Progressive Revival

chriskorzen.jpgChris Korzen is executive director of Catholics United and co-author of A Nation for All:  How the Catholic Vision of the Common Good Can Save America from the Politics of Division.

Earlier this month, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton ordered his priests to read a letter at Mass warning Catholics of the spiritual consequences of voting for pro-choice candidates.  In doing so, Bishop Martino joined a small minority of Catholic bishops who have taken the extraordinary step of using their positions to sway parishioners into voting for John McCain.

Bishops have a right to educate Catholics about the Church’s moral teachings.  But they are not – and do not claim to be – experts in political affairs.  Recent history shows why:  such politics-in-the-pew activities, however well-intended, can have dangerous unforeseen consequences. 

Catholics, who make up about a quarter of the electorate, may very well have been the decisive factor in securing President Bush’s reelection in 2004.  They swung to the incumbent by significant margins in Ohio, in no small part due to a coordinated campaign by GOP-affiliated “Catholic” organizations (with no ties to the Church institution) to convince them that a vote for John Kerry put them in a “state of sin.”  This message was echoed – along with admonitions that Kerry refrain from Communion – by a few media-savvy Catholic prelates, most notably Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke.  Only a handful of other bishops followed suit.

Looking back over the past eight years, can we honestly say that the Bush Administration worked to champion Catholic values, even on issues like abortion? After all, Bush started an unjustified war in Iraq, set the table for the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and squandered a budget surplus on tax cuts for those who needed it the least.  The result:  some 47 million Americans are without health care, families are increasingly struggling to make ends meet, thousands of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians have died, and the sharp decline in abortions of the 1990s has not been sustained.  By Catholic standards, this hardly constitutes a pro-life record.

Of course, some Catholics will undoubtedly point to Bush’s appointment of conservatives John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and the passage of the much-touted partial birth abortion ban.  Yet these are mere table scraps for the movement that swept the president to power. Roberts has suggested that Roe v. Wade may be “settled law,” and the partial birth ban only did away with a certain rare type of abortion procedure.  Few, if any, abortions were actually prevented by this legislation.

The Church believes that abortion is the number one threat to human dignity in the world today.  Why, then, did some bishops try to convince us to vote for Bush, a candidate who put ending abortion at the bottom of his list of priorities – well below the tax cuts, the war, market deregulation, and escalating a conflict with Iran.  Why was it OK for the president to spend billions of dollars a week in Iraq while failing to fund – indeed, in some cases even cutting – social programs that might have reduced abortions, programs like health care for pregnant women and children?  Why weren’t the full resources of our nation instead brought to bear to protect and defend the unborn?

Catholics surely understand that candidates lure us in by speaking to our deepest desires, then pursue a completely different agenda – the old bait-and-switch.  Make no mistake, the logic that the maverick bishops are using is identical to that which impelled millions of Catholics to pull the lever for Bush in 2004.  If these men believe that we’ve been better off with four more years of Bush, they should say so, clearly and unambiguously.  If not, they should return to the political sidelines.

For Catholics, the 2004 election doesn’t necessarily serve as a model of what to do this time around.  It can, however, provide us with some insight about what not to do.  We cannot afford to substitute spiritual coercion for an open and honest conversation about which candidate will best promote our values, like health care for all, war as a last resort, and effective policies to prevent abortions.  As a pro-life Catholic, I believe a compelling and faithful case can be made to vote for either McCain or Obama.  For the good of our church and the good of our country, bishops like Joseph Martino would be well-advised to stop trying to suffocate this debate.

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