Politico: Pope Francis dampened US bishops' efforts in midterms

Occasionally, Pope Francis comes across as nearly a magical figure — at least in the way the media reports on his impact, especially when it comes to politics. Today’s entry by Tom Kington in Politico adds to that perception, as the LA Times reporter tells readers that the Pontiff’s softer approach to cultural issues pushed American bishops out of the political process and sidelined Catholic conservatives. In doing so, Kington tosses a few unrelated points together to claim an outcome that actually is unsupported by easily retrieved data:

As Barack Obama’s foes lined up against him during the mid-term elections, one warring party was conspicuously absent from the battlefield: America’s Catholic bishops, the “culture warriors” who have fought hard against Obama’s health care provisions on contraception and against same-sex marriages.

It could hardly have been a coincidence that, across the Atlantic, the bishops’ boss, Pope Francis, had expressed his disapproval for the politicization of the church, and urged a softer, more accommodating approach to traditionally incendiary issues like gay marriage, contraception and immigration. Or that within days of the midterms, the pope unceremoniously fired Cardinal Raymond Burke—who during the 2004 presidential election said he would deny communion to Democratic candidate John Kerry or any Catholic politician who supported legalized abortion — from his position as head of the Vatican’s highest court and removed him to a largely ceremonial post as patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Assuming the pope’s tenure continues, it’s reasonable to think that America’s Catholic leadership will tone down their political activities in 2016 as well.

After replacing protestant preachers as America’s religious watchdogs in the last decade, the bishops’ apparent retreat from the 2014 fray was, for many, the first sign that American politics is feeling the effects of Pope Francis’s less confrontational brand of Catholicism.

We’ll get back to the “effects” in a moment. In fronting his hypothesis, Kington neglects to provide one key bit of data — any particular retreat from social issues by any particular bishop. In fact, Kington makes exactly the opposite point well past the jump in his piece, noting that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops have renewed their panel on religious liberty, a very good sign (as Kington admits) that the USCCB plans on fighting the HHS contraception mandate. Kington shrugs off the lack of data on any episcopal retreat with a particularly egregious assumption after Catholic Vote’s Joshua Mercer attempted to point out the obvious to him:

“Part of the reason that bishops were more vocal in previous election cycles was due to the fact that marriage amendments were on state ballots,” he said. “In those cases, you don’t vote for a candidate or party. You get to vote yes or no directly on the issue. And the bishops were very vocal and strong on this. Not only in their words but they lent financial support to defend marriage.”

And arguably, bishops who came out then to defeat gay marriage bills have since realized that they were fighting a lost cause.

Arguably? Did Kington bother to ask any of them? At least according to the lengthy article Politico ran, the answer to that question is no. Had he done so, Kington may have discovered that Catholic bishops don’t have much problem fighting “losing causes” when they believe that doing so defends the truth of their faith. Bishops of all stripes in Christendom have been doing so for two thousand years, with a lot more reason to be discouraged than dismissive political analysts. The reason that the push on that issue didn’t tie directly into the midterms is the prosaic reason Mercer notes — that there were no referenda on state ballots relating to same-sex marriage in this cycle, as the issue has largely moved into the courts as judges overrule voters.

Kington also manages to make the same mistake about the differences in the two relatios from the Synod, although that’s probably not his fault. He seems to have relied on the Associated Press version of events in which the second relatio was a defeat for Francis at the hands of hardliners who forced the removal of language sympathetic to same-sex relationships. What actually happened according to the synod participants, some of whom publicly explained this in Vatican press conferences, was that the first relatio didn’t accurately capture the debate in the first week, which is why the proposed language for the final version got significantly changed — and even then, ultimately failed to win approval. This argument undermines Kington’s point anyway; if Francis couldn’t overcome conservatives at his own Extraordinary Synod, why would American bishops be cowed when it comes to politics here?

Now, let’s get to some actual data. Kington argues that outspoken bishops like Burke impact American politics, and uses the 2004 presidential exit polling that showed a 5-point win for George W. Bush over John Kerry as evidence. First, though, Kington doesn’t actually provide any particular stance or activism by even one Catholic bishop that led to that outcome, only hinting that pro-life activism may have led to that kind of anomaly. “In more recent elections,” Kington writes, “the Catholic vote has tended more Democratic—President Obama carried Catholics 50 percent to 48 percent in 2012— and Francis’s influence could accelerate that trend.”

Really? That’s pretty easy to test. There has only been one national election in the US since Francis became Pope, and that was last month’s midterms. How did the Catholic vote tilt? According to the exit polls, Catholics made up 24% of the electorate — and voted Republican by a 54/45 split. In 2012, Catholics comprised 23% of the electorate and split narrowly Democratic as noted above. There was no falloff in Catholic voting relative to the general population, and it got considerably more conservative over the last two years. If there’s a trend, it’s going the opposite way that Kington surmises, and the bishops therefore may be a lot more active on cultural issues than he realizes in his facile analysis.

Besides, this overlooks a couple of points. The Catholic vote tends much more to be a weather vane to the overall consensus than a determinative factor any more. On top of that, Kington assumes the Catholic vote and activism by Catholic bishops to be monolithically conservative. That’s very wrong; only on abortion and same-sex marriage would that be the case, which granted have been big issues for Catholics. Kington seems to have overlooked Catholic activism on issues like poverty, welfare, and even universal health care, where the bishops nearly sided with ObamaCare until the mandates and the impact on private institutions became plain (they opposed the bill before its passage, largely on the obvious funding structures for abortion).

The length of this analysis at Politico disguises the fact that it’s merely a long string of suppositions without any real data or insight, and that actual data from the election and from the USCCB’s set of priorities (easily researched) debunk its central hypotheses. Pope Francis is an impactful figure on the world stage, but he’s not silencing anyone on this side of the pond … or on the other side either, for that matter.

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