Understand who Catholic Americans are

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And first understand, as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine clarifies, that there is a difference between being ‘American Catholics’ and ‘Catholic Americans.’

His magazine has a new piece by Fran Maier with multiple and bracing clarifications about what being a Catholic American means in this confusing election year. Which is why so many bishops have come out in recent weeks with statements and letters and articles addressing Catholic teachings so misrepresented in the media, and sometimes by other Catholics.

Which is why Maier did this piece.

This just in: It turns out that the problem with America’s Catholic bishops is that they’re not Protestants.

That’s not stating the obvious. It’s addressing the voices of dissent over all these bishops taking their moral voices into the public square. And what particularly set him off was a recent Time/CNN commentary by Amy Sullivan over Sen. Joe Biden’s Catholic problems, which she attributes more to the bishops than Biden.

The ringleader of the Catholic doctrine posse, in Sullivan’s view, is Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of “a handful of the most extreme bishops” who had “targeted Kerry in 2004 but [had] become marginalized in the bishops’ conference—losing key leadership elections–in part because of his extreme views about denying Communion to politicians.”

When I originally saw that, I wondered how many readers could see how tendentious and ill-informed the piece was.

Like other Catholic politicians at odds with the bishops (but in concert with liberal media), Biden’s issues are Biden’s lack of willingness to accept Church teaching or practice in his public office.

On September 7, in a display of bad logic, bad theology, and bad science rivaled only by Catholic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi two weeks earlier on the same show, Sen. Biden told an NBC Meet the Press audience that the question of when life begins is a personal and private issue. Then he said he accepted “on faith” that life begins at conception. But then he said that he supported a woman’s right to choose to terminate that unborn life anyway.

In other words, yes, the Delaware senator agreed that an unborn baby is alive, but he also said, in effect, that it’s acceptable for someone else to choose to kill it. Then, while ignoring the hard biological evidence that life begins at conception and that religious opinion has nothing to do with it, Sen. Biden incoherently referenced Thomas Aquinas to shore up his argument.

Nobody tricked or forced him into saying these muddled things. They just popped out of his mouth naturally.

Many other politicians before him and many of his contemporaries have done the same thing.

What made Biden’s latest version of this same old melody so provocative, though, was this: He was running for national office and speaking to a national audience. As a practicing, self-described Catholic, he was defending an abortion policy gravely incompatible with Catholic faith. And he was talking—inadvertently but directly—to Catholic viewers in every local diocese in the country.

Each time this happens, it’s an occasion for scandal. 

And this time, unlike in the past, some local bishops, including representatives of the national bishops’ conference, had had enough. More than a dozen publicly challenged and corrected him.

To understand why this is so important, you have to understand the Church in the world. Maier defines and explains it well here. The ‘Catholic vote’ is such a constant attraction to media and political strategists in elections, but it’s more than a bloc of people who go to a particular church.

An important distinction Maier makes here: “Catholics are something more than Protestants who go to Mass.”

For Catholics, individual conscience is sacred. But it doesn’t have absolute sovereignty over reality, and it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Conscience must be formed by the truth, which we learn through the counsel and teaching of the Church. If Catholics reject what the Church teaches on a serious matter, they break unity with the community of believers. And if they break that unity and then present themselves for Communion anyway, they act dishonestly. They violate their own integrity and—even more importantly—they abuse the rights and the faith of other Catholics. Bishops have a serious duty to correct that.

And then media detractors come out with snappy phrases like “the doctrine posse”, which is immature.

In the future, Ms. Sullivan should get her facts straight. If she wants to know what Denver’s archbishop really thinks, and not what she thinks he thinks, she can start by reading Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (Doubleday). She might learn something. That’s why he wrote it.

Oh, now this just in: The bishops of Illinois have released a joint statement Our Conscience and Our Vote to continue clarifying these matters. It’s posted here.

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