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June 15, 2012
Political partisanship
By Russell Shaw *

By Russell Shaw *

A prominent Republican congressman, a Catholic, says his economic proposals reflect the social doctrine of the Church. Statements from the bishops’ conference dispute that, and some faculty at Georgetown University tell the congressman he isn’t welcome there. (They aren’t known to have objected when, several weeks later, Kathleen Sebelius of ‘HHS mandate’ fame spoke at a Georgetown commencement event.)

The Bishop of Peoria, Ill. likens policies of the Obama administration to the anti-religious stance of the Hitler and Stalin regimes. Some faculty at Notre Dame urge the Bishop to resign as a university trustee for having said so dreadful a thing. (They aren’t known to have objected three years ago when Notre Dame gave Barack Obama an honorary degree despite his pro-abortion views.)

Disturbing? Disconcerting? Symptoms of division in the nation and the Church? As a matter of fact, yes. But let’s not exaggerate. This is how Catholics, like other Americans, typically carry on in an election year.

Nearly two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville captured the messy reality of an American election in these words: “The election becomes the greatest and, as it were, the only matter which occupies people’s minds. Then political factions redouble their enthusiasm, every possible phony passion that the imagination can conceive … comes out into the light of day.”

If you think things have been bad lately, count on it – they’ll get worse before November. Count also on Catholics to do their share of bashing one another along the way.

Against this background, exhortations to civility have become a pious cliché of political discourse. Civility is good, but for people who profess to be members of the Catholic Church, fairness and even – heaven help us! – charity would be better. To that end, here are a couple of suggestions.

For one thing, it would be helpful if Catholics with partisan political commitments stopped accusing the bishops of partisanship whenever they speak up strongly against some Obama policy. It isn’t the bishops’ doing that the Democratic party officially supports legalized abortion and the Republican party officially opposes it. No Catholic prelate twisted President Obama’s arm to get him to support gay marriage. To put it bluntly, allegations of episcopal partisanship are a red herring in this context.

Among other things, the charge ignores the fact that bishops have an obligation to do their jobs as moral teachers, with the political chips falling where they may. Declaring the wrongness of abortion and upholding traditional marriage are unavoidably large parts of what that entails. But anyone who claims these are the only things bishops talk about obviously hasn’t been paying attention and doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Nor is it reasonable to accuse bishops of picking on the Obama administration by putting up a fight against its plan to force Catholic institutions to cover contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients under Obamacare. This, remember, was the administration’s idea, not the bishops’. Did Catholic critics expect the Church to roll over and play dead?  

It would be well, too, if people professionally engaged in applying principles of Catholic social doctrine to complex issues weren’t too quick about judging others. In the case of the Catholic congressman mentioned above, Paul Ryan, his approach may or may not be right – and those who think he’s wrong are free to say so. But a Catholic legislator attempting to be faithful to the Church in an area where the correct application of principles isn’t so clear deserves some slack.

Too much to hope for in an election year? Tocqueville would probably say yes. 

Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books, including three novels and volumes on ethics and moral theology, the Catholic laity, clericalism, the abuse of secrecy in the Church, and other topics. He has also published thousands of articles in periodicals, among them The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, L’Osservatore Romano, America, Crisis, Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Reporter, and many others. From 1967-1987 he served as communications director for the U.S. Catholic bishops and from 1987-1997 was information director for the Knights of Columbus. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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