Bishop Jenky’s Last Stand

The Bishops, who brought you the resoundingly unsuccessful “Fortnight for Freedom,” are now preparing their Sunday homilies for the faithful to encourage them to “vote Catholic”—i.e. vote for the Romney/Ryan ticket. Leading the charge is Bishop Daniel Jenky, of Peoria, Illinois, who is calling for all priests “by virtue of their vow of obedience to me as your Bishop” to read his letter on the election at each mass they celebrate this weekend. The letter, addressed to Catholic believers, is an appeal to the “threat to religious liberty” because of the HHS mandate. Since Bishop Jenky did not say the priests had to read the letter aloud, one hopes that some smart priest or two will simply read the letter silently to himself in the pulpit.

Bishop Jenky’s overbearing order to his parish priests smacks of hypocrisy. After all, this is the same Bishop who said that President Obama was like Hitler and Stalin. Jenky and his Bishop brethren are threatening Catholic believers; and are doing so by insinuating it would be a “grave sin” to vote for anyone who enables abortion. What about war, or murder? Surely those should count as a grave sin as well?

The fact of the matter is, if you vote for Obama, that’s not a sin. That’s a choice. It’s also about one’s conscience—which last time I looked, still was part of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The truth is Bishop Jenky and the other Bishops who have doubled down to support Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are fighting a losing battle. A recent survey by Public Religion Research Institute suggests that Catholics are not a monolithic vote, but break out on ethnic lines and age in terms of voting. The Pew Forum also released a survey dispelling the “Catholic Swing Voter Myth,” and showing that most Catholics have consistently voted for one party or the other, and have not wavered. Much like Catholics on the issue of birth control, Catholics vote more on their own political leanings rather than the admonition of the seldom seen, but often heard, Bishops.

Bishops like Jenky may hope that Catholics listen to the entreaties from the pulpit on “pro-life” and voting for “religious freedom” but they are for a losing battle. The “Catholic vote” is really a series of voting blocs, each pursuing their interests. The Bishops also have to contend with their dwindling flocks, who, after repeated sexual abuse scandals, find it difficult to listen to the Bishops for moral and spiritual guidance. While the Bishops have thrown in their lot with the Republican Party, the Nuns on the Bus are canvassing in Iowa and other states talking about poverty and the inequities that continue to hurt the poor and working families. There is a rich tradition of caring for the poor and indigent in the Catholic Church. Since the USCCB has decided to become vocal, card-carrying right-wingers, their witness in that regard is withering away. Perhaps the Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J said it best when he remarked recently that Bishops may be unhappy about the contraception mandate, but they have only 200 votes in this election. 

If the American Bishops really want religious freedom, the last thing they should promote is a top-down demand to vote the way they say. Their attempts to make the Republican Party their new “partners” is not going as well as the USCCB would like. Voting for Republicans simply because they are pro-life and ignoring the poor certainly isn’t freedom to exercise one’s conscience. Besides, as much as I think the American Bishops might like it, I don’t think Rome is going to order up a canonization for Ayn Rand if Romney and Ryan happen to win the election.

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.