Monday, October 27, 2008

Prelates Meltdown

First Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput criticized Democratic nominee by name and suggested that those who support him have “done a disservice to the Church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue…”

Then, Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino interrupted a forum trying to discuss the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document “Faithful Citizenship.” That document was adopted by the entire hierarchy last November with 97.8 percent of the bishops voting in favor of its passage. But, according to Bishop Martino "No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese…The USCCB doesn't speak for me."

Now, Bishop Rene Gracida, the retired bishop of Corpus Christi, has made a commercial that states no Catholic can vote for a pro-abortion candidate and that “Barack Hussein Obama is a pro-abortion candidate.” Bishop Gracida, you may recall, made such a mess of his diocese that he found himself in civil court being sued by his brother bishops in Texas. And, his radio ad is being distributed by Randall Terry, famous for starting Operation Rescue. “I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you,” Terry said in 1993. “I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good.... Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism.” Charming.

Bishop Gracida and Terry deserve each other. It is hard to believe that the reference to Obama’s unfortunate middle name served any useful, still less Christian, purpose. But, while they may at the bottom of the slope, Chaput and Martino are on the same slope: They fail to see why it is inappropriate for clergy to endorse candidates by name.

It is undoubtedly the role of the hierarchy and clergy to help the laity form their conscience. But, selecting a candidate is the end of the process of conscience formation. The prelates have allowed their concern for abortion, which is understandable, to color their assessment of the value of different approaches to the issue, which is up for debate, leading them to oppose Obama by name in public, which is inappropriate.

Why is it inappropriate? The bishops’ document “Faithful Citizenship” says, “In fulfilling these responsibilities, the Church’s leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote. As Pope Benedict XVI stated in Deus Caritas Est, ‘The Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. . . . The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible.’”

But, there is another reason. Voters have to assess not only a set of policy positions but the character of the candidates. The three prelates dismiss the distinction the Obama has drawn between being pro-choice and being pro-abortion. Given the history of the Democratic Party on the issue, their suspicion is understandable: could Obama merely be giving lip-service to abortion reduction? But, what to make of John McCain “straight talk” when he says that he believes life begins at conception and, in the very next breath, affirms his support for embryonic stem cell research? Which would be better for the pro-life cause: a sincere Obama who promotes abortion reduction or a cynical McCain who does only what is needed to manipulate pro-life voters? Maybe Obama is not sincere and maybe McCain was as confused as Nancy Pelosi when discussing embryonic stem cell research. It is up to voters to make such determinations, not prelates.

In the end, the stance of Chaput, Martino and Gracida harkens back to the days when the laity were expected to “pray, pay and obey.” But, we lay people will not be infantilized. I saw 100,000 people fill downtown Denver yesterday to cheer on Obama. Their archbishop should realize that his approach is ill-advised for another reason: It is not working.

Michael Sean Winters

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