Got news? A special Casey?

Secular media hero? Or a Trojan horse among Catholics? This week, Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey, Jr., was portrayed as both.

On Monday Mollie analyzed ongoing media coverage of the flap over Notre Dame's decision to honor President Obama at commencement ceremonies this spring.

Here in Pennsylvania, (we can't bear to be off the national scene for a minute), we have our own commencement controversy. Senator Bob Casey Jr.'s, choice to cast an affirmative vote for Governor Kathleen as Secretary of Health & Human services is being condemned by Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino as "an affront to all who value the sanctity of human life." (Note -- I had a link to the diocesan webpage here, but the link is either temporarily or permanently broken. I'll repost it and if and when it works again). Martino has also criticized a local Catholic college for its decision to have Casey as its commencement speaker.

But the media-prominent, outspoken Martino went further. He suggested that he might consider barring Casey, who is on the record as opposing abortion rights,from receiving communion in his diocese for the Sebelius vote (Sebelius, also a Catholic, has been criticized by many abortion opponents for receiving campaign contributions from a doctor who performed late-term abortions and for her abortion rights stand, among other things).

Some bishops, like Martino, advocate barring abortion-rights proponents from receiving communion. Some believe that eucharistic discipline should be the choice of the local bishop. Many bishops have made no statement at all on the topic. When it comes to going beyond that and excommunicating Catholic politicians who take a pro-abortion-rights stance, Pope Benedict's comments have been tantalizing but not totally definitive. But few prelates to date have spoken out about declared abortion opponents who cast a vote for an abortion-rights Catholic.

Morphing Casey into a heroic defender of secular social policy, the Philadelphia Inquirer chose to wade into the fray this past Sunday by reducing this complex combination of events to its lowest common denominators. In an editorial titled "Standing up to his church," the newspaper said that Casey: "cast a vote this week that showed courage in an arena where religion sometimes clashes with public policy."

Why was Casey courageous? Because he voted to confirm Sebelius after Martino 'warned' him not to vote for her. Casey's courage or lack of it isn't up for debate here. But pitting bishop against senator, Goliath against David, a classically American individualist narrative, misses the point.

First of all, Martino isn't the bishop of all of Pennsylvania, with power to deny Casey communion throughout the state. He's the bishop of Scranton, one voice among his prelatical equals. The equally articulate and faithful Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Harrisburg (full disclosure -- a man I have interviewed numerous times) has no statement condemning Casey on his diocesan website. It really doesn't appear that there was a group decision to hold the stick of exclusion from communion over Casey's head or near any other part of his anatomy.

On the other hand, Catholic teaching on the subject of abortion is clear. And thus it's difficult to argue, as the newspaper does, that Martino crossed some kind of invisible line by "threatening" to bar Casey from receiving communion in his own diocese. When does a newspaper get to articulate what a bishop can or cannot say to a member of the flock?

A church has every right to voice its displeasure and exert pressure on issues of public policy. Organized religion shouldn't forgo its right to speak out. Churches can lobby the government just as any other group.

But, threatening to withhold the sacrament from a parishioner over a matter of public policy comes close to saying that one church's tenets should have priority in law over all others'. This country was founded on the principles that all religions are welcome and that none should take precedent in civil law.

To argue, as the Inquirer does, that there is a neat line between government and religion may be theoretically correct, but very messy in practice. Politicians make pragmatic decisions. But if they are practitioners of a particular faith, and outspoken on behalf of that faith, it is logical to believe that it will loom large in any decision that they make. And if they make a choice that outrages someone who represents that faith, they are probably going to hear about that decision -- and possibly have to deal with the consequences.

Was Casey a hero? A goat? A pragmatic politician? Or a principled person making, as he claims, a choice to move forward in a public health emergency? It depends on what you believe -- and what you read.

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