Beliefs Politics

Catholic bishops make last-minute pitch for Romney

RNS photo courtesy Diocese of Peoria

(RNS) A number of Roman Catholic bishops are making forceful last-minute appeals to their flock to vote on Election Day, and their exhortations are increasingly sounding like calls to support Republican challenger Mitt Romney over President Obama.

Illinois Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria greets Pope Benedict XVI.  *Note: This image is not available to download.

Illinois Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria greets Pope Benedict XVI. *Note: This image is not available to download.

The most recent example: a letter from Illinois Bishop Daniel Jenky accusing the administration of an unprecedented “assault upon our religious freedom” and implying that Catholics who pull the lever for Democrats who support abortion rights are like those who condemned Jesus to death.

“Since the foundation of the American Republic and the adoption of the Bill of Rights, I do not think there has ever been a time more threatening to our religious liberty than the present,” Jenky writes in the letter, which he ordered priests in his Peoria diocese to read at all Masses on Sunday (Nov. 4).

In the letter, Jenky blames Obama and the Democratic majority in the Senate for trampling on the Catholic Church’s rights and moral convictions by requiring health insurers to provide contraception coverage. Jenky also compares abortion rights supporters to the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem that pledged loyalty to the Roman Empire and demanded that Pontius Pilate crucify Jesus.

“For those who hope for salvation, no political loyalty can ever take precedence over loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ and to his Gospel of Life,” Jenky writes.

Jenky’s broadside is especially powerful and – to his critics – partisan. But it is not an isolated case.

On Thursday, the bishops of Pennsylvania – a crucial battleground state where most Catholics are currently supporting Obamareleased a letter to voters declaring that policies on contraception, abortion and gay rights backed by the White House and Democrats meant the nation was “losing its soul by little steps.”

In Wisconsin, Green Bay Bishop David Ricken wrote an Oct. 24 letter saying that the Democratic platform’s support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage and other “intrinsic evils” made it impossible for Catholics to support the party without putting their souls at risk.

That same day, Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio’s column in the diocesan newspaper said that voting for a candidate who supports policies on contraception coverage and abortion rights — as Obama does — “stretches the imagination, especially when there is another option.”

Across the continent in Alaska, Juneau Bishop Edward J. Burns wrote a column in the local newspaper on Oct. 27 comparing Vice President Joe Biden’s support for abortion rights to supporting slave owners in the antebellum South, and he questioned Biden’s character and Catholic faith.

Numerous other bishops, from Newark, N.J. to Springfield, Illinois to Colorado Springs have made similar appeals. They always stress that they are not endorsing any particular candidate but they frame their statements by listing a set of “non-negotiable” issues that start with opposition to abortion and go on to include other policies that Republicans generally support and Democrats generally oppose.

They often add warnings about voters' standing as Catholics or their eternal salvation if they make the wrong choice.

The Catholic hierarchy's growing support for Republicans in recent years is no secret, and the bishops have been especially critical of Obama since he was elected in 2008. But longtime church-watchers say the substance and tenor of the statements in this campaign stand out. 

“Yes, the bishops, some of them anyway, are more active this year. The tone – again, of some – is more stark,” said Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who writes on the church and politics for Our Sunday Visitor and other publications.

Shaw said the “perceived stakes” in this election have much to do with the more urgent tone – a fear that the Catholic Church, and faith in general, is being driven from the public square, and that the viability of many church-related institutions is in peril due to government policies.

There is also the fear, he said, that American society is ready to embrace greater rights for gays and lesbians and maintain or expand on current abortion policies.

Catholics who support Obama don’t see it that way. Responding to Jenky's letter, James Salt, executive director for Catholics United, a progressive group, said Jenky was “using the pulpits of his diocese for partisan proclamations” and he said that was not only wrong but was driving young people away from the church.

“By brazenly violating IRS and church guidelines against partisan activity, Bishop Jenky has shown that he is more interested in following the paths of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson than the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Salt. “As more and more younger Catholics abandon the faith on account of the bishops’ far-right politics, Bishop Jenky should ponder how his antics will affect the relevance of the Catholic bishops for generations to come.”

But Shaw said the bishops see the latest developments as historic threats that require them to speak out as pastors.

“What they are doing isn't partisan in intention,” he said. “If Romney is elected, you can expect them to be critical of him.”



About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


Click here to post a comment
  • More strident? Yes. Partisan? Not by design. The letters state facts and Catholic teaching. If they come out as partisan it is due to the choices by the parties, not the bishops.

    Instead of asking why the bishops sound more partisan, we should be asking why one of the major party’s is sounding less Catholic.

  • Religions should stay out of politics, PERIOD.

    Some extreme Muslims want their gov’ts to strictly follow Sharia (sic)law. That’s how you get a theocracy. The religion effectively becomes the state. Catholics and Protestants fought bloody wars for centuries over whose vision of Christ was truest. Each wanted a religion-based state. If clergy want to use their pulpits to preach politics, then they should be stripped of all their tax exemptions, at the very least. Remember–there are a multitude of religions, sects, and cults out there. Each has their own idea of what is morally right or wrong. Catholic priests pushing for their worldview are not an iota different from Muslim mullahs calling for their own.

  • Distinctions matter a great deal in both politics and religion.

    Drawing consistent attention to issues which clearly lean toward one of the political parties over another is indeed newsworthy and should be discussed. I thus appreciate this article.

    It is not the same thing as a “pitch for Romney” though. The bishops did not mention Romney by name. The headline of this article makes it sound like they did and thus seems misleading and in some sense at least, journalistically irresponsible.

    Undoubtedly one may feel justified in saying that which some bishops have “all but said”, but wouldn’t the public be better served by articles that carry some sort of presumption of good will on the part of the bishops? They, too, believe that the laity carry the responsibility to carry the Church’s teaching into the political world. They, too, believe that there are some lines which they should not cross as they fulfill their duties of forming Catholic consciences. Clearly you think they have crossed a line which they presumably do not think they have yet crossed. The headline of this article obfuscates that disagreement, making it seem as if the bishops do not affirm things (the responsibility of the laity to handle political affairs in accordance with Church teaching) which they do claim to affirm.

  • Nate, thanks for the thoughtful comment. A question: Do you think a faithful Catholic with a well-formed conscience could vote for Obama?

  • As a Catholic with a well-formed conscience, I can assure you that I take issue with the politics from the pulpit. The message has ignored the church’s most diligent stance on death penalty, and our obligation to the moral issues of poverty, healthcare, and world peace.

    I have lived and breathed under both administrations over the course of my lifetime, and let me tell you it has been easier to serve through works under blue than red.

    As for the interference of the ACA to a church’s position on birth control, I say that once an organization enters the arena of an employer, they then must play by a secular set of rules. After all, city government doesn’t exempt them by letting the facility dump raw sewage in the streets, right? Same premise.

    I take great exception to the pontificating manner in which my moral turpitude is being judged based upon my participation in the privilege of living in a diverse secular society.

  • It is the duty of our priests to be political from the pulpit. Their lack of being political by the advent of the IRS law was wrong to begin with. The Catholic faith is not a “buffet line” where you can pick and choose what part of the faith you wish to follow. Abortion is wrong period and in my humble opinion any Catholic who votes for a candidate that supports what is called a “woman’s right to choose” is not following the Catechism of the Church. A secular society is wrong. Our country was founded on Christian principals and abandoning those principals by our current administration is abhorrent. Go to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington and you will see that in the top of the rotunda that 4 of the 5 inscriptions have the word “God” in the them—-all stated by Jefferson. Hopefully the ACLU won’t sue to have them removed.

    Don’t worry about the young people being pushed away from our church. They will come to our church when our priests and bishops act and teach holiness. Matthew Kelly has said time and again, “There is nothing more attractive than Holiness~~~if you have it, they will come”. Look at all the Holy people and their followers including modern ones like Padre Pio, Mother Theresa, and Pope John Paul II. We need Holy leaders in the church to take us sinners under their wing and help us to attain our salvation. That is the only reason we are on earth is to attain our salvation after we die. The Church, last I checked, still believes in hell and purgatory.

    Who were the biggest followers of Ron Paul? The Young people. Why? He told the truth and had character. True leaders will have followers. My hats off to Jenky and the Bishops who weren’t afraid to do what Jesus would want them to do.

  • David G, did you write that headline? You know it’s not honest. If you have a bishop’s letter saying “Vote for Mitt Romney” or “Vote Republican”, then please produce it. Is it the fault of the bishops that one party has become the party of death? To answer your question to Nate: a Catholic may not vote for any politician, regardless of party, who aids, abets or facilitates abortion, period. Catholic bishops are not endorsing and have not endorsed any candidate or party, and I think you know this. The Catholic bishops are just doing their jobs. Catholic teaching on abortion has been the same for 2,000 years; where’s the news here? (If you’re supposed to be a reporter, just report, don’t spin.)

  • Democracy is a messy way to run a country or a nation-state if you prefer.
    Politiciians and their party machines take advantage of this messiness to spin their message. The aim of a democracy is maintain and develop the things that hold a people together as a nation-state. How best to achieve this aim is what drives politicians to achieve the power of office. Regrettably for many the underlying principle to their pursuit of power is “whatever it takes”.

    The catholic church is not a democracy. It is a hierarchy. It is ruled by priests/bishops/a pope, It too is messy. The church is a people on a journey for whom the way, the truth and the life is Jesus Christ. Regrettably for many the message of Jesus Christ has been hijacked by opportunists for political purposes inside and outside the church, which is why in the final analysis each individual must act in accordance with his/her conscience. That is one area over which the hierarchs have no control.

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.