Why this blurring of distinctions? First, many bishops are afraid of offending Catholic Democrats. If Church teaching on abortion is authoritative, the magnitude of abortion in America would necessarily require Catholics to vote pro-life whenever possible. If a bishop taught that all Catholics had to vote for pro-life candidates, he’d face intense public criticism. Few bishops want to admit the sad reality: believing Catholics have almost no home in the national Democratic Party.
Secondly, many of these older bishops in their 60s and 70s are still tied to the pro-Democrat Catholicism of the early-to-mid 20th century. They grew up in blue-collar, immigrant, Democratic homes that supported unions, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the New Deal and the Great Society. They hated Bush and his warmongering, and were terrified of Reagan. The last thing they want is to seem supportive of the GOP. Thus, by bringing up questions of prudential judgment wherein Republicans are — in their opinion — “less Catholic,” they accomplish the “important goal” of not appearing to be apologists for the right.
The bishops need to get over their age-old Republican-phobia and realize that their constant preaching on issues of prudential judgment is not helpful. The fact is that many Catholics equate the American bishops’ opinions on prudential questions with “Catholic teaching,” and this understandable confusion provides cover for pro-choice, pro-gay marriage Catholics to continue flaunting the Church’s actual teaching. The Nancy Pelosis of the world can simply say, “Well, I don’t agree with the Church on abortion, but Paul Ryan doesn’t agree with the Church on the budget! No Catholic can agree with the Church on everything — I’m no worse than he is!”
The fact is that there is a huge difference between Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi. Ryan, a Catholic, respects the Church’s teaching authority, but simply differs with some of the American bishops on how those general principles of Catholic teaching should be applied to our current budget woes. Nancy Pelosi completely thumbs her nose at the Church’s perennial teachings on the sanctity of all human life.
Bishop Boyea seems to be in the minority among the American bishops. One can only hope that more and more of his confreres will heed his calls for restraint, and for greater humility and focus in the bishops’ teaching.
John Gerardi is a student at Notre Dame Law School. He writes on topics relating to religion and society. He blogs at Christifidelis Laicus.