Catholic bishops' not-so-partisan partisan crusade

The Washington Post ran a piece from Religion News Service with the headline:

Catholic bishops make last-minute pitch for Romney

Considering that the bishops didn't even name Vice President Joe Biden when they corrected a false claim he made about the HHS mandate during the debate a few weeks ago, I thought it major news that they'd be making an overt pitch for Romney. Then I read the top of the story:

A number of Roman Catholic bishops are making forceful last-minute appeals to their flock to vote on Election Day, and their exhortations are increasingly sounding like calls to support Republican challenger Mitt Romney over President Obama.

The most recent example: a letter from Illinois Bishop Daniel Jenky accusing the administration of an unprecedented “assault upon our religious freedom” and implying that Catholics who pull the lever for Democrats who support abortion rights are like those who condemned Jesus to death.

Oh dear. Already we have a problem. That bold headline that asserts that Catholic bishops are all in for Romney turns into a lede where we are told that something merely "sounds like" (To whose ear? We are not told.) support for Romney. And the Jenky letter never singled out Democrats who support abortion. Far from it. So why was it written up that way?

OK, before I go on, I do want to point out what the piece does well. It is certainly newsworthy that these bishops are so clearly addressing Catholics on religious liberty. Those of us who aren't Catholic and would have no idea about any of this going on in Catholic dioceses around the country are well served by reporters sharing this information. And the article has a decent survey of the various bishops who have spoken out.

Let's look at a quote from the Jenky letter and then show you how it was summarized:

Nearly two thousand years ago, after our Savior had been bound, beaten, scourged, mocked, and crowned with thorns, a pagan Roman Procurator displayed Jesus to a hostile crowd by sarcastically declaring: “Behold your King.” The mob roared back: “We have no king but Caesar.” Today, Catholic politicians, bureaucrats, and their electoral supporters who callously enable the destruction of innocent human life in the womb also thereby reject Jesus as their Lord. They are objectively guilty of grave sin. For those who hope for salvation, no political loyalty can ever take precedence over loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ and to his Gospel of Life. God is not mocked, and as the Bible clearly teaches, after this passing instant of life on earth, God’s great mercy in time will give way to God’s perfect judgment in eternity.

Here's how it's changed up:

Jenky also compares abortion rights supporters to the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem that pledged loyalty to the Roman Empire and demanded that Pontius Pilate crucify Jesus.

I'm not entirely sure that changing "a hostile crowd" to "the Jewish crowd" is helpful. I don't understand why that change was made, in fact. But more than that, I think the significance of Jenky's statement was completely missed. That is an incredibly strong statement to come from a bishop -- even for the issue of the "destruction of innocent human life in the womb." It's interesting that it wasn't included in the story.

The story suggests the bishops don't really care about the doctrine so much as partisan aims. So we read:

Across the continent in Alaska, Juneau Bishop Edward J. Burns wrote a column in the local newspaper on Oct. 27 comparing Vice President Joe Biden’s support for abortion rights to supporting slave owners in the antebellum South, and he questioned Biden’s character and Catholic faith.

Numerous other bishops, from Newark, N.J. to Springfield, Illinois to Colorado Springs have made similar appeals.

They always stress that they are not endorsing any particular candidate but they frame their statements by listing a set of “non-negotiable” issues that start with opposition to abortion and go on to include other policies that Republicans generally support and Democrats generally oppose.

It's just a really interesting way to frame the story. But is it accurate? The media's "exhortations are increasingly sounding like" calls to question the bishops motivation, aren't they? "See, those bishops claim they care about doctrine but -- wink-wink, nudge-nudge -- we've figured out their partisan aims -- something we never seem to notice in our couldn't-be-fluffier coverage of the Nuns on the Bus." Also, I'm sure you already noticed that the final excerpted sentence completely negates the headline for the piece.

But what's really noteworthy is that this is a really bizarre reading of Burns' column. For one thing, I didn't see where Burns questioned Biden's "character." If you're going to assert that he did, you should substantiate the charge. What's more, you would never know this from the RNS write-up but Burns actually critiqued both Biden and Ryan! Failure to mention that fact does help the narrative that the bishops are being partisan, but it certainly isn't fair. Here's what Burns actually wrote:

That being said, each vice presidential candidate has been inconsistent in the ways in which they have followed the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. Vice President Biden, while stating that he believes, as his Church does, that life begins at conception, and while professing his personal opposition to abortion, supports the virtually unlimited right to abortion that has resulted in deaths of millions of unborn children since the tragic Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. In addition to this position of his in conflict with the teaching of the Church, Vice President Biden has also come out in support of legalizing same-sex marriage.

By way of contrast, Congressman Ryan has been a resolute advocate of Catholic moral teaching on the defense of the unborn and traditional marriage between one man and one woman. However, the Federal budget that he has proposed could do harm to the poor and vulnerable by neglecting their legitimate needs. For example, Congressman Ryan proposed a budget that has received a critique by the Domestic Justice and Human Development and International Justice and Peace committees of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, stating that “a just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.”

Another relevant item that was missing from this story was Archbishop Charles Chaput's statement:

“We’re Catholics before we’re Democrats. We’re Catholics before we’re Republicans. We’re even Catholics before we’re Americans because we know that God has a demand on us prior to any government demand on us,” he said in a new interview with the wire service. “And this has been the story of the martyrs through the centuries,” Chaput said.

You can view his remarks at the top of this piece, too. The entirety of his remarks deals exclusively with the partisan issue. If your article is trying to make the claim that the bishops are all partisan, failure to include this Chaput quote from last week certainly helps. But if you read all of these statements, is the grand unifying theme of them really about the Grand Old Party? Or is it something else?

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