Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Presidential Campaign and Catholic Chickens Coming Home to Roost

As I noted yesterday, once again, news reports indicate that someone attending a Palin rally has called for Obama to be killed. This happened in Scranton yesterday. And, once again, Sarah Palin allowed the verbal violence to spew forth without a word of reprimand. In response to McCain-Palin's continued playing with fire, Keith Olbermann had this to say last night on MSNBC (

But on this, you're not only a fraud, Senator but you are tacitly inciting lunatics to violence. If you want to again grand-stand and suspend your campaign here's your big chance. Suspend your campaign now, until you, or somebody else, gets some control over it and it ceases to be a clear and present danger to the peace of this nation.

As these unthinakble scenes unfold, I am not hearing a peep from the U.S. bishops, who have persistently told Catholic voters for decades now to make issues of life central as we cast our votes. The pastoral letter of the Two Kevins came out in the very week in which the shouts of “Kill him!” and “Off with his head!” began ranging out.

To my knowledge, that pastoral letter—or any pastoral letter of any U.S. bishop to date—says not a word to condemn the hate rhetoric that could, in the view of numerous commentators now, end in actual violence, if it is allowed to go on.

The silence of the bishops is shameful. It is scandalous. It totally undermines their claims to be pro-life, and to stand aloof from endorsing any slate of candidates. The longer the silence goes on, the longer we must simply assume that the bishops’ real concern with life issues is limited to the womb, and that they have bargained the soul of the American Catholic church for trinkets and empty promises from a political party that does not represent pro-life values in any profound way.

People are not deceived about any of this. Though individual bishops may question the alliance that the bishops, as a body, have made with the Republican party for several decades now, it is clear to most of us that, as a group, the bishops have a definite political penchant. And that they expect Catholics to share that penchant. As a body, the bishops have done nothing to dispel this notion. They have done everthing to bolster it.

And here in my hometown, two days after the Two Kevins issued their pastoral letter that did all but stand on its head to endorse one slate of candidates in the coming election, reports indicate that at least one Catholic pastor followed suit in his sermon this past Sunday ( According to a report on the blog of the Arkansas Times, this Sunday Msgr. Francis Malone of Christ the King Catholic church in Little Rock offered his parishioners a

a blistering sermon that is basically a "Vote for McCain" speech. Msgr. Malone says he has a duty as the pastor to tell his congregation how to vote. He can't name any names of candidates, but he said that no one will have any trouble determining which candidate is apparently the only moral candidate on presidential ballot. The entire sermon is devoted to the abortion issue and the Supreme Court.

I am, frankly, a bit tired of hearing some commentators suggest that the bishops really stand aloof from politics, and that their finely reasoned and carefully nuanced documents about the obligations of citizens really mean that they do not endorse a particular political party. This is simply not how the majority of Americans today perceive the political stance of the U.S. Catholic bishops. And that perception is hardly likely to be dispelled by sermons such as Msgr. Malone's; it is only going to deepen, in fact, as the bishops continue to hold their tongues while cries ring out at political rallies of a major American party to kill and behead the candidate of the other major party.

We have come to a sorry pass. And as I noted yesterday, the bishops—as a body—have brought American Catholics to this pass. And they are doing nothing to get us out of it. No matter how carefully they and their defenders qualify the finely spun theoretical arguments of documents about voting, people can see the bottom line, the real implication of the political alliance the bishops have made, the practical consequences of their political guidance.

And those practical consequences are what count now, as calls for violence are occurring at political rallies with a regularity that threatens to desensitize us to this unprecedented turn in American culture and politics. What I posted yesterday is an extended reflection on how the pro-life politics of the U.S. bishops have had practical implications that include the current bold assertions of racism and xenophobia (and homophobia) at political rallies of “pro-life” candidates, along with appeals for outright violence. For murder.

All of this is not an aberration from the bishops’ pro-life politics. All of this is part and parcel of the pro-life politics the bishops have crafted for several decades now. It is interwoven with the pro-life stance and the handful of “non-negotiable” issues on which that pro-life stance is fixated because, simultaneous with their development of this hard-line approach to the political sphere, the bishops have also deliberately shut down thoughtful inclusive conversation about the non-negotiable issues, about what the pro-life ethic really means in American culture today, and, yes, about abortion itself.

At the cul-de-sac at the end of the pastoral path the bishops have chosen to lead the American Catholic church down for several decades now, we now see an intellectually impoverished collective of Catholic voters who can shout slogans with the best of 'em, but who lack the intellectual tools to explain or even understand what the pro-life “answers” they’ve been given really mean, in the culture at large. People whose intellectual and religious life revolves around slogans are sitting ducks for hate groups.

When the slogans a hate group chants seem eerily reminiscent of the “values” a religious group claims as its own, it is far too easy for a group of haters (of racists or xenophobes or homophobes, for instance) to pull the religious sloganizers into its camp. This is precisely what see happening in American Catholicism today, and the bishops should have anticipated it. Not to mention, should hve provided American Catholics with intellectual tools to critique and resist such alliances with those who hate.

In light of all that is happening in this presidential election, and in light of the pastoral strategy the U.S. Catholic bishops have been following for some time now, it is not surprising to read that Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue plans to blanket Catholic parishes in swing states next Sunday with brochures arguing that good Catholics have no option except to vote for McCain-Palin ( The brochure echoes the intellectually insulting approach of the simple questions, simple answers catechesis the bishops have encouraged for American Catholics for some time now.

For instance, it notes that some key Catholic political thinkers including Douglas Kmiec have endorsed Barack Obama, and asks if this is possible for a Catholic to do. It provides the following answer: "No. They are not correct. Endorsing, support, or voting for Obama in the 2008 Presidential election flagrantly violates Catholic teaching."

The bishops may wish to disavow Mr. Terry. They may tut-tut about his divisive (and deceptive) political use of pro-life issues. But they cannot justifiably disassociate themselves from this kind of political activity. Our chickens do come home to roost eventually, and Randall Terry is a Catholic chicken, the bishops' chicken, one whose rhetoric so closely matches that of the bishops that it is difficult to claim he has not been given a place—and a sumptuous one—within the contemporary American Catholic church.

And that’s even with his checkered history, which includes his censure by a previous church when he divorced his wife of 19 years in 2000 and remarried, failing to support his previous wife and his children by her. Or his repudiation of his gay son in 2004, and his statements that he can no longer have an openly gay son in his home. Or the premarital pregnancies of both of his daughters. None of which should matter, except that the rhetoric of the political party we’ve been told to accept as the only pro-life party has been rife with condemnation of premarital pregnancy and of broken families. Family—traditional family, the kind Mr. Terry's life story makes a mockery of—is one of the big non-negotiables of the bishops' pro-life pastoral strategy, is it not?

Randall Terry is a Catholic chicken. And it is hard to deny that he is coming home to a cushy roost the American bishops have created for him, as he blankets Catholic parishes with his leaflets, even if the bishops utter faint cries of protest against this activity.

After all, Mr. Terry has found enough of a home in the Catholic church that he converted to Catholicism not too long ago. For many of us who sit silently through the homilies of the Church of the Two Kevins, and whose conscience leads us to vote differently than we're instructed to vote, that home is less secure.

In fact, we've been politely shown the door.