Catholic Sound and Furor

An important exchange about Catholic engagement in public life occurred this week in the pages of the Washington Post. On Sunday, Joe Feuerherd reacted to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ recent statement on citizen’s civic responsibility, a related webpage, and recent statements by some individual bishops. He suggested that the thrust of those statements meant that […]

An important exchange about Catholic engagement in public life occurred this week in the pages of the Washington Post. On Sunday, Joe Feuerherd reacted to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ recent statement on citizen’s civic responsibility, a related webpage, and recent statements by some individual bishops. He suggested that the thrust of those statements meant that the bishops think anyone voting for Barack Obama is condemned to hell — including Feuerherd himself, despite his status as a “pro-life, pro-family, antiwar, pro-immigrant, pro-economic-justice Catholic.”
On first read, this will look like a convincing portrayal of the U.S. Catholic bishops being out to swing the presidential election to the GOP — at least to those who have not read their actual statement. That document is far more careful and nuanced than Feuerherd suggests — as pointed out in a counter-opinion published on Wednesday. There, Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the United States Catholic Conference outlines the full statement by the bishops. It’s far more thoughtful than Feuerherd gives it credit for, worthy material for reflection by Catholics and by others seeking to understand how Catholics are asked to approach political matters by their leaders.
And yet. Feuerherd’s tone is indeed contentious. But I believe he accurately quotes a number of yet more contentious and (in this Catholic’s view) politically irresponsible statements by individual bishops in recent years that use their authoritative voice within the tradition to narrow Catholic political life dangerously. The bishops, too, risk falling into partisan sloganeering if their individual interventions in public life fail to reflect the full insight of their official documents.
Catholic voices, lay and episcopal, can help inform the deep process of public discernment represented by the current election — but only if all sides reflect carefully before they speak. If the heat of the election leads these voices to caricature their own rich tradition, all this Catholic sound and furor will signify nothing to an electorate thirsty for serious reflection.