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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

From the Editor’s Desk

A few bishops seduced by politics

For Catholics, regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential contest, the election itself may turn out to be the easy part. What happens inside the church after the election -- whether deeper divisions result -- could prove the more difficult consequence of this election year.

If the fear that had to be dispelled in 1960 when John Kennedy ran for president was that the pope would somehow dictate U.S. policy, the fear I have in the wake of the 2004 race is that the church, at least in the public’s perception, will be so aligned with one party that it will be severely compromised.

If President Bush wins re-election, don’t hold your breath waiting for change. One needs only recall that every major Catholic Republican figure who was out front at the Republican convention was pro-choice. With Iraq unraveling faster than White House spin can keep up with it, don’t expect this administration to concentrate on “culture of life” issues any time soon.

The leadership of the Catholic church in the United States this year has sold out on the cheap. It has had almost nothing to say about the Republican Party’s attempts to lure Catholics to give up parish membership lists to be used by the Bush campaign. Worse, we have heard no outcry over the Republican National Committee Web site that calls Kerry “wrong for Catholics” and states he is at odds with the church. Some bishops may be crowing with delight at the crass political use of deep Catholic questions and issues. I think it will be short-term pleasure with a long-term cost.

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What is clear is that the church’s approach to politics has changed dramatically. The bishops have turned their backs on the advice contained in their statement “Catholics in Political Life,” where they warned against misusing Catholic teaching and sacramental practice for political ends. The few who have made the power play unfortunately have taken the rest with them in the public’s perception. And the rest have been silent. Those few have too loudly crossed the line from shepherds to political operatives. In the name of absolute principle and never compromising, they have been seduced into the land where nothing comes without a price and where everything is compromise.

Who wins or loses this election, I think, will turn out to be the least of their worries.

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It is not unusual for Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College to bring sense and intelligence to these internal church debates, and so she does in an engaging story by Jerry Filteau of Catholic News Service ( see story.) She and other theologians interviewed about the current political hubbub agree on the significance of abortion as an issue, particularly a Catholic issue, but also recognize the limits of the political arena. She, especially, views the matter in light of realistic expectations.

“It’s not very likely in the near future that a much more restrictive law on abortion is going to be enacted. Even if people would like to see that -- which not all Catholics, for a variety of reasons, would -- it would be questionable if that’s a prudent use of our social and political resources because it probably isn’t going to go anywhere. So where can the church really spend its moral authority?” It’s a question that will be with us long after this election.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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