Define Catholic social teaching (please)

cstGive credit to Eric Gorski of the Associated Press. While some reporters don't get that Catholic prelates are supposed to be able to influence the lives of those in the pews, including their votes at the ballot box, Gorski understands that they can and do. Consider this passage from his latest story, about the McCain and Obama campaigns' outreach to Catholic voters:

One unknown in the race: the voice of U.S. Catholic bishops. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has said Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, a Catholic supporter of abortion rights, should refrain from receiving Communion.

And several U.S. bishops have rebuked Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for misstating Catholic teaching on when life begins.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Jim Nicholson, appearing at the same forum as Brownback this week, said more bishops need to speak out about core Catholic issues.

"And we need to help them," Nicholson said. "We need to give them cover, give them solidarity, because it can get very lonely for them."

But it's still rare for bishops to directly criticize politicians. Instead, Catholic dioceses nationwide have begun to distribute "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," an issue-based road map for Catholic voters.

No scholar I know of has quantified, or validated even, the political influence of Catholic leaders speaking out about issues. But I do know that at least some local Democratic Party leaders have complained about it (here and here). And you know what they say about politicians: while they might be dumb, at least they can count (votes).

Yet even a reporter as skillful and knowledgeable as Gorski committed the most elementary sin of journalistic omission: he failed to define the term Catholic social teaching and to give examples of same. Take this passage:

Neither presidential candidate lines up precisely with the breadth of Catholic teaching, but Catholic organizers for McCain and Obama are making the case that their man comes closest.

Or take this passage, about Sen. Sam Brownback's defense of McCain:

But Brownback also challenged the notion that Democrats are more in line with Catholic social justice concerns, suggesting that McCain's opposition to torture and support of comprehensive immigration reform provide an opening.

"I am not conceding the social ground," said Brownback, a former presidential candidate. "We are a pro-life and whole-life party."

Or take this passage, about the Obama campaign's claim for the Catholic vote:

Last week in Denver, the Obama campaign argued that his policies on the economy, environment and poverty fit the Catholic pursuit of the common good.

At some point in the story, Gorski should have defined these terms -- Catholic social teaching, Catholic social justice concerns, the common good.

To be sure, the terms are not easily defined, as they are made up of several principles or themes. (Can you say "the right to life," "option for the poor," "subsidiarity," and "the rights of workers"?) And it is hard to know which documents to cite from, such as the Catechism or "Faithful Citizenship," which Gorski cites. But defining the terms and quoting from a document would have gotten religion, for it would have given readers an objective measure of Catholic social thought.

Imagine a story about McCain and Mitt Romney battling over whether either candidate was a true Republican. In that case, the reporter would have informed readers if he or she had quoted from the party's latest platform and laid out its general principles. Now I am not advocating that the reporter assert which candidate was closer to the party's principles; outside experts or academics are more likely to reach those conclusions. But at least readers would be broadly informed about Catholic social thought.

And in the next two months, we can expect to hear a lot from both campaigns as they claim that their candidate's positions are closer to those of church teaching.

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