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American bishops' compromise stand on political issues is breaking down October 21, 2008

This campaign season, American bishops have taken a much more assertive role in public debates, openly criticizing some political candidates for their support of abortion and same sex-marriage. Now, in an even more intriguing development, bishops have begun criticizing each other as well.

Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput, who has taken the lead in political debates throughout the year, broke new ground with his candid appraisal of Catholic support for Senator Barack Obama. Archbishop Chaput charged that prominent Catholics who have endorsed Obama, such as Douglas Kmiec (whom he mentioned by name) "have done a disservice to the Church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue instead of fighting within their parties and at the ballot box to protect the unborn."

But Archbishop Chaput is not the only American bishop with strong views on political issues, and within a matter of days, there was a volley from the other side of the US hierarchy. Speaking to E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post, Bishop Gabino Zavala, a Los Angeles auxiliary, said that Catholics who emphasize the abortion issue are mistaken, because "we're not a one-issue church."

If Archbishop Chaput's statement was obviously hostile to the Obama campaign, Bishop Zavala's comments were just as obviously sympathetic to the Democratic candidate's platform. He said that voters should weigh all issues that touch on the dignity of human life, including the ways in which economic policies impinge "on the most vulnerable among us, the elderly, poor children, single mothers."

"Bishop Zavala's desire to speak out with an alternative view is a sign of how much has changed in four years," writes Dionne in his Post column. "Progressive Catholics are now as organized as conservative Catholics were in 2004."

The statement approved by US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Faithful Citizenship, represents a compromise between two increasingly outspoken groups of American bishops: those who want a more aggressive stance in opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and those who prefer to emphasize issues such as poverty, immigration, and the war in Iraq. Faithful Citizenship instructs Catholics to give top priority to the "life issues," but stops short of saying that support for legal abortion renders a candidate unacceptable regardless of his stands on other issues. Each wing of the American hierarchy has cited the USCCB document to support its own views. Conservative bishops note that Faithful Citizenship affirms the moral imperative of fighting against abortion; liberal bishops insist that the document does not call for a "single-issue" approach to voting. Both are right.

In past election years, a compromise like Faithful Citizenship would have been enough to maintain the public peace among American prelates. But this year the arguments among the bishops have been open and obvious. Bishop Zavala May not have intended a direct rebuttal to Archbishop Chaput, but that was the undeniable effect of his remarks.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton outdid Archbishop Chaput when he arrived unexpectedly at a recent parish forum and rebuked the organizers for allowing speakers to misrepresent Church teaching. Abortion cannot be considered as just one among many important political issues, the bishop said: "No social issue has caused the death of 50 million people."

But Bishop Martino did not stop with his insistence on the importance of abortion. He also chided the organizers of the parish forum for handing out copies of Faithful Citizenship while ignoring his own powerful pastoral letter on the urgency of the abortion issue.

Whereas Bishop Zavala tried to advance a particular interpretation of the USCCB document, Bishop Martino distanced himself from Faithful Citizenship. "No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese," he said. "The only relevant document… is my letter."

It seems reasonable to conclude that Bishop Martino is not terribly fond of Faithful Citizenship: not terribly fond of a document that can be cited by both sides in a heated debate; not terribly fond of a statement that leaves the central issue unresolved. For years the US bishops have sidestepped public disputes on political issues by crafting statements that will barely satisfy both sides. Now that compromise is breaking down.