I have been surprised, quite frankly, that the annual "Respect Life" emphasis in Catholic churches has not received more coverage in the mainstream press this year. After all, as a famous American political pollster told me a year or two ago: "All of American politics today basically comes down to Catholics in Ohio who go to Mass once a month instead of once a week." If you can read between the lines of that quote, then you're ready to parse the sermons being given in many Catholic pulpits right now.
As you would expect, the New York Times aimed one of its best reporters at this topic, which led to David D. Kirkpatrick's recent story under the headline, "Catholic Church Is Riven by Internal Debate."
Now let me stress that I have the highest respect for the work that Kirkpatrick has done in recent years. I mean, how would you like to cover political and religious conservatives for the Times? Do you think his work gets dissected from time to time?
Nevertheless, I have one or two problems with this report. Consider, for example the top of the story:
As the Roman Catholic Church observes its annual "respect life" Sunday in this heated presidential election season, the unusually pitched competition for Catholic voters is setting off a round of skirmishes over how to apply the church's teachings not only on abortion but also on the war in Iraq, immigration and racism.
In a departure from previous elections, Democrats and liberal Catholic groups are waging a fight within the church, arguing that the Democratic Party better reflects the full spectrum of church teachings.
Now, that is a hot story this year. However, it was also a hot story in the mid-1980s when I started receiving entire folders and, from time to time, books from Catholics and, yes, progressive evangelicals (they existed even back then) making precisely the same arguments. This is news, but there is no way that this strategy represents a "departure from previous elections."
That said, Kirkpatrick does a fine job of showing that many of the tensions between the Catholic left and right can be traced into the tense and divided world of "voter's guides" that attempt to select quotes from various church documents in order to build a case for or against a particular candidate. That's easy to do with Catholic social teachings, which are vast and deep and at times confusing to those not used to the terrain. There are times, as E.J. Dionne, Jr., likes to say, when it seems that the goal of Catholic doctrine is to make sure that each and every Catholic feels guilty about something whenever they enter a voting booth. That's the reality, folks.
So what does all of this look like in practice? Here is a large chunk of the story that tunes in some of the conflict.
The two sides disagree over how to address what the church calls "intrinsic evils," including abortion and racism -- the two examples singled out last year in a guide for Catholic voters put out by the United States Conference of Bishops. The escalating efforts by more liberal Catholics are provoking a vigorous backlash from some bishops and the right.
In Scranton, Pa., every Catholic attending Mass this weekend will hear a special homily about next month's election: Bishop Joseph Martino has ordered every priest in the diocese to read a letter warning that voting for a supporter of abortion rights amounts to endorsing "homicide."
"Being 'right' on taxes, education, health care, immigration and the economy fails to make up for the error of disregarding the value of a human life," the bishop wrote. "It is a tragic irony that 'pro-choice' candidates have come to support homicide -- the gravest injustice a society can tolerate -- in the name of 'social justice.' "
In response, a coalition of liberal lay Catholics is pushing back, criticizing the bishop's message for neglecting other aspects of "life" talked about in Catholic social teachings, like concern for the poor.
To underscore the point, a nun is collecting the signatures of prominent Catholic leaders there for a newspaper advertisement reminding those who may be wary of voting for Senator Barack Obama that the church also considers racism a sin that threatens the dignity of life.
And so forth and so on. The article does feature a wide variety of voices, from a wide variety of Catholic groups on the left and right. At one point, it mentions that the conservative Catholic group Fidelis is claiming that the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage rank higher than other vital moral issues. Catholics on the left, as a rule, strongly disagree.
It was at this point in the article that I began to wonder about something. There seemed to be a major voice missing from this debate. While there were many quotes from the U.S. Catholic bishops, the Times seemed to have left out a major player in the world of Catholic thought.
You got it. This guy is missing in action:
As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable. Among these the following emerge clearly today:
* protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death;
* recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family -- as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage -- and its defence from attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its particular character and its irreplaceable social role;
* the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.
These principles are not truths of faith, even though they receive further light and confirmation from faith; they are inscribed in human nature itself and therefore they are common to all humanity. ...
This quote is, of course, from Pope Benedict XVI's March 30, 2006, address to members of the European People's Party.
The only reference to anyone named "Benedict" in this article is to Benedict Arnold.
Now, before you click "comment," please know that we will not be debating who is right and who is wrong in this very complicated debate about Catholic doctrines and the public square. Leave the candidates out of this, please. What we will be discussing is whether it was wise for the Times to cover this life-and-death debate -- at length -- without a single reference to what the pope and the Vatican have to say about the matter.