May 17, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Sightings likes to be current. Most frequently we comment on what we find in our scope of the week's news coverage. This week's news, while the basis for today's column, has also prompted us to revisit coverage of an older story -- 44 years old in fact, but still fresh. The recurrent issue: the intervention of Roman Catholic bishops in American politics. How it manifests: by drawing attention to, and votes from, public-office-seeking Catholics who do not adhere to Vatican and Episcopal policies on particular issues.
The recent debate called to mind the John F. Kennedy campaign of 1960, and the coverage given it by the then unfriendly-to-Catholics The Christian Century, for which I had begun to write four years earlier. Sometimes long memories can provide perspective, even if they do not bring forth perfect analogies or provide authoritative counsel on contemporary issues.
Here was the deal: could JFK, if elected, be free of Vatican influence, which the majority of non-Catholics feared undercut democracy. While that domestic issue was being debated, the two Catholic bishops of Puerto Rico opposed the candidacy of Luis Munoz Marin, a Catholic, chiefly because he did not join them in opposing legal birth control. Bishops Davis and McManus contributed to and encouraged the formation of a political party to challenge the popular Puerto Rican official. Their overt and strident involvement was an embarrassment to the Kennedy campaigners, since Puerto Rico was a U.S. territory and not many miles from the continental U.S. coast.
The Christian Century made much of the Vatican endorsement of that policy, but was bemused by the wiggle-room the Vatican left when it introduced casuistry: forbidding Catholics to vote for Munoz Marin was a prohibition that applied only to "the particular and special conditions of the island itself." Whew! The magazine said that the conditions did exist in the United States, and showed exactly how and where they did.
Never mind. The Catholics of Puerto Rico paid no heed to the bishops and Munoz won in a landslide. In its November 16 issue The Christian Century reported that, by calling a vote for Munoz Marin a "sin," the Church suffered a setback when he won. Hence, "this first such [political] action under the American flag" backfired on the bishops. The editors did remain somewhat uneasy about the newly-elected President Kennedy, worried still that he might be subject to other forms of interventions by bishops. Yet they were reassured that the bishops' Christian Action party had been buried, having gained less than 10 percent of the vote in the largely Catholic island population (The Christian Century, 1960: July 3, July 27, November 23). And as JFK displayed his independence of Catholic authorities, the editors gradually showed signs of reassurance.
The concern in 1960 was legalization of birth control; the Puerto Rican bishops were not prepared to enforce compliance with all the other Vatican-inspired teachings. In 2004 the continued legalization of abortion is the issue; the bishops who withhold communion from Catholic campaigners and officials who displease them, do not enforce compliance with any other Church social teaching. These bishops are too few and too smart to try to start a political party, though they know they are feeding into one party today. No political party is likely to get "buried" by their actions this fall, but they have successfully added heat to an already hot campaign climate.