At the end of the public portion of its annual meeting this past Wednesday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released what is widely being described as a voter guide (PDF link), just as it has done ahead of every presidential election for the last 30 years. A long version of the bulletin insert is also available (PDF link).
Virtually without exception, the major media outlets, and most people I've seen discussing this statement in Left Blogistan, have seriously mischaracterized both its intent and its content. Take this story from the AP, which has been widely used as the starting point for a lot of online verbiage. It is headlined "Catholic bishops instruct voters," and here's how it starts:
BALTIMORE - Roman Catholic voters and lawmakers must heed church teaching on issues ranging from racism to abortion or risk their eternal salvation, U.S. bishops said Wednesday.
The bishops didn't recommend specific policies or candidates in the 2008 election, and emphasized that "principled debate" is needed to decide what bests promotes the common good. But they warned Catholics that their votes for politicians and laws affect more than just civic life.
"Political choices faced by citizens have an impact on general peace and prosperity and also may affect the individual's salvation," the bishops said. "Similarly, the kinds of laws and policies supported by public officials affect their spiritual well-being."
I'll give the AP credit for at least getting the fact that the document endorses neither any specific candidate nor either political party both correct and in the second paragraph. But that's about the only good thing I can say about the AP's reportage. The bulletin insert that will be all most Catholics are likely to see of this document (and not even all Catholics will see it, much less pay attention to it) contains none of the language found in the third paragraph I quoted above from the AP story.
Predictably, discussion of this document in Left Blogistan has frequently devolved into a bathetic orgy of Catholic-bashing. Judging by some of the comments I've seen--and we're not talking fringe sites, either--the Catholic Church and its leaders (some even go so far as to include all Catholics, clergy or lay) is the fount of all evil, the chief source of everything that is wrong or bad or out-of-whack in modern society. Religious belief itself, we are confidently (stridently, even) told, is a pathetic crutch suitable (and necessary) only for those too dumb or too frightened to face "reality." (Whatever that is supposed to entail.)
Looking at the ensuing hoo-ha, it's not hard to see why we on the left are often described as being, not just irreligious, but anti-religious. And that's just a load of bull--as is most of what has thus far passed for commentary on the U.S. Catholic bishops' statement.
Here, for example, is the opening paragraph of the shorter statement, the one that's supposed to be used as a bulletin insert in Catholic parishes around the country (and thus the only form of this document that most Catholics will ever see):
Our nation faces political challenges that demand urgent moral choices. We are a nation at war, with all of its human costs; a country often divided by race and ethnicity; a nation of immigrants struggling with immigration. We are an affluent society where too many live in poverty; part of a global community confronting terrorism and facing urgent threats to our environment; a culture built on families, where some now question the value of marriage and family life. We pride ourselves on supporting human rights, but we fail even to protect the fundamental right to life, especially for unborn children.
Notice the first issue to come up? It's the war. Next up? Race, ethnicity, immigration, and poverty. Abortion isn't even specifically mentioned, although it's obviously alluded to in the closing sentence. However, as the bishops themselves are at pains to point out in the document proper, Catholics are to consider all of those issues as they form their consciences and consider for whom they will vote next year. Not just abortion.
The typical media and blog spin on this document would have you believe that it gives Catholics in the pews their marching orders: vote the way we tell you or else, in other words. That, too, is low-grade fertilizer. As the document, quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is careful to point out (but, typically, not to stress or to spell out explicitly), each individual Catholic is morally bound to follow what s/he believes to be morally right. (What the bishops should have added, but did not, is that failing to do so constitutes a serious sin.) A faithful Catholic is expected to engage in a process of prayerful study and reflection before coming to a decision on moral issues. This process is known as the formation of conscience--and that, as its title implies, is what this document is really trying to do: get Catholics thinking about all kinds of moral questions as they begin the process of deciding for whom they will vote next fall.
The Catholic Church is often portrayed as a virtual dictatorship: the pope dictates to the bishops, who dictate to the priests, who dictate to the people in the pews. Whatever any of the hierarchs says, goes. That's the way at least a few of the hierarchs would like the Church to look and to operate, but the reality is in fact quite different. There is a relatively small segment of Church teaching to which formal assent is required in order to be considered a member in good standing of the Church. These are what are called dogmas, and they involve things such as the dual nature of Christ (fully human and fully divine), the persons of the Trinity and their relationships, the Resurrection, etc. Outside of dogmatic pronunciations (which tend to be rare, and to come from popes and/or ecumenical councils after a lengthy process of debate and discussion), there are many other sources of official teachings in the Church: the pope, an ecumenical council, a synod of bishops (global, national, or regional), an individual bishop, or one of the dicasteries or congregations of the Roman Curia. There are even different kinds of teachings from at least some of these sources: encyclical, apostolic, or pastoral letters (issued by the pope to the whole church or the world, or to some part of the whole church, or by an individual bishop, respectively), papal bulls, something called a motu proprio (literally, "of his own motion," meaning a document that the pope issues on his own, without being prompted by, or asking for the opinion of, his advisers in the Curia), constitutions, and others. You're unlikely to get anyone in the hierarchy to comment publicly to this effect, but there is usually considered to be a rough hierarchy of teachings that depends in part on who issued them and what form they take. A dogmatic constitution (by an ecumencial council, such as Dei verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, approved by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in 1965) or a dogmatic pronunciation by the pope (such as Munificentissimus Deus, the apostolic constitution from November 1950 which defined the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin) rank the highest, with the local bishop's pastoral letters at the other end of the scale.
Contrary to popular belief, not everything the pope says or teaches is infallible. In fact, almost nothing is. Papal infallibility was not definitively defined until the First Vatican Council in 1870 (and then in dubious circumstances, after most of the delegates to the council had hastily departed to get out of Rome ahead of the advancing forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi during the unification of Italy), and it has only ever been formally invoked once--in 1950, in the aforementioned apostolic constitution defining the dogma of the Assumption. Nor is it the case--no matter how much many of those in the hierarchy would like to make us believe otherwise--that Catholics must unquestioningly and uncritically assent to everything they tell us. We cannot ignore their teachings, but neither are we bound to accept them if, after careful and prayerful study and reflection, we hear a different verdict from our consciences. That being the case, we are morally bound to follow, not the Church hierarchy, but the voice of God that we hear in our conscience. As far back as the twelfth century, that noted theological liberal (not!) St. Thomas Aquinas opined that it was better to die excommunicated from the Church than to violate the precepts of an informed conscience.
The bishops were also careful to stipulate that there can never be one single litmus-test issue that determines how an individual Catholic will vote. We must consider the full range of a candidate's (or a party's) positions on numerous issues, and the potential consequences thereof. If the balance of good outweighs the balance of evil, it is permissible to support a candidate or a political party, even if his/her/their positions on one or more issues are not entirely consonant with those of the Church or the individual Catholic voter.
That, I think, is what is the most galling about the bleating I've seen about this document all around Left Blogistan. To hear our pundits talking, the U.S. bishops have virtually commanded Catholics to vote Republican, whereas if Catholics do what the bishops have told them they should do, the Republican Party and its candidates wouldn't receive a single Catholic vote. Because when you get right down to it, the only issues where the Republican Party platform is consonant with official Catholic doctrine are abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and same-gender marriage. Everything else, not so much. The Church teaches that we must treat all our fellow human beings as we would be treated ourselves--possessed of full worth and dignity. We are also supposed to exercise a preferential option for the poor, oppose unjust warfare, torture, capital punishment, racism, and sexism, pay workers a wage that allows them to support themselves and their families, educate and care for everyone, from cradle to grave. I guarantee you will not find any of those positions articulated in any plank of the Republican Party's platform.
The bishops did say that abortion was supposed to be a pre-eminent concern in deciding how to vote. But even on that score, the Republicans fail to measure up. The Church would like to make abortion illegal. I seriously doubt that will ever happen in this country, largely because (a) any party that tried to do so would lose women's votes by the million and (b) there is no non-theological basis for doing so, making a huge constitutional hurdle to be overcome. Failing that, the next best thing would obviously entail reducing the number of abortions performed in the U.S. Republicans perpetually and proudly proclaim their pro-life bona fides, but that's about as far as they ever go with it. The abortion rate normally rises under Republican administrations, in fact. I suspect it has quite a bit to do with the stupid and self-contradictory attitudes they take toward human sexuality and sexual education. Under Democrats, however, the abortion rate normally declines. So if reducing the number of abortions in the U.S. is the goal you want to achieve, then you should obviously vote Democratic.
It is both depressing and annoying to see such shallow analysis, such broad-brushed accusations, such shrill (and smug) certainty, and such all-around crappy reportage, from people who are proud to proclaim themselves members of the reality-based community. Regrettably, it's what many of us on the faithful left have come to expect. One of the saving graces of the internets, though, is that if I don't like the way they're handling the story, I can do what I'm doing here and put out my own version in its place. I'd like to think that the truth will eventually win out. But I'm not holding my breath on that score.