the bishops as straying too far into the temporal and political order that rightly belongs to the laity.

Now however it is often the Right within the Church that does not see the Bishops as doing enough. And while I put a few brief red remarks in the paragraph above, I largely find Mr. Miller’s remarks classically conservative. And his cautions regarding the limits of clerical involvement in the temporal order are very much rooted in the kind of traditional training I received, namely that we clergy should stick as much as possible to Catholic principles and avoid even a hint of partisan preference in our remarks. Further we were taught that the temporal order belongs to laity and prudential judgments and political debates should be left for them conduct.

Mr. Miller goes on:

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. Here too I am largely in agreement.

The Full article can be read here: Bishops’ Election Behavior Threatens Their Authority

So then, a few questions to ask you about:

  1. Do you really think the Bishops, as a whole, taught that Catholics could only vote for Mitt Romney?
  2. Should the non-negotiables position be insisted on from the pulpit, or are the clergy going too far if they do this?
  3. What are the limits that should be observed by clergy in times like these?
  4. Of lay people who voted for President Obama, how do you see their vote?  Does it make them a dissenter, or does it mean they weighed things differently?
  5. Then Cardinal Ratzinger mentioned in his 2004 memo of some possibly having “proportionate reasons” to vote for a pro-Abortion candidate. How do you understand the word proportionate. Is there any room for interpretation in the meaning of this word?
  6. While most of us in the pro-Life movement ardently think that Abortion must be the premier issue to be considered, followed closely by the other non-negotiables, is this view officially taught by the Church? And must it be definitively held, such that one who votes for a pro-abortion candidate for “proportionate” reasons is ipso facto a bad and dissenting Catholic?
  7. Bottom line, how can clergy walk the increasingly narrow line of staying away from partisan trip-wires and still proclaim authentic Catholic teaching? My own experience about this is that it is much harder near elections, but now that political season is over, we need to step up the teaching  in a less charged environment.
  8. In what ways should the clergy  pipe down and allow laity to take proper leadership in the temporal order, and more specifically politics.

I am not asking every respondent to answer all these questions. They are just to frame the discussion. Frankly the whole intersection between faith and politics these days is a real thicket, and I am not sure exactly where the clergy should aim, since in preaching principles, it is hard to remain general and abstract in many cases.

In commenting please try to avoid Bishop bashing and references to Canon 915. I hope to keep the discussion broader than refusing communion to pols. The question on the table is how to navigate the intersection of teaching the faith and staying clear of having the clergy giving direct political directives, and if such a distinction is even possible today.

There was a time when Clergy involvement in politics was more accepted. To some extent the Civil Rights movement crossed political distinctions. Here is an excerpt from Dr. King’s Last sermon the night before he was killed.

77 Responses

  1. Kurt says:

    As a Catholic who voted for Obama, I would make three points:

    1. I find the “non-negotiable” slogan has phony as a $3 bill. It was developed by focus groups financed by rich Republicans. It is applied selectively (i.e. Santorum given a pass for his vote for pro-choice Arlen Spector and Catholic GOP leader Ed Gilespie’s support for pro-choice Republicans). It gets trotted out very selectively. Moreover, what does it even mean? I’m not negotiating over my principles. My principles remain my principles regardless of which flawed human being I vote for. As to legislative text, everyone negotiates. Look at the Blunt Amendment on the HHS mandate. It protects the conscience rights of bosses, but the conscience rights of employees was negotiated away giving them no protection from having to pay for abortion and contraception in their health care.

    2. The issue that has hurt the bishops is that most of them have been silent while a minority were partisan. Not partisan by taking Republican positions. Partisan by changing the rule by which they measure — i.e criticizing Obama for doing things while silent when Bush did the same things. (I can give examples if someone cares).

    3. I really resent my fellow Catholics telling me I am going to Hell for voting for Obama (which has happened too often) when I live and vote in DC. I mean really. There are more pro-lifers in the DC Democratic Party than in the officially pro-choice DC Republican Party.

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