With all the problems the American Catholic Church is having, it is surprising that many of its bishops have allied themselves with President Bush’s re-election effort. These bishops haven’t explicitly endorsed the President, but they’ve declared abortion a “non-negotiable issue” and warned Catholics that a vote for a candidate like John Kerry—who supports abortion rights—is a mortal sin.
As a member of the Ways and Means Committee with jurisdiction over tax policy, I have been asked whether this unprecedented campaign is a violation of the church’s tax-exempt status. By injecting themselves in partisan politics, the bishops have raised a red flag that could cast a shadow on the tax-exempt status of all religious institutions.
In directing Catholics on how to judge candidates, the bishops have been silent on most traditional Catholic issues, including opposition to the death penalty. We’ve heard nothing from them about the 1,000 Americans killed and 7,500 wounded in Iraq. Nor have they expressed any concern for the 10,000 innocent civilians slaughtered in Mr. Bush’s war of choice. Though not Christians, these Iraqis deserve the same compassion as any innocent victims of war.
The bishops apparently do not believe it is their moral duty to speak about political issues affecting the poor and suffering. We have not heard a word from the bishops about the 36 million people living in poverty, including 13 million children; the 45 million without health insurance; the eight million unemployed; the three million homeless; or the two million hopeless young men and women in prisons.
In this respect, the bishops are in line with the Bush administration—which, along with opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage and the suppression of stem-cell research, has made tax cuts skewed to the wealthiest Americans central to its campaign.
Among the leading prelates involved in the pro-Bush campaign is Archbishop Charles Chaput, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic bishop in Colorado and a Bush appointee to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He has denied any contact with the Bush campaign, although his communications director is a former administration employee.
Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis, Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs and Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark have also issued statements warning Catholic voters about voting for pro-choice candidates, meaning Mr. Kerry.
The precise extent of the pro-Bush movement among these Catholic bishops is not known. The 400-member U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, known for its progressive positions on many domestic and international issues, has published a 36-page election-year booklet covering a variety of issues, without warning Catholics of the religious consequences of their vote.
Still, never before have so many bishops warned about the sinfulness of voting pro-choice. These statements provide a quasi-theological imprimatur for Republican activists using moralistic arguments to intimidate Catholic voters.
It’s no secret that the Bush campaign is using Catholic doctrine on abortion in its own favor. The campaign has 50,000 volunteers and staff working to increase Catholic turnout, according to press reports. The campaign has organized weekly conference calls with the White House for Catholic lay leaders, and campaign officials have conducted speaking tours to influence Catholic groups in swing states.
The most outrageous appeal to Catholics was made by President Bush himself. On a visit to the Vatican last June, the President asked the papal secretary of state to push the U.S. bishops to become more involved in promoting his social agenda. I don’t know how the Pope responded. But as a Catholic, I would hate to think that a Pope who vehemently opposed the immoral war in Iraq would strike a political bargain with its architect.
The campaign of 1960 was the last time that the Catholic Church became a major issue in a Presidential election. John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, took pains to assure American voters that his policies as President would not be influenced by his religious beliefs.
In a remarkable historical irony, this time high-ranking Catholic clergy are going out of their way to elect a Methodist President who would impose his beliefs on the country.
I fully support a woman’s right to choose, and I have no argument with the bishops’ right to their own beliefs and teachings on abortion or any other matter.
But I would remind the bishops that their true calling is contained in Matthew’s account of Jesus teaching that those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, comforted the sick and visited the prisoners would enter the kingdom of God. He said nothing about electing a President—even a so-called compassionate conservative—who seems to have abandoned those in need.