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Issue Date:  October 29, 2004

Condemnations fly fast and easy

Less than two weeks remain until Election Day in an election year that has taken on a curious importance for Catholics. The importance is not so much in who wins or loses, but more in what happens within the Catholic community in the aftermath of this bitter political fight. What’s at stake is as fundamental as how Catholics relate to the larger culture and, particularly, to the political realm.

Extremist bishops and lay people with lots of money should not be permitted to make a mockery of the election process by threatening people with eternal damnation for voting for one of two candidates, neither of whom would set heaven singing.

Some church officials and their most ardent followers are trying to revamp how Catholics engage in the public and political conversation. Where once there were Catholics who were good citizens and voted conscientiously, there are now REPUBLICAN Catholics and DEMOCRATIC Catholics with an unprecedented emphasis on partisanship. Partisan “Catholic” voting guides and full-page ads have proliferated, and for the uninformed they all appear authoritative and final.

In past weeks we’ve pointed out some notable exceptions, bishops who have resisted the easy condemnations and the temptation to insist on moral absolutes in the political arena. One of those exceptions is Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit, whose Peace Pulpit column appears weekly on the NCR Web site. Gumbleton addresses the complexity of voting as a Catholic as well as the full range of issues to be considered, as outlined by the U.S. bishops, in a column that first appeared in the Detroit Free Press (see story).

But those who insist that Catholics can legitimately vote only one way have created an atmosphere that has spawned some bizarre extremes. What can one expect when the opening salvo is that some Catholic politicians are going to be excluded from the Eucharist? Who could be surprised when another bishop ups the ante? So in some dioceses even those who vote for forbidden candidates are to be kept from the Communion table.

The most bizarre development was the recent declared excommunication of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry by an apparent freelance canon lawyer out of California, who made the pronouncement with the full confidence that he had received the final word from the doctrinal command center inside the Vatican itself.

Turns out it was all wrong. The Vatican denied it had ever excommunicated a U.S. presidential candidate. (See story). However, when one side claims absolute certainty for the rightness of its cause, condemnations can fly fast and easy.

The tragedy in all of this is that most of the U.S. bishops have allowed a few of their number, in concert with some priests and activist lay people, to hijack the political conversation. They’ve distorted the aims of responsible citizenship by setting up a voting ultimatum. They’ve cheapened the discourse about serious life issues by suggesting that the solution lies in a vote for a candidate who has done little or nothing to back up campaign rhetoric. They’ve turned the sacraments into political leverage -- the Eucharist as lobbying tool.

And on Nov. 3 will they have won or lost? Do churches win or lose? Can a church be successful or unsuccessful based on the results of a U.S. political election?

Some are trying to lead us, the church, to a new place in our relationship with American politics. And that place feels tawdry and cheap.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 2004

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