Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"The" Catholic Vote and the Bishops' Pastoral Failure

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal shows Barack Obama leading among Catholic voters by six percentage points (

And this at a moment when Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton made a surprise appearance at a presidential election forum at St. John’s parish in Honesdale, PA, Sunday night to announce, “There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable” (

The “points” to which Bishop Martino referred are those presented in the guideline for Catholic voters, “Faithful Citizenship,” issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2007. The forum at St. John’s parish made the document available to those attending. At his arrival, Martino brandished “Faithful Citizenship,” announcing, “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese. The USCCB doesn’t speak for me. The only relevant document . . . is my letter.”

The letter to which Bishop Martino is referring here is a pastoral letter he issued to be read in all parishes on 28 September, instructing faithful Catholics to vote on the issue of abortion—alone—in the coming elections. As those who have followed Catholic political debate for some years now recognize, this is none-too-veiled codespeak for, “Faithful Catholics must vote Republican.”

As this is happening, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City upped the rhetorical ante last night at a lecture at the Dole Institute of Politics at Kansas University ( Yes, that would be the Dole, as in Robert J. Dole, the retired Republican senator from Kansas who ran as the Republican candidate for president in 1996.

Yes, the Robert J. Dole whose wife Liddy is now senator from North Carolina, and who is in danger of losing her seat. So that she has now decided to stoop to the predictable and ugly tactic of gay baiting (

In his Dole Institute lecture last night, Bishop Naumann suggests that bishops have an obligation to make their voices heard in this election, as abortion and gay marriage drive the nation to totalitarianism. He suggests an analogy with Nazi Germany, when—well, I’m not precisely sure I understand his point, since I have been led to believe that the Nazis executed gay citizens, and Bishop Naumann appears to be encouraging Catholics to vote for the most anti-gay party in the name of resisting what he sees as a Naziesque totalitarianism.

Whatever. In the big flurry of overheated rhetoric from people afraid that “the” “pro-life” party may not win this election, an eventuality they have apparently never contemplated before, some Catholic bishops are saying somewhat sensible things to offset the shrill voices of Republican theocratic dominionism.

Bishop Terry Steib of Memphis, for instance, recently called on Catholics to avoid one-issue politics, and to remember that “Jesus Christ…opposes violence of all kinds, from war, to revenge, to capital punishment, to abortion, to euthanasia, to the attempt to use force to bring about justice and God's will in any way" (

And Los Angeles bishop Gabino Zavala concurs, in a recent interview ( Bishop Zavala notes that, though “Faithful Citizenship” urges Catholics to form their consciences by looking at candidates’ positions on a whole range of life issues, “that’s not always what comes out.” The impression most voters have is that the bishops, as a body, stand for one-issue voting tactics.

Bishop Zavala offers a countervailing position. He urges Catholic voters to take into consideration racism, torture, genocide, immigration, war and the impact of the economic downturn on the most vulnerable among us, the elderly, poor children, and single mothers, as they cast their votes.

Also, in what is clearly an oblique response to Bishop Martino’s dismissal of USCCB voter guidelines, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, have just issued a statement reminding Catholic voters that “Faithful Citizenship" notes the following: “Both opposing evil and doing good are essential obligations” (No. 24) (the statement is on today’s Whispers in the Loggia blog at One must take both/and into account in voting: voting is not merely an exercise in opposing, in saying no; it is also an exercise in saying yes to what is good, in helping to build a just society in collaboration with others.

It’s an . . . interesting time to be a Catholic voter. On the one hand, some bishops seem to be nearly apoplectic at the thought that their single-issue political tactics won’t yield “the” Catholic vote for “the” “pro-life” party in this election. Which is to say, some bishops have made such a decisive, unwise alliance with one political party that they have no feasible pastoral strategies or no contingency plans if their theocratic ambitions are finally, decisively rejected this election cycle.

On the other hand, there are at least faint stirrings among some bishops against the one-issue, one-party pastoral strategy that has dominated the thinking of far too many bishops, and which has come to characterize Catholic political thought in the minds of too many citizens.

And Catholic voters are caught in the middle, confused, ill-instructed, prey to paranoid fears of apocalypse if we do not vote for the person our bishop or our priest instructs us to choose. Today, we received an email from Steve’s extended family network—from the fervent Catholics in his large family network, the ones who have consistently voted “right” in election after election.

They’re terrified this election time. The email tells us that scripture gives Christians “ownership of this land,” and that a scary choice is about to take place which will result in all kinds of wickedness in this Christian land, if Christians don’t pray and assert their voting rights.

Even as large numbers of “good” Catholics can contemplate the defeat of “the” “pro-life” party only in apocalyptic terms, the majority of American Catholics are simply shrugging their shoulders about the one-issue strategy of the bishops, and are voting their consciences—consciences informed by a much wider range of considerations than those one-issue bishops offer us for consideration.

This is the point to which the Catholic bishops have led American Catholics. And it is a sorry point to have led us to. Once again: in my view, the breakdown of the previous pastoral strategy of one-issue, one-party politics in this election points to the lack of wisdom and lack of pastoral acumen among many American bishops. The ignorance of many of us, the indifference of others of us: both point to a serious failure of pastoral leadership on the part of the American bishops.

People of faith should always be preparing for the future. And that means preparing for change. That means learning to say yes and not merely no, because Christian faith is centered on God’s yes to a world that God loves intensely.