The National Catholic Review
The Editors

The presidential campaign of 2004 promises to be the most expensive in U.S. history. Unfortunately, and not by accident, the most expensive presidential campaign in history also threatens to be the least enlightened. The enormous sums available to campaign organizations are for the most part invested in television commercials that deal in the shorthand of images and slogans and reduce important campaign issues to shallow sound bites.

 

Last September, the U.S. Catholic bishops, as they do every four years in anticipation of a presidential election year, issued Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, which identified what the bishops saw as the important questions to be addressed in the national debate that presumably takes place in an election year. The bishops assigned first priority to the protection of human life against the dangers of abortion, euthanasia, pre-emptive or preventive use of military force and “our nation’s increasing reliance on the death penalty.” The bishops also urged national concern for the promotion of the human family, the pursuit of social justice and the practice of global solidarity.

The agenda the U.S. bishops set for the national debate is an imposing one; some might consider it unrealistically ambitious. But the formidable challenge the bishops posed in defining their agenda stands in disappointing contrast to the actual record of Catholic participation in the campaign thus far. An inordinate amount of public attention has been paid to a few Catholic bishops who have inserted themselves into the campaign by publicly warning that they would refuse Communion to Senator John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic candidate. Senator Kerry identifies himself as a practicing Catholic, but his voting record of consistent support for an unlimited right to abortion is an embarrassment to the Catholic community.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference has established a committee, chaired by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., charged with developing a policy statement on the responsibilities of Catholics in public life. Although the committee is not expected to publish its statement until after the November elections, Cardinal McCarrick has observed that he would be very reluctant to use exclusion from participation in the Eucharist as a sanction for Catholic politicians whose legislative decisions seem inconsistent with Catholic teaching. It is likely that most U.S. bishops share Cardinal McCarrick’s distaste for such sanctions, and certainly many in the Catholic community, including the editors of this journal, would find the imposition of such sanctions to be pastorally offensive and politically inept. In fact, the imposition of such ecclesial sanctions suggests that the abortion issue is one of denominational discipline, a “Catholic issue,” rather than an issue of human rights, around which a broad coalition of religious and nonreligious traditions can unite.

When questioned by Catholic News Service, European and British bishops showed no interest in employing the denial of Communion as a weapon to control the Catholic politicians in their countries. The Tablet of London even reported last year that Pope John Paul II gave Communion to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a pro-choice Anglican, during a private Mass. One Italian bishop identified the underlying issue with admirable simplicity: “Faith is one thing. Legislation is another.” Legislators who believe that abortion is immoral may, rightly or wrongly, decide that legalized abortion is the least of several possible evils in a pluralistic society.

At the same time, Catholic bishops and voters have a right to expect Catholics in public life, who affirm their personal belief in the immorality of abortion, to demonstrate that commitment by working to reduce the number of abortions that take place each year. Such efforts will include but not be limited to legislative initiatives. Catholic bishops and Catholic voters can take the measure of a candidate’s total record on abortion, but the bishops would be wise to let the voters come to their own conclusions on the records of individual candidates.

Unlike some religious leaders of smaller congregations, the Catholic bishops of the United States have traditionally refused to endorse particular candidates or parties. In this difficult political season, a time of new and unsettling dangers and a voting public that seems sadly polarized, the bishops should be wary of singling out individual candidates by public admonitions that inevitably become politicized in the heat of partisan politics. Instead, by directing the public’s attention to the agenda they set forth last September, our bishops may help rescue the presidential election campaign of 2004 from a mindless barrage of televised attack ads made possible by the oversupply of money and the shortage of integrity that characterize our current political climate.

For other articles on Catholic politicians, click here.

Comments

Howard J White | 7/13/2004 - 9:10am
I was quite surprised by the quote in your article about the Italian bishop's comment about Faith being one thing, Legislation another. I believe they are one.

I also disagree with your opinion that a legislator may decide that an abortion could be legal under the premise it is the least of evils-if you have an example of your thoughts on this, I would be interested in them.

As far as your fourth paragraph concerning Kerry and Communion, I find it strange that the focus in always on the Bishops; what is Sen. Kerry's position on this matter. How can he go to NOW and say he is pro-choice and commit himself to a Supreme Court nominee consistent with pro-choice and say he is in communion with the Catholic faith?

Howard J White | 7/13/2004 - 8:52am
I am surprised to read that Mr. McGrath has never seen a distinction made between abortion and the death penalty. One is the taking of the most innocent while the other deals with a guilty person and public safety.

The overall tone is somewhat curious leaving me with the distinct impression that Mr McGrath believes Bishops should stay out of the public arena, as if our faith has nothing to add in this place.

Personally I look to our faith for guidance on the issues of the day.

Dan McGrath | 5/27/2004 - 2:39pm
Thank you for your editorial on U.S. bishops and politics. Your balanced view helped assure me that the Catholic Church, as a whole, may not be on the dangerous road of political advocacy.

I was angered to hear on National Public Radio this morning that a U.S. Bishop had deigned to dictate to Catholic laity the political candidates for which we can vote without putting our souls in peril. Just yesterday, on the same radio station, the bishop of the Newark diocese justified his call to deny the Eucharist to pro-choice politicans by saying that abortion is always wrong and that the death penalty does not meet the same standard.

I oppose abortion and the death penalty, and I have had impassioned discussions with Catholics in the past about the relative morality of the two. For me, there can be no distinction, and I have yet hear any Church authority explain how the death penalty can ever be justified.

At a time of crisis in the Catholic Church, the bishops risk further alienating their flock by interfering in politics. The clergy sex-abuse scandal has destroyed the credibility of all bishops due to the shameful actions of a few. Confrontation with liberal politicians will only further draw the charicature of bishops as ivory-tower potentates in gilded robes. The bishops' post-election guidelines on Catholics in public life could clarify the balanced view you illuminated, and it can't come soon enough.

JORIS STEVERLYNCK | 5/17/2004 - 3:42pm
We are not here to make politics, but to work for God. A Catholic is not behaving like one when he attacks clearly and purposely essential Christian values, and thus cannot be publicly recognized as such by letting him partake of the Holy Communion. It is a scandal; unfortunately too many Bishops and priests put the Social before the Godly. We are at the gates of the Last Times, as admitted by Popes Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII, Paul V (who said the Fumes of Satan had already entered the Church)and the present Pope twice (once in 1976, in the U.S.A., still a Cardinal, and later at one of the well-known Thursday talks from the Papal Palace in Rome), and one of the signs of the times is the general apostasy of the Church; the word "apo" means "out of", and "stasis" place. I find the position you posit precisely that, for apostasis can be total, or - as with any human sin - punctual. Peter committed apostasis in Mt. 16-23, because "non sapis ea quae Dei sunt, sed ea quae hominem". Please both you and the Bishops stop being moral cowards; we lay people would be happy you did, and you will some day when you face our Creator.
(Rev.) Robert J. Thorsen | 2/9/2007 - 2:04pm
These are lonely times for liberals. “Compassion” has been redefined by a conservative president; the War Against Poverty has been replaced by a war against the poorly housed, the poorly educated, the poorly fed and the uninsured sick; the evil that is war is begetting its unbounded, evil behaviors; institutionalized Washingtonian hubris dismisses the wisdom of religious voices for peace. It is like a remaking of the Napoleonic tragedy after the principles of the Revolution were lost in the subsequent unslaked thirst for power. People who think they know “the truth” are always dangerous.

Therefore, when I read the Of Many Things column by Drew Christiansen, S.J., the editorial “Catholics and Politics 2004” and Raymond Aumack’s “The Jesuits Are Too Liberal,” I did not feel as lonely (5/24). There still are informed and articulate people who have the courage to speak to the awful mess we are in and a weekly magazine that has the courage to print their words.

Kenneth Hehman, M.D. | 2/9/2007 - 3:29pm
I am a graduate of both a Jesuit high school and Jesuit university. After reading America for over a year, I am sick of your liberal editorializing (5/24).

Howard J White | 7/13/2004 - 9:10am
I was quite surprised by the quote in your article about the Italian bishop's comment about Faith being one thing, Legislation another. I believe they are one.

I also disagree with your opinion that a legislator may decide that an abortion could be legal under the premise it is the least of evils-if you have an example of your thoughts on this, I would be interested in them.

As far as your fourth paragraph concerning Kerry and Communion, I find it strange that the focus in always on the Bishops; what is Sen. Kerry's position on this matter. How can he go to NOW and say he is pro-choice and commit himself to a Supreme Court nominee consistent with pro-choice and say he is in communion with the Catholic faith?

Howard J White | 7/13/2004 - 8:52am
I am surprised to read that Mr. McGrath has never seen a distinction made between abortion and the death penalty. One is the taking of the most innocent while the other deals with a guilty person and public safety.

The overall tone is somewhat curious leaving me with the distinct impression that Mr McGrath believes Bishops should stay out of the public arena, as if our faith has nothing to add in this place.

Personally I look to our faith for guidance on the issues of the day.

Dan McGrath | 5/27/2004 - 2:39pm
Thank you for your editorial on U.S. bishops and politics. Your balanced view helped assure me that the Catholic Church, as a whole, may not be on the dangerous road of political advocacy.

I was angered to hear on National Public Radio this morning that a U.S. Bishop had deigned to dictate to Catholic laity the political candidates for which we can vote without putting our souls in peril. Just yesterday, on the same radio station, the bishop of the Newark diocese justified his call to deny the Eucharist to pro-choice politicans by saying that abortion is always wrong and that the death penalty does not meet the same standard.

I oppose abortion and the death penalty, and I have had impassioned discussions with Catholics in the past about the relative morality of the two. For me, there can be no distinction, and I have yet hear any Church authority explain how the death penalty can ever be justified.

At a time of crisis in the Catholic Church, the bishops risk further alienating their flock by interfering in politics. The clergy sex-abuse scandal has destroyed the credibility of all bishops due to the shameful actions of a few. Confrontation with liberal politicians will only further draw the charicature of bishops as ivory-tower potentates in gilded robes. The bishops' post-election guidelines on Catholics in public life could clarify the balanced view you illuminated, and it can't come soon enough.

JORIS STEVERLYNCK | 5/17/2004 - 3:42pm
We are not here to make politics, but to work for God. A Catholic is not behaving like one when he attacks clearly and purposely essential Christian values, and thus cannot be publicly recognized as such by letting him partake of the Holy Communion. It is a scandal; unfortunately too many Bishops and priests put the Social before the Godly. We are at the gates of the Last Times, as admitted by Popes Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII, Paul V (who said the Fumes of Satan had already entered the Church)and the present Pope twice (once in 1976, in the U.S.A., still a Cardinal, and later at one of the well-known Thursday talks from the Papal Palace in Rome), and one of the signs of the times is the general apostasy of the Church; the word "apo" means "out of", and "stasis" place. I find the position you posit precisely that, for apostasis can be total, or - as with any human sin - punctual. Peter committed apostasis in Mt. 16-23, because "non sapis ea quae Dei sunt, sed ea quae hominem". Please both you and the Bishops stop being moral cowards; we lay people would be happy you did, and you will some day when you face our Creator.

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