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By DANIEL BURKE
c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Bishop Robert Morlino rarely criticizes politicians by name from his pulpit in Madison, Wis., but he was “worked up” about what he saw on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the morning of Sept. 7.
Sen. Joe Biden, a Catholic Democrat, had explained why he opposes outlawing abortion and said there is a “debate in our church” on the issue, citing St. Thomas Aquinas for support. Two weeks earlier, on the same program, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made similar comments and cited St. Augustine.
Morlino said he was forced to respond.
“Sen. Biden and Speaker Pelosi are Catholics … and they’re violating the separation of church and state by confusing people I have an obligation to teach,” the bishop said in his homily at St. Patrick’s Church.
“They’re stepping on the pope’s turf — and mine.”
Morlino’s criticisms echoed across the country, as nearly 20 bishops from San Francisco to Scranton, Pa., censured the prominent Democrats in recent weeks.
After watching Republicans net large majorities of weekly churchgoers in the last two presidential elections, 2008 was the year Democrats were supposed to “get religion” and show people in the pews that GOP does not stand for “God’s Official Party.”
But as the “Meet the Press” controversy demonstrates, talking about faith can be harder than it sounds. That’s especially true for Catholic politicians, who are measured against 2,000 years of church tradition and doctrine.
“I don’t think it’s the place of politicians to get into theological debates,” said Eric McFadden, who directed Catholic outreach for Sen.Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “Congresswoman Pelosi and Sen.Biden probably should have spoken more from the heart about how Catholic teaching affects their thinking and their policy positions.”
Morlino said in an interview that if Biden and Pelosi had simply voiced their disagreement with church teaching on abortion and left it at that, the bishops probably would have let it go.
Instead, the Democrats’ newly minted vice presidential nominee and highest ranking woman created an uproar. And now they’re experiencing the push-back.
“The problem is that they set themselves up as experts on Catholic teaching when they’re not,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It’s one of those cases when a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Two bishops issued a statement jointly through the USCCB; the rest spoke of their own volition, Walsh said.
“What the bishops saw was a misrepresentation of Catholic teaching in the public square and had an obligation to straighten it out,” she said. The Catholic Church maintains it has taught that abortion is wrong in all circumstances since the first century.
So perturbed are the bishops by the recent controversy that they’ve decided to address the matter at their next meeting, a week after the November elections, in Baltimore.
David Gibson, a journalist and biographer of Pope Benedict XVI, said that being a Catholic politician comes with certain “occupational hazards.”
“Lesson No. 1: Don’t turn `Meet the Press’ into Sunday school,” he said. “These are political leaders and they need to focus on politics and policy.”
It’s difficult to determine the political impact of the controversy.
According to recent polls, Catholics, like most Americans, say they are more concerned about the economy and energy policies than abortion this year.
But the criticisms can still hurt Democrats, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and political scientist at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
“It distracts from their issues, which are the economy and the war,”
Reese said.
Chris Korzen, of the non-partisan group Catholics United, said the distraction is unwelcome.
“We’re two months from an election that matters and we need to talk about the kinds of policies our leaders will advance if they’re elected,” he said. “I think we have more pressing concerns right now than what our leaders think about church teaching.”
Conservative-leaning Catholic groups like Chicago-based Fidelis applaud the bishops’ defense of the catechism, but nonetheless harbor doubts about its political impact.
“We can’t keep hitting people over the head with the catechism and statements from the bishops,” said Fidelis President Brian Burch. “When you talk to people, what you learn is: not a lot of people read them.”
Bill Roth, who heads the political action committee for the Boston-based group Catholic Democrats, agreed — in a way.
“I don’t think many people, certainly on the moderate-to-liberal side, pay a lot of attention to what bishops say from a political point of view,” he said.
Still, Roth said, Catholic politicians should be wary of theological wrestling matches.
“Politicians,” he said, “ought to stick with political issues.”

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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