Echoing the reaction of some evangelicals, two prominent Catholic commentators said that Mitt Romney’s Dec. 6 speech addressing his Mormon faith was strong on the subject of independence from church influence, but problematic in the assertion that all faiths share the same moral principles.
Father Richard Neuhaus, the editor of First Things, a conservative Catholic magazine about religion and public life, said Romney gave "a very powerful speech, very powerfully delivered, and given the difficulties of the question he is addressing, it was about as convincing and persuasive a response as you could have expected." He also said that Romney’s effort in "trying to move essentially people to admit Mormonism to what he calls America’s symphony of faiths" was admirable.
The iffy part, Father Neuhaus suggested, was Mr. Romney’s assertion that Mormonism is on equal footing with all other faiths.
"He has a really tricky problem," said Father Neuhaus. "The speech could be criticized on this score. To suggest that if somebody voted against a candidate because he is Mormon, that that would be a sign of intolerance. Now he didn’t hit that heavy, but he kind of touched on that theme. That I think is a big mistake."
In the speech, Romney said, "My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree."
"For a substantial number of evangelical Protestants, Mormonism is a false religion and they believe the salvation of souls is at stake," said Father Neuhaus. "And they believe that having a Mormon as president would give a big boost to Mormonism, which is undoubtedly true. Essentially it is not because they are intolerant, but they refuse to let their political concerns trump their religious concerns. They have every right to do that."
"With Catholics and Jews it’s different," Father Neuhaus added. "We have always known that we live in an overwhelmingly protestant culture. And we’re accustomed, from a Catholic viewpoint, to having heretics in the White House. From the evangelical perspective, or at least of many, when they say this is a Christian nation, they mean it is a protestant nation, and when they say it is a protestant nation, they mean an evangelical Protestantism. And therefore a evangelical Protestant running for president has a distinct plus."
Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, also started out by applauding Romney for declaring himself independent of church influence.
"He makes very clear, just as Kennedy did, that he wouldn’t take any orders from anyone in the church." said Father Reese. "He made a speech that 90 percent of the American people would agree with," said Father Reese, pointing out that in America, one of the world’s most religious countries, "people who are strongly religious respect other people who are strongly religious, as long as they don’t stuff it down their throats."
But Father Reese, a political scientist and former editor of the moderate-to-liberal Catholic magazine America (he resigned from the post in 2005 under pressure from the Vatican for his publishing views contrary to Church doctrine) also said that Romney’s speech had its flaws.
"The devil," he said, "is in the detail."
Father Reese took issue with one portion of Romney’s speech in particular.
"It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it’s usually a sound rule to focus on the latter – on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.
Later, Romney adds: "Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?
"They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united."
"This biggest problem is that he projects this consensus about social morality," said Father Reese. "He asserts that all religions have a common agreement about social morality, and they don’t."
While evangelical critics focus on the theological differences between Mormonism and traditional notions of Christianity, Father Reese argued that there are actually many different theological variations within Christianity.
"You have Christians who don’t believe Jesus is the son of god, that he isn’t divine," he said. "There is quite a spectrum of theology of who Jesus is even amongst Christians."
The problem, he said, was Romney tried to gloss over all the moral differences between different faiths.
"Frankly what is dividing the Christian community today more than theology is morality," he said. "That’s what is splitting up the Anglican community. It’s not who Jesus is, it’s about gay sex."
"He seems to think that there isn’t any argument about morality. Well, there sure is, everything from gay marriage to abortion, to the war in Iraq. Those are all moral issues, about which Christians disagree."
Like Father Neuhaus, Father Reese also noted how Romney inserted Brigham Young, the successor to Mormonism’s founder, Joe Smith, in the continuum of America’s champions of religious freedom.
"Because of their diverse beliefs,” Romney said, “Ann Hutchinson was exiled from Massachusetts Bay, a banished Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and two centuries later, Brigham Young set out for the West. Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths. In this, they were very much like those of the European nations they had left."
While Father Neuhaus said Romney ran into trouble by raising the issue of intolerance towards Mormons, Father Reese would only say that he found Romney’s effort to insert Mormons into the national narrative of religious freedom as "interesting." He added, "They are part of American history."