Jesus Our Shepherd
Election Revisited
Peter Steinfels, New York Times

Anyone constructing a list of the big losers on Tuesday would probably include the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. Will that fact be candidly addressed when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meets next week in Baltimore?

After a presidential campaign in which it was widely perceived that the dominant message from the bishops was that Catholics were morally obliged not to vote for a candidate supporting abortion rights, exit polls show that Catholics voted 52 percent to 45 percent for Senator Barack Obama. That was seven percentage points more than the Catholic vote in 2004 for Senator John Kerry, a fellow Catholic.

Hispanic Catholics, a group the bishops often hail as representing the future of the church in the United States, led the way. Latinos voted 67 percent for Mr. Obama, 16 percentage points more than their vote for Mr. Kerry. Latino Catholics, usually more Democratic than Protestant Latinos, almost certainly voted for the Democratic nominee at an even higher rate.

Exit poll figures for young Catholics are not yet available, but much information indicates that they also voted at high rates for Mr. Obama.

If the bishops sweat a little over these figures next week, the reason won’t be worry about their political prowess but about their pastoral and moral effectiveness. By appearing to tie their moral stance on abortion so closely to a particular political choice, have they in fact undermined their moral persuasiveness on that issue as well as their pastoral effectiveness generally?

In 2004, a distinct minority of bishops established the public posture of the church by excoriating the abortion rights advocacy of Senator Kerry and in some cases urging that he or even Catholics who voted for him should be barred from Communion.

The result was disarray among the bishops and a backlash among a considerable number of Catholics. To keep that from reoccurring in 2008, the bishops painstakingly reframed the brochure they issue every four years to guide Catholics in contemplating how to vote.

Responding to complaints that previous statements insufficiently highlighted abortion among the church’s many concerns, the new version emphasized that issues involving “intrinsically evil” actions could not be equated morally with others. Abortion was the prime example, but euthanasia, torture, genocide, unjust war and racism were similarly labeled.

Catholics, the bishops taught, could never vote for a candidate because he or she supported any of these evils but only despite such support—and only for proportionately grave reasons.

There were further nuanced reflections on the complexity of political choices and the place of prudential judgments in applying general moral principles to particular circumstances or to particular candidates. The bishops repeated longstanding disavowals of single-issue politics and of telling Catholics how to vote.

In November 2007, the bishops voted overwhelmingly for the document, titled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” During the election season, most of them publicized it in their parishes and stuck with it in their own statements.

But faced with the prospect of a victory by Senator Obama and particularly disturbed by the support he was getting from Catholics whose anti-abortion credentials were undeniable, many other bishops began to insist on giving their own interpretation. Some estimates place 50 to 60 bishops within this group, almost certainly a larger minority than four years ago. And they were the ones responsible for the public’s perception of the bishops’ role in the election.

Sometimes their declarations were dramatic. Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, recently transferred to Rome from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, declared the Democrats “the party of death.” Bishop Robert J. Hermann, the church’s interim leader in St. Louis until a successor to Archbishop Burke is named, invoked “Judgment Day” a half-dozen times in a column leaving no doubt that Catholics should decide their vote on the basis of abortion alone.

Bishop Joseph F. Martino of Scranton, Pa., required all pastors to read a letter from the pulpit stating that abortion superseded all other issues for Catholic voters, and he effectively suggested that Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, should not receive Communion because of his support for abortion rights.

“To the extent it was perceived that abortion was the only issue that should determine a Catholic’s vote,” Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany said this week, “I don’t think it was true to ‘Faithful Citizenship’ itself, and I don’t think it resonated with the Catholic people.”

The danger may go beyond not resonating.

Many Catholics may understandably feel that the bishops are talking out of both sides of their mouths: Catholics are not supposed to be single-issue voters, but, by the way, abortion is the only issue that counts. The bishops do not intend to tell Catholics how to vote; but, by the way, a vote for Senator Obama puts your salvation at risk. Catholics are to form their consciences and make prudential judgments about complex matters of good and evil — just so long as they come to the same conclusions as the bishops.

There is obviously a gap between the prudential leeway that “Faithful Citizenship” affirmed for Catholics and the political urgency that some bishops feel about abortion — and already some of the latter are suggesting that the document should be recast again, presumably to make conformity to one’s bishop’s judgment a litmus test for being a faithful Catholic.

In a conversation on Monday, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who had overseen the delicate process of redrafting the document, warned about moving toward endorsing candidates. “It goes against our tradition to do that,” he said. “It hasn’t done any good for the candidate, or for the church or for conscience.”

Bishop DiMarzio lamented the fact that “people want black and white answers” rather than the whole legacy of moral analysis and reflection that “the Catholic Church can offer.” At the same time, it was clear that the possibility that a well-informed, sincere Catholic might use that legacy to vote for Senator Obama strained his imagination.

The election revealed how bitter divisions among some Catholics have become, but it also revealed how many others are just shrugging off the bishops’ teachings.

“I hope the bishops have a frank discussion as we assess how effective we were in communicating our message,” Bishop Hubbard said.