Heaven Help Us

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By Sister Mary Ann Walsh
Wednesday, February 27, 2008; 12:00 AM

Joe Feuerherd's screed against the Catholic bishops for their call for political responsibility epitomizes the incivility of this campaign season, where truth has become a casualty and half-truths the norm.

With demeaning and mocking words, Feuerherd scoffs at the bishops' November 2007 statement "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." It urges Catholics not to be one-issue voters but to look at all the issues and make prudent decisions. When up for a vote, it drew virtually unanimous support of the almost 300 active members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Few decisions get that kind of support.

The document points out that Catholic voters need to consider all the issues on the table, as well as the potential of a candidate to actually implement the platform on which he or she runs. Some issues involve acts that are always wrong -- that are intrinsically evil -- because they directly and intentionally violate the sanctity of human life. A Catholic cannot directly participate in or support attacks on innocent life. A clear case is abortion, which ends the lives of more than a million children a year in this country. Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as racism, torture, genocide, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified.

Feuerherd suggests that holding the protection of human life as a primary concern means that the bishops have only one issue: abortion. But the bishops have spoken out about such matters as the war in Iraq, anti-immigrant sentiment, the death penalty and lack of adequate health care for the poor.

He also mocks the bishops for citing racism as a concern. That is especially curious given that the U.S. government is building a fence along our southern border to keep out brown people -- not along the northern border, where whites reside.

The bishops do not have many allies in defending immigrants. But they do so that because their positions do not depend on poll numbers. The bishops have pulled no punches in stating that while a nation must control its borders, the U.S. also needs comprehensive immigration reform to fix a broken immigration system. They even outline what's needed: a temporary worker program with worker protections and a path to permanent residency; family reunification policies; a broad and fair legalization program; access to legal protections including due process and public benefits; refuge for those fleeing persecution and exploitation; and policies to address the root cause of migration.

The bishops never align themselves with any party or any candidate, yet Feuerherd presumptuously declares them for Sen. John McCain. He puts the bishops in the Republican Party despite that fact that on many of their positions, such as immigration and health care, they could be considered in the Democratic camp. He describes Pope John Paul as conservative, despite the fact that the media who heard him in Newark in 1995 said he sounded more liberal than the most liberal Democrat. In 1999, in St. Louis, Pope John Paul personally -- and successfully -- called upon the governor of Missouri to commute the sentence of a man on death row.

The current campaign shows that politics is too often a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites and media hype. In "Faithful Citizenship," the Church calls for a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and vulnerable. It stresses that Catholics need to be guided more by their moral convictions than by attachment to a political party or interest group. Catholic participation should help transform the party to which they belong; they should not let the party transform them in such a way that they neglect or deny basic moral truths.

Feuerherd's incivility is striking. The crude reference to the Eucharist as "the wafer" should be beneath anyone who respects people's religious sentiments, let alone an acknowledged Catholic. Belief in the Eucharist is sacred to Catholics, yet Feuerherd treats it in a belittling manner.

His final salvo, damning the bishops, is unworthy of both Feuerherd and The Post. It's hard to imagine The Post giving its pages to a writer suggesting the outright damnation of the leaders of any other religious body. Feuerherd's vitriol might be understandable if the bishops were concerned, like a typical special-interest group, only with what benefits them. However, the bishops' defense of the right to life of the unborn is a principled commitment in justice to the good of others who are vulnerable and with no voice of their own.

Feuerherd might want to reconsider his words in light of this, and of Christ's words to his disciples when he calls them blessed for facing insult and rejection on account of the Gospel.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh is director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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