Catholic bishops’ not-so-partisan partisan crusade

YouTube Preview ImageThe Washington Post ran a piece from Religion News Service with the headline:

Catholic bishops make last-minute pitch for Romney

Considering that the bishops didn’t even name Vice President Joe Biden when they corrected a false claim he made about the HHS mandate during the debate a few weeks ago, I thought it major news that they’d be making an overt pitch for Romney. Then I read the top of the story:

A number of Roman Catholic bishops are making forceful last-minute appeals to their flock to vote on Election Day, and their exhortations are increasingly sounding like calls to support Republican challenger Mitt Romney over President Obama.

The most recent example: a letter from Illinois Bishop Daniel Jenky accusing the administration of an unprecedented “assault upon our religious freedom” and implying that Catholics who pull the lever for Democrats who support abortion rights are like those who condemned Jesus to death.

Oh dear. Already we have a problem. That bold headline that asserts that Catholic bishops are all in for Romney turns into a lede where we are told that something merely “sounds like” (To whose ear? We are not told.) support for Romney. And the Jenky letter never singled out Democrats who support abortion. Far from it. So why was it written up that way?

OK, before I go on, I do want to point out what the piece does well. It is certainly newsworthy that these bishops are so clearly addressing Catholics on religious liberty. Those of us who aren’t Catholic and would have no idea about any of this going on in Catholic dioceses around the country are well served by reporters sharing this information. And the article has a decent survey of the various bishops who have spoken out.

Let’s look at a quote from the Jenky letter and then show you how it was summarized:

Nearly two thousand years ago, after our Savior had been bound, beaten, scourged, mocked, and crowned with thorns, a pagan Roman Procurator displayed Jesus to a hostile crowd by sarcastically declaring: “Behold your King.” The mob roared back: “We have no king but Caesar.” Today, Catholic politicians, bureaucrats, and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord. They are objectively guilty of grave sin. For those who hope for salvation, no political loyalty can ever take precedence over loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ and to his Gospel of Life. God is not mocked, and as the Bible clearly teaches, after this passing instant of life on earth, God’s great mercy in time will give way to God’s perfect judgment in eternity.

Here’s how it’s changed up:

Jenky also compares abortion rights supporters to the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem that pledged loyalty to the Roman Empire and demanded that Pontius Pilate crucify Jesus.

I’m not entirely sure that changing “a hostile crowd” to “the Jewish crowd” is helpful. I don’t understand why that change was made, in fact. But more than that, I think the significance of Jenky’s statement was completely missed. That is an incredibly strong statement to come from a bishop — even for the issue of the “destruction of innocent human life in the womb.” It’s interesting that it wasn’t included in the story.

The story suggests the bishops don’t really care about the doctrine so much as partisan aims. So we read:

Across the continent in Alaska, Juneau Bishop Edward J. Burns wrote a column in the local newspaper on Oct. 27 comparing Vice President Joe Biden’s support for abortion rights to supporting slave owners in the antebellum South, and he questioned Biden’s character and Catholic faith.

Numerous other bishops, from Newark, N.J. to Springfield, Illinois to Colorado Springs have made similar appeals.

They always stress that they are not endorsing any particular candidate but they frame their statements by listing a set of “non-negotiable” issues that start with opposition to abortion and go on to include other policies that Republicans generally support and Democrats generally oppose.

It’s just a really interesting way to frame the story. But is it accurate? The media’s “exhortations are increasingly sounding like” calls to question the bishops motivation, aren’t they? “See, those bishops claim they care about doctrine but — wink-wink, nudge-nudge — we’ve figured out their partisan aims — something we never seem to notice in our couldn’t-be-fluffier coverage of the Nuns on the Bus.” Also, I’m sure you already noticed that the final excerpted sentence completely negates the headline for the piece.

But what’s really noteworthy is that this is a really bizarre reading of Burns’ column. For one thing, I didn’t see where Burns questioned Biden’s “character.” If you’re going to assert that he did, you should substantiate the charge. What’s more, you would never know this from the RNS write-up but Burns actually critiqued both Biden and Ryan! Failure to mention that fact does help the narrative that the bishops are being partisan, but it certainly isn’t fair. Here’s what Burns actually wrote:

That being said, each vice presidential candidate has been inconsistent in the ways in which they have followed the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. Vice President Biden, while stating that he believes, as his Church does, that life begins at conception, and while professing his personal opposition to abortion, supports the virtually unlimited right to abortion that has resulted in deaths of millions of unborn children since the tragic Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. In addition to this position of his in conflict with the teaching of the Church, Vice President Biden has also come out in support of legalizing same-sex marriage.

By way of contrast, Congressman Ryan has been a resolute advocate of Catholic moral teaching on the defense of the unborn and traditional marriage between one man and one woman. However, the Federal budget that he has proposed could do harm to the poor and vulnerable by neglecting their legitimate needs. For example, Congressman Ryan proposed a budget that has received a critique by the Domestic Justice and Human Development and International Justice and Peace committees of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, stating that “a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.”

Another relevant item that was missing from this story was Archbishop Charles Chaput’s statement:

“We’re Catholics before we’re Democrats. We’re Catholics before we’re Republicans. We’re even Catholics before we’re Americans because we know that God has a demand on us prior to any government demand on us,” he said in a new interview with the wire service. “And this has been the story of the martyrs through the centuries,” Chaput said.

You can view his remarks at the top of this piece, too. The entirety of his remarks deals exclusively with the partisan issue. If your article is trying to make the claim that the bishops are all partisan, failure to include this Chaput quote from last week certainly helps. But if you read all of these statements, is the grand unifying theme of them really about the Grand Old Party? Or is it something else?

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  • Matthew

    J-E-N-K-Y!!!!

    • mollie

      I liked that I had not one wrong variation but two. OK, liked isn’t the word I’m looking for. Thanks, though! I think I fixed ‘em.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    At some point I hope that the media gets a clue that typically liberal stands on issues are moving further and further from Catholic sensibilities. It DOES “look like” the bishops are supporting Republican candidates, but only because it’s becoming more and more impossible for them to support Democrats, and there isn’t much alternative. And the issues that Catholics can align with liberal politicians on – helping the poor and all that – are matters of deliberation about the means to do so, where it can be said that Republicans don’t want poor people to suffer, but simply have a different approach to the problem that puts less emphasis on using the federal government and other people’s taxes. And while it might seem that liberals’ choice of means seems better to Catholics on those issues, it really is a matter of means and not goals, but on abortion and life issues, there is no way to accommodate the liberal positions. On the other hand, many Catholics understand that is is a question of means and see government programs having the practical effect of making people dependent upon those programs and the politicians who support them – a way of buying votes with your political enemies’ taxes. This is really something the media do not get, because it just doesn’t jive with their characterization of conservatives and Republicans as being hostile to the poor, sick, old, and disadvantaged.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    At some point I hope that the media gets a clue that typically liberal stands on issues are moving further and further from Catholic sensibilities. It DOES “look like” the bishops are supporting Republican candidates, but only because it’s becoming more and more impossible for them to support Democrats, and there isn’t much alternative. And the issues that Catholics can align with liberal politicians on – helping the poor and all that – are matters of deliberation about the means to do so, where it can be said that Republicans don’t want poor people to suffer, but simply have a different approach to the problem that puts less emphasis on using the federal government and other people’s taxes. And while it might seem that liberals’ choice of means seems better to Catholics on those issues, it really is a matter of means and not goals, but on abortion and life issues, there is no way to accommodate the liberal positions. On the other hand, many Catholics understand that is is a question of means and see government programs having the practical effect of making people dependent upon those programs and the politicians who support them – a way of buying votes with your political enemies’ taxes. This is really something the media do not get, because it just doesn’t jive with their characterization of conservatives and Republicans as being hostile to the poor, sick, old, and disadvantaged.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The article had this sentence about the bishops: “They often add warnings about voters’ standing as Catholics or their eternal salvation if they make the wrong choice.” The phrase “if they make the wrong choice” is so passive: “Oh sorry, I chose the wrong street to turn down. Sorry, didn’t mean it.” This completely misses the reality that the bishops are trying to point out of making a deliberate choice, a choice that results in what’s called formal cooperation with evil. Now that’s a hard phrase for 21st century American readers (and reporters) to understand, but the writer could have always asked someone to explain it. In fact, Bishop Thomas Paprocki did a pretty good job of it last week (http://ct.dio.org/bishops-column/text/61-politics-and-moral-complexity-gods-law-comes-first.html).

    But what I think really blinds secular reporters is their incredulity at the thought that Catholic bishops aren’t really out for political power. For so many in the MSM, life=politics. “Oh sure, they say they’re concerned about people’s salvation, but we really know what that’s about — they just want power over people’s lives. They just want to use the guilt trip to manipulate people to their way of thinking.” Until the MSM gets it into their heads that these leaders aren’t primarily concerned about politics and are primarily concerned with where people spend an eternity, they’re never going to get religion. But then, since the MSM always know what’s going on in people’s heads (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2012/10/ap-knows-what-the-pope-really-thinks/), I guess that’s pretty much a given.

    • MikeL

      “But what I think really blinds secular reporters is their incredulity at the thought that Catholic bishops aren’t really out for political power. ”

      Somewhat off-topic, but I just recent finished Fr Walter Ciszek’s memoirs (“With God in Russia”) of his time a a prisoner in the Soviet union and his captors’ incredulity at the thought that he was not a spy, but had entered the USSR simply to minister to souls.

      Might not be a bad reading requirement for all religion reporters as a way to get this type of perspective.

  • Bob Smietana

    Jenky’s letter essentially says “Don’t Vote for Obama.”
    It labels the President and the Democratic majority in the Senate as enemies of religious freedom:

    “Since the foundation of the American Republic and the adoption of the Bill of Rights, I do not think there has ever been a time more threatening to our religious liberty than the present. Neither the president of the United States nor the current majority of the Federal Senate have been willing to even consider the Catholic community’s grave objections to those HHS mandates that would require all Catholic institutions, exempting only our church buildings, to fund abortion, sterilization, and artificial contraception.”

    As to whether it’s a pro-Romney letter, it really depends of whether you see this race as an Obama-Romney contest, or if you see count the other folks running as viable alternatives.

    • mollie

      Well, I think it’s sort of like if you’re a hammer, you see everything as a nail. Many times media folks see everything politically — and not just politically but specifically focused on national or presidential politics. So this statement is seen as anti-Obama or what not. And it is, but it’s just so much more than that. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a statement so strong. To wit, “Today, Catholic politicians, bureaucrats, and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord.”
      They reject Jesus as their Lord, he says! Reporters really don’t need to exaggerate what’s being said when bishops are making dramatic statements like that. It is more than dramatic enough.
      That can be viewed as a political statement, as the media seem to want to do here, or it can be viewed as a pastoral statement. Or it can be viewed as both. But to say that the statement is simply “making a last-minute pitch for Romney” seems to be missing the forest for a few trees.

      • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

        I have to second that, Mollie. In all my years of reading bishops’ statements, including statements from the Holy See, I have never, ever seen or heard a bishop of any level say, “…Catholic[s]…who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord.” Wow! Just, wow! Yes, they talk about “grave sin,” “grave evil,” “intrinsic evil,” but I have never heard anyone say, “They reject Jesus as their Lord.” From a Catholic perspective, what he says is true, but no one has ever stated it that way before, at least not in recent memory.

        It has great ecumenical consequences, because that’s language many Protestants understand. All of the Catholic philosophical language of “formal and material cooperation” and “intrinsic evil” goes over everyone’s heads (most Catholics included), but if you say, “They reject Jesus as their Lord,” Protestants get that. And it’s a shake-up to Catholics who don’t normally hear that kind of language.

        As Mollie said, “Reporters really don’t need to exaggerate what’s being said when bishops are making dramatic statements like that. It is more than dramatic enough.” But reporters don’t get the drama that’s contained in that statement because they don’t get its magnitude and there really is nothing in secular life that’s comparable to it. For them, it’s just another “ho-hum, some religious nut job is spouting off his religious, hocus-pocus mouth again, trying to win votes for Romney,” so they don’t even bother to ask the question, “What exactly does that mean, ‘reject Jesus as their Lord’?” thus leaving their audiences ignorant of the import.

        And before anyone says, “It’s not the reporter’s job to explain the bishop’s statement,” please remember that the bishop wrote his letter to the faithful of his diocese. The newspaper’s audience is larger and more diverse than that and the reporter needs to ask those kinds of questions to explain it to his audience.

  • Bob Smietana

    “Well, I think it’s sort of like if you’re a hammer, you see everything as a nail. Many times media folks see everything politically — and not just politically but specifically focused on national or presidential politics.
    I agree.
    However it is election season and Bishop Jenky wrote a letter telling his parishioners to go vote and telling them which politicians are the enemy. It’s a political letter, so a political headline makes sense for this story.

    There have been other stories that reduced the bishops’ concerns about religious freedom to a political agenda and those have often missed the point

    • mollie

      “It’s a political letter, so a political headline makes sense for this story.”

      But is it? I mean, yes, it is. But is that the main point? When I hear a bishop say that if you do a particular thing, you reject Jesus as your Lord, it strikes me as spiritual.

      If you’re inclined to view everything as political, this will “just” be a political statement, too. And it will be judged as partisan, we see. I’m wondering if that’s the most accurate read of this and other statements from the bishops.
      Is there a higher spiritual meaning to it that is lost when viewed solely through the political prism? I think that’s the danger.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    People live their religion in how they encounter other people and work together with them for the common good in society. Part of that process is politics. But it is ultimately an ethical/moral activity that reflects and affects one’s spiritual state. If it is impossible for a Catholic to morally vote for a particular candidate, that is an important thing for a Catholic to know; but it is also a function of the candidate’s actions and positions and not of Catholic doctrine. If a Catholic cannot vote for a particular candidate, it is because the candidate has excluded himself from receiving the vote, and not because the Church as deprived him of it.

    But Tom’s comments are also spot on. Although this story involves politics, the topic it attempts to report is not essentially about politics but about eternity, and that is a perspective that the MSM just does not comprehend. That, and the fact that the candidate has only himself to blame if Catholics cannot in good conscience vote for him.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      I’m still missing the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons from the previous site. In this case, the “thumbs up” button would be the one I’d hit — a few times over, if I could.

      • http://www.ironiccatholic.com IC

        agreed.

  • Fr. .Dermot Brennan

    What too many are missing is that the Church has opposed abortion any time after conception for almost two thousand years. It’s not something that has come to light during this campaign. But the media doesn’t see it as anything other than political. How interesting that although the March for Life every January is the single largest poublic demonstration in our nation’s capitol in any given year, the media rarely if ever covers it. It’s only when committed Catholics during an election year stand up for what their Church teaches which contradicts what some of those running for office adhere to, that they see it as a political issue. It’s a MORAL issue which goes beyond and above party boundaries. How sad that too many Catholics in public office take the “personally opposed” position so as not to “offend” or “impose” our teaching on others while the pro-choicers continue to do everything they can to impose their teachings on the whole country while too many professed Catholics stand by and allow it lest they “offend” others. Regardless of party affiliation. the only Leader we are called to follow is Jesus whospoeaks through his Church.

  • Kris D

    The other part of this equation, however, is that when politicians who proclaim themselves to be pro-life put pro-life issues on the back burner when they are elected. It has been almost 40 years since Roe v. Wade & it is difficult to see an instance when politicians in national office, (congressman, senator, president) have made pro-life issues a priority. As a Catholic in the pews, I would like to see the bishops hold these politicians’ feet to the fire also.

  • Bern

    Have to agree the WaPo headline is misleading: it implies ALL Catholic bishops are “coming out” for Romney, when the RNS story only quotes some US bishops. However, but Bob S’s response re Jenky’s statement is correct: Jenky didn’t need to name names. What I hear as a Catholic–a cradle Catholic, weekly church going–is Bishop Jenky telling me I am going to hell if I vote for the current president or a member of the majority party in the Senate. Of course, as a Vat 2 “tweener” (first 2 sacraments pre Council, second two post) I remember being told I’d go to hell for any number of things, committed or omitted. RNS is not misquoting these bishops’ statements nor “hiding” the spiritual nature of Jenky’s or the other bishops’ statements. They are quite plain.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      What you should be hearing — and what should be reported — is Bishop Jenky saying that people reject Jesus as their Lord if they deliberately vote for a candidate — any candidate of any political party — who supports the killing of unborn human life. This does not mean they’re going to hell. They may have set out on the highway thereunto, but any bishop worth his salt will say that there is always the chance for repentance.

    • JoFro

      But Catholics who know that Romney is not exactly anti-abortion rights, could also say that their Bishop was urging them to vote for a third party candidate – oh wait, those don’t exist apparently, right?

  • deacon john m. bresnahan

    The trouble with media coverage of Catholics and the public square is that it sure looks to many strong Catholics that the Dem Party has become the party of “Caesar Is Our King ” and the GOP the party of “protect the First Amendment.” But if the media reports fairly and respectfully (instead of, so often, snidely and insultingly) on the thinking of Catholics who are not yet ready to worship at a government altar, it could cut against the media’s anointed candidates. I sometimes wonder what the moral, political landscape of America would be today if the media over these past few decades had not become a propaganda organ for radical liberal, hedonistic morality.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    I don’t see this as aimed specifically at Democrats, except in a “if the shoe fits” sort of way. There are a number of Republicans on the ballot in my state this year who support abortion on demand. One of them is a Catholic. They will not be receiving my vote, either. It may well be true that nationally, more Democrats than Republicans fit the parameters of the bishops’ warnings, but that’s not the bishops’ fault.


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