In the Teeth of an Election Year

A prominent Republican congressman, a Catholic, says his economic proposals reflect the social doctrine of the Church. Statements from the bishops’ conference dispute that, and some faculty at Georgetown University tell the congressman he isn’t welcome there. (They aren’t known to have objected when, several weeks later, Kathleen Sebelius of  ‘HHS mandate’ fame spoke at a Georgetown commencement event.)

The bishop of Peoria likens policies of the Obama administration to the anti-religious stance of the Hitler and Stalin regimes. Some faculty at Notre Dame urge the bishop to resign as a university trustee for having said so dreadful a thing. (They aren’t known to have objected three years ago when Notre Dame gave Barack Obama an honorary degree despite his pro-abortion views.)

Disturbing? Disconcerting? Symptoms of division in the nation and the Church? As a matter of fact, yes. But let’s not exaggerate. This is how Catholics, like other Americans, typically carry on in an election year.

Nearly two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville captured the messy reality of an American election in these words: “The election becomes the greatest and, as it were, the only matter which occupies people’s minds. Then political factions redouble their enthusiasm, every possible phony passion that the imagination can conceive…comes out into the light of day.”

If you think things have been bad lately, count on it—they’ll get worse before November. Count also on Catholics to do their share of bashing one another along the way.

Against this background, exhortations to civility have become a pious cliché of political discourse. Civility is good, but for people who profess to be members of the Catholic Church, fairness and even—heaven help us!—charity would be better. To that end, here are a couple of suggestions.

For one thing, it would be helpful if Catholics with partisan political commitments stopped accusing the bishops of partisanship whenever they speak up strongly against some Obama policy. It isn’t the bishops’ doing that the Democratic party officially supports legalized abortion and the Republican party officially opposes it. No Catholic prelate twisted President Obama’s arm to get him to support gay marriage. To put it bluntly, allegations of episcopal partisanship are a red herring in this context.

Among other things, the charge ignores the fact that bishops have an obligation to do their jobs as moral teachers, with the political chips falling where they may. Declaring the wrongness of abortion and upholding traditional marriage are unavoidably large parts of what that entails. But anyone who claims these are the only things bishops talk about obviously hasn’t been paying attention and doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Rep. Paul Ryan (WI-1)

Nor is it reasonable to accuse bishops of picking on the Obama administration by putting up a fight against its plan to force Catholic institutions to cover contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients under Obamacare. This, remember, was the administration’s idea, not the bishops’. Did Catholic critics expect the Church to roll over and play dead?

It would be well, too, if people professionally engaged in applying principles of Catholic social doctrine to complex issues weren’t too quick about judging others. In the case of the Catholic congressman mentioned above, Paul Ryan, his approach may or may not be right—and those who think he’s wrong are free to say so. But a Catholic legislator attempting to be faithful to the Church in an area where the correct application of principles isn’t so clear deserves some slack.

Too much to hope for in an election year? Tocqueville would probably say yes.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • Poppiexno

    My sense is that the left has been far more vocal, intimidating, and agressive in the left-right “discussion” than has the right. It’s fine that the bishops are now standing up for our freedom – but where were they when the abomination of Obamacare was first legislated?
    For many years, the bishops (by and large), as constituted in the NCCB, have been influenced by liberal philosophy and have supported liberal programs. I believe that the coersive extortion of money (i.e., taxes) from one segment of the population in order to transfer wealth to another segment – no matter how much that segment is deemed worthy – is both unconstitutional and immoral. I wish the bishops (again, by and large) woould agree. Lest I be accused of being uncharitable, I am strongly in favor of charity – but not as a function of government.   

  • Momof11

    Actually all this wealth transference by the government and government regulation of “charity” have the effect of depriving us of the opportunity to perform truly charitable acts.  Paying taxes is no more a charitable act than handing your wallet over to an armed robber is!

  • Victoria

    The article is not talking about taxes as such. However, how else would you suggest we pay for roads, fire departments, schools, and hospitals? It is obvious that sharing some of our money to pay for these things benefits everyone. Or would you have me stand on the street corner when my husband needs a new wheelchair and beg for the $5000 required? I’d rather pay taxes and share the load.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    I watched an interview of a woman in Canada who had been trying to get her mother a wheelchair.  Her mother’s surgery for her diabetes-damaged leg had taken so long that it ended up having to be amputated instead.  So they ended up on the waiting list for a wheelchair & the poor woman was having to lift her mother to move her in the meantime.  It had been more than a year and there was still no word on when they could have the wheelchair.

    The article is not anti-tax or anti-government.  And in fact, conservatives aren’t either (libertarians are).  Conservatives do recognize that bureaucracy is the least efficient & effective means of addressing a problem, however.  The Church’s principle of subsidiarity is the opposite of federal bureaucracy — & what the Bishops’ Conference threw out the window back when Obamacare was being hatched. 

    Health insurance has its problems, that’s for sure, but handing it over to the govt will make it far worse (I work in the healthcare industry & there is a very good reason that so many providers will tolerate insurance but won’t deal with medicaid & medicare). 

    The suggestions that have been made, such as the ones to increase competition between healthcare companies, would certainly have helped, but were completely ignored by the left.  Why?  Because their hearts are set on govt control of healthcare.  And everything they did then and have done since has been with the single-minded purpose of accomplishing that goal. 

    The govt is now taking control of banking, industry, and healthcare – that’s socialism.  And anything the govt can give you, it can take away.  And that’s what socialism is actually all about – controlling the lives of the people, not giving to those in need.  If it were, then the fact that Obamacare has already created an increased number of uninsured people would have received immediate attention instead of being ignored & dismissed as it has been.

  • Great article.  Hopefully charity and love will prevail during this election year!

  • Clement_W

    I have been wondering about the origins of Catholic Social Doctrine. After having thought about his for the past several years, the words of our Lord Jesus Christ about praying, fasting and GIVING in SECRET has always come to the fore in my mind when the collection plate comes around. The words of our Lord about giving to Caesar and to God also come to mind. Sadly, the thought of my charitable contributions being tax-deductible also comes to mind.

    Perhaps I am a purist in thinking that the taxes I pay of which a considerable amount go to the charitable activity that I should be performing and the tax-deductibility of my contributions to the Church and other charities leaves in my both my mind and heart a bad taste as being hypocritical. Yes, there are things like law-enforcement, fire fighters and schools should be a Government function in addition to the defense of the Nation. The Obama Administration would not have been in any position to impose the contraception/abortifacient mandate in healthcare legislation if we, as a people of faith, had provided the health-care and aid to the poor ourselves. Having ceded this to the Government, the Government creep was inevitable. The Lord did address this in the Old Testament when he warned what getting a king would involve in 1 Samuel Ch. 8. So, here we are. The Government is claiming that the costs of health-care delivered reimbursed to Catholic Hospitals are receiving Federal Funds when in fact, these funds are properly ‘Payment for services rendered’. By claiming this, which no one seems to challenge, the Government has asserted that it has control.

    Perhaps we should seriously reconsider what Catholic Social Doctrine should be in New Testament, the New Covenant terms. 

  • Poppiexno

    Yes, and I should have added it deprives the gift of grace to a voluntary donor. Perhaps this is the most egregious aspect of forced charity.  

  • Poppiexno

    Of course government has legitimate functions – at all levels. The issue is just what are the limits on legitimate functions. The coercive appropriation of funds for the transfer of wealth is, in the view of many, immoral. Immoral because it denies the giver the grace of charity and immoral precisely because it is coercive. And it is unconstitutional at the national level. Consider just one example: food stamps. Concede that there are some people who have a legitimate need for assistance. Where in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to establish a food stamp program? Progressives have made a shambles of the Constitution with such programs and have appropriated to government what should be private functions. 

  • Mia

    Couldn’t have said it better. You made excellent observations regarding the role of government and its pitfalls. When there is no competition, or incentive, no reason to strive for improvement (as in the private sector), the result is layer upon layer of bureaucracy with little or no accountability (think GSA scandal). In order for the elect to stay in power, a class of have nots must continually exist. And always remember that the problem with socialism is: sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money.