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ELECTION 2012: USCCB Faces Criticism from Parishoners, Other Bishops for Partisanship

Robin Marty

Catholic bishops went all in this election season. Will they learn anything from their defeat?

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops spent more time and political capital than ever before in trying to influence the 2012 elections. Framing the Democratic party’s platform as an “assault on religious freedom,” letters from local bishops were read in churches and inserted in weekly bulletins, while Catholic voter guides and even voter registration forms were left on tables or in pews across the country.

None specifically told a parishioner to vote for a particular candidate by name, of course. But each spoke of the dangers of putting your immortal soul in danger by casting a vote for a candidate who supported abortion rights, end of life decisions, or any deviation from a traditional man and woman marriage.

Megan Smith, domestic program associate for Catholics for Choice was unsurprised by the failure of the USCCB to get their agenda accepted and passed by their congregations.

“It didn’t matter how much the bishops spent,” Smith said via press release. “All of these state contests have proved what polling data already showed us—Catholics overwhelmingly leave the hierarchy’s prepackaged voting guides behind when they enter the voting booth.”

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In the wake of large electoral losses, parishioners are speaking out to reject the bishops’ overstepping in political matters, too. One letter writer in Peoria, responding to overtly partisan electioneering by one Illinois Bishop.

I share no candidate’s stand on all issues, nor do I share Bishop Jenky’s obvious partisanship. My Catholic Democrat vote goes to those candidates who I believe most likely to provide our country with continued security and economic growth for all, giving proper consideration for our poor, our elderly, our chronically ill, our uninsured and overburdened, hardworking people. Many of these support our Catholic faith spiritually and financially and should not be bullied/coerced by Bishop Jenky’s partisan stance.

The Catholic church spent hundreds of thousands of dollars this cycle, especially when it came to direct campaigning against ballot initiatives such as marriage rights or abortion limits. Perhaps now those financial resources can go back to carrying for the needy instead, and the bishops can stay out of the political arena? Even their own members implore them to consider it. One Jesuit Father encourages as much, writing in the National Catholic Reporter:

[W]here do the bishops go from here? Some of the bishops will blame Catholic pro-choice politicians and urge excluding them from Communion. The nuns, priests and theologians who urged voters to consider a wide range of justice issues will also be blamed. These bishops will see no need for a change in political strategy. “The bishops need to be tougher; dissidents need to be punished; full speed ahead!”

Many bishops, who stayed quiet during the election, are tired of the notoriety that the political bishops invite.  They prefer that their parishes be free of partisan politics. But since the media has trouble covering silence, the political bishops get all the ink and airtime. This makes it look like these bishops are speaking for all the bishops.

Hopefully, behind closed doors, some bishops will acknowledge that the current strategy is not working and ask, “Is there a better way? Is there a plan B?” Here I am writing as a political scientist, not as a priest or theologian. I am not challenging church teaching; I am questioning political strategy.

I do not claim to have an infallible strategy for the bishops, but after such a momentous defeat, it is time for the bishops to reexamine their political strategy. The current strategy is not working and there is no indication that it will work any better in the future.

The parishioners have spoken. Will the bishops listen?

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