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ELECTION-LINGER Nov-2-2004 (1,240 words) Backgrounder and analysis. With photos posted Nov. 1. xxxn

2004 elections could signal changes for church in society

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Whatever the outcome of the Nov. 2 election, there will be lingering effects on both religion and politics from the attention to Sen. John F. Kerry's Catholicism and President George W. Bush's use of religious rhetoric, according to observers who have expertise in church and political affairs.

"This election for the first time put Catholic leadership ... in the position of confronting a candidate who dissents from church teaching," said Princeton University politics professor Robert P. George.

George, who also is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the President's Council on Bioethics, said although there was widespread publicity about the statements of a handful of U.S. bishops who drew a sharp line for Catholic voters over politicians' views on certain life issues, "the church responded without a unified position."

He and others suggested that, in addition to whatever political changes the nation faces after the election, the Catholic Church also may be reworking its approach to public policy.

Kerry, the Democratic nominee, became the first Catholic nominated by a major party since John F. Kennedy in 1960. But while Kennedy had to contend with an undercurrent of anti-Catholicism in his race, Kerry came under fire from within his own church for his view that he cannot impose on society the church's moral standard over issues such as whether abortion should be legal.

A handful of bishops said because of his support for legal abortion, Kerry would not be permitted to receive Communion if he came to them. Some also said Catholic voters would be committing a sin by voting for a politician whose public actions conflict with church teaching on the sanctity of life, same-sex marriage or embryonic stem-cell research.

But many other bishops and the head of a U.S. bishops' task force on the topic said in statements and pastoral letters that while life issues were of primary importance, voters also should use church teaching to evaluate candidates' stands in other areas.

David Leege, a retired University of Notre Dame political science professor who studies religion and politics, said the faith tangent of this year's campaign will leave a looming question of what approach the Catholic Church takes now in its relations with politicians.

Although it may not have been the intent of some bishops, Leege said some of their statements this election season had "a thin veneer of an endorsement of the Republican candidate for president."

That may have done little to persuade anyone to vote for Bush, Leege said, but at the same time it may have hurt those bishops' "sincere religious purposes" of bringing life issues to the forefront of voters' minds.

Boston College theology professor Jesuit Father David Hollenbach said the approach "is likely to produce a very strong backlash."

"People don't like to have a group of bishops throwing their weight around, with religious claims attached to a political point," he said. "I think those bishops are going to be proven to have made a bad mistake."

In the past when bishops took stands that obviously favored one candidate over another, "it produced the opposite effect of what the bishops who did it intended," Father Hollenbach said.

He gave the example of the late Boston Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, who wrote a letter read in parishes the Sunday before the 1980 Massachusetts primary election. It urged Catholics to oppose two candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives who backed legal abortion. Both candidates won overwhelmingly, and were supported by many Catholics who said they were offended by the effort to tell them how to vote.

In addition to the issues surrounding Kerry as a Catholic politician, both candidates had outreach efforts aimed at people of faith. Especially in the last few weeks of the campaign, Bush and Kerry both made numerous visits to churches to tout their own merits on issues important to churchgoers. Just 10 days before the election, Kerry gave a major speech in which he explained how his Catholic faith influences his decisions and his daily life.

The Bush campaign, meanwhile, emphasized Bush's religious beliefs and his efforts to get more faith-based institutions involved in providing public services. It also played up Kerry's conflict with his own church, particularly in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, which have high proportions of Catholics.

Of eight photos in the Catholic area of Bush's campaign Web site, four were of the president and Pope John Paul II from Bush's visit to the Vatican this summer. Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace movement, decried the campaign's use of those photos as a distortion that ignored "the Vatican's continued criticism of the Bush administration's foreign policy ... (as well as) issues such as poverty, health care, the death penalty, the environment, racism or immigration rights, to name a few of the issues that make up the depth of Catholic social teaching."

When exit polls are deciphered after the election, George said, he expects regular churchgoers will have responded to Bush's religious efforts. He believes the 2004 vote will lead future campaigns to also appeal to voters from a religious perspective.

"One thing that annoys the Democratic base about George Bush is his overtly evangelical base," George said. "Nevertheless, Kerry felt compelled to speak about his religious beliefs very openly. ... It proved that apart from that narrow secular segment of his base, religion is important. ... He had to do something that is abominated by a sector of his own base."

Leege said this year's campaign showed the United States has moved far beyond the 1960 question of whether a Catholic should be elected president.

The Catholic Church's role in the 2004 campaign has changed the issue to whether the church is "prescriptive" or "proscriptive" in its approach to government, he said.

During the 1970s and '80s, the U.S. Catholic Church had strong influence on society and government, particularly through its pastoral statements on the economy and on war and peace.

"The church was prescriptive in its vision for what society could be," Leege said. The effort by some bishops to put life issues in front to the exclusion of other aspects of public life is a change to a proscriptive "thou shalt not" approach, he said.

The moral authority the U.S. bishops used to enjoy was damaged by the sexual abuse crisis in the church, but their role also has been eclipsed for at least the last four years by the influence of evangelicals, Leege said.

Instead of being at the front, Leege said, "Catholic leaders are now in the second or third row."

Father Hollenbach sees the division in how U.S. bishops approached the issues raised by a Catholic candidate for president as the beginning of a theological argument about the church's relationship to the civic and political order.

The church has a history over hundreds of years of attempting to work alongside whoever is running a government, he explained. Even "with some fairly nasty regimes" including those of Hitler and Mussolini, the attitude was "we can try to do some good."

The "purist" position that a Catholic cannot be involved with politicians unless they are in total agreement with the church's teaching on certain issues "is not a part of the tradition of the Catholic Church," Father Hollenbach said. "We're not a sect that simply cuts itself off from society over one position. The church tries to be a leaven for good in society."


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