Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The US bishops stick with a losing political strategy

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 04, 2011

My college tennis coach never tired of repeating his simple strategic guide: “Never change a winning game; always change a losing game.” If what you’re doing is not working, he said—and his logic was impeccable—you should be doing something else.

That advice came to my mind when I learned today that the US bishops are re-releasing their voter guide from 2007: the oft-criticized Faithful Citizenship.

My eyes glazed over when I first tried to read the entire 44-page text of Faithful Citizenship, when it first appeared on the scene in the fall of 2007. In their instructions to voters, the bishops dutifully call for opposition to abortion. But they mix that admonition with so many other considerations that the overall effect is weak. Faithful Citizenship does not draw the necessary, clear distinction between the issues on which good Catholics might disagree (such as economic policy) and those that are non-negotiable (such as abortion)—not to mention the distinction between issues on which prudent compromise is wise (economics again) and those on which compromise is odious (abortion again).

Faithful Citizenship was itself clearly a compromise of sorts, cobbled together to maintain the peace within the bishops’ conference. The final document was not entirely satisfactory to anyone on either end of the political spectrum, nor did it prevent public disagreements among American bishops during the ensuring election year.

And the net effect? Archbishop Raymond Burke believes that Faithful Citizenship helped ensure the election of President Obama, since the crucial Catholic vote swung toward the Democratic candidate. But that may be an exaggeration; survey results show that most Catholic voters were blissfully unaware of the bishops’ advice, and probably would have ignored that advice even if they had heard it.

By any reasonable standard, Faithful Citizenship cannot be classified as a resounding success. So why would the bishops want to issue the same questionable advice again this year? Consider what has happened in the four years since the guide was first published. The new presidential administration (which may have been installed in part because of Faithful Citizenship) has been relentless in promoting abortion and trampling on Christian consciences. Catholic voters today are even more likely to ignore their bishops’ advice; Catholic politicians are even more likely to ignore the moral teachings of their Church.

Does this sound to you like a winning game? As my old coach reasoned, time and again: “If you’re losing, and you keep doing the same thing, you’re likely to keep losing.”


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Oct. 05, 2011 12:40 PM ET USA

    Phil, For one thing, 44 pages is too long, even counter-productive. They should have been able to do it in 3 pages, double-spaced between the lines, and if they thought they wanted to add more, they could have done it with an addendum at the end. I haven't read it myself, as I'm sure there's not much in there that would be of help to me--I know what's Catholic, what's not, and I vote accordingly.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 05, 2011 11:50 AM ET USA

    Now who was the fellow who made the comment about the salt of earth? Oh yes, it was God. "You are the salt of the earth, if the salt lose its flavor, wherewith shall it be salted? "It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men". I mean, this is Almighty God speaking to the predecessors of the bishops from whom they derive their charisma and authority. "The road to Hell is lit with the skulls of bishops". Perhaps that is why they avoid mention of Hell.

  • Posted by: Paul - Ave Law '07 - Oct. 05, 2011 8:39 AM ET USA

    To play devil's advocate for a moment - It could be said that the bishops have changed their strategy: By approving the language so much earlier and working to get the text published, there is a much greater chance that the faithful will at least be aware of it. Even if it's not what you or I would write - that doesn't mean that it can't be helpful in forming appropriately the consciences of some of our confreres. (As you point out, Cd. Burke's thesis doesn't have much evidence in its favor.)

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Oct. 05, 2011 1:16 AM ET USA

    "blissfully unaware" is the most Christian description I have ever read of the often willfully ignorant view from "the pews" & the pulpit. The new Intro should be lovely. I'll dispatch to the Apb. a copy of Einstein's defination of insanitry ASAP. Recall,this USCCB treasure [no other] was prominently displayed on Prof. Kemic's site "Catholics for Obama" [now Catholic Democrats for Obama] for months before the election. My blood is still boiling. What is it happens when the blind lead the blind?

  • Posted by: BLRallo3059 - Oct. 04, 2011 10:51 PM ET USA

    Why does our clergy compromise? Why do so many Catholics delude themselves into thinking that voting for more government programs satisfies their individual obligation to do good works? The simple answer is that they can't move that darned mountain, the one where you need to have just enough faith to displace a mustard seed. The more complex answer is that these actions are a sign of the times. I continue to pray.

  • Posted by: JP810 - Oct. 04, 2011 10:10 PM ET USA

    Sadly, what a terrible shame upon the bishops of the United States! Once again, confusion reigns and controversy wins! Lord, give us bishops who are not afraid to truly speak out on "definitive" issues of our Faith without watering it down with some politics by which we can disagree!