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Is it still OK to elect Catholics?

Updated: January 20, 2012 8:18AM



Anti-Catholic bigotry was once widespread in this country. In 1959, nearly a quarter of Americans — 24 percent — said they would not vote for a Catholic for president, no matter how well-qualified.

John F. Kennedy overcame this prejudice in part by insisting that, if elected, he would not be a tool of the Vatican.

He said he believed in “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . . in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair . . . I am not the Catholic candidate for president, I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.”

Pope John XXIII did not contradict him.

Such discretion, alas, is not the style of Cardinal Francis George, who over the weekend decreed that Gov. Pat Quinn isn’t using his own conscience correctly.

Quinn met with Cardinal George and nine other bishops Saturday. This being Christmas week, Quinn put a bright spin on the meeting, telling the Sun-Times that they mainly talked about aiding the poor.

A wiser man might have left it at that. The cardinal chose to respond, challenging Quinn, saying, basically: The hell we did!

“We share the Governor’s concern for the poor,” Cardinal George and his bishops wrote. “From our point of view, however, this was a meeting between pastors and a member of the Church to discuss the principles of faith, not the works of faith. On several occasions, the Governor has referred to his Catholic conscience and faith as the justification for certain political decisions.

“As Catholic pastors, we wanted to remind the Governor that conscience, while always free, is properly formed in harmony with the tradition of the Church, as defined by Scripture and authentic teaching authority. A personal conscience that is not consistent with authentic Catholic teaching is not a Catholic conscience. The Catholic faith cannot be used to justify positions contrary to the faith itself.”

Sure it can. The cardinal might not like it — I’m sure he doesn’t. But plenty of the faithful join the governor in considering themselves good Catholics while conducting parts of their lives in ways “not consistent” with church policy — just last week a survey showed 98 percent of sexually-active Catholic women use or have used birth control banned by the church. (We’re fortunate that the cardinal has not challenged the governor over which form he uses, at least not yet). Much Catholic doctrine isn’t even followed by Catholics, yet church leaders would dragoon government to force it upon the rest of the state anyway.

What Quinn has done to draw church censure — for those of you not up to date — is present an award to a rape victim at a pro-choice dinner, and lead a state whose laws forbid discrimination against citizens due to their sexual orientation, which means the church had to decide whether to place homeless children with gay couples, or get out of the adoption business. It chose to get out of the adoption business — you can debate among yourselves whether that is a choice a loving God would smile upon.

The church is free to turn its back on orphaned children in the name of faith — I would never tell them what its conscience should dictate. But Pat Quinn also enjoys the right to act as the citizens of Illinois — 70 percent of who are not Catholic — want him to act, even if veering from church writ.

Some readers will complain that I am commenting upon their religion — a Jew bashing Catholics! — and I will observe that their leader is more than commenting, he is pressuring and berating the governor of my state, a state whose voters elected him based on his merits, not upon his faith.

If at election time I were to say, “You can’t vote for Pat Quinn — he’s a Catholic and will be bullied into strictly following church doctrine” — I’d be accused of bias and rightly so. Yet the cardinal is trying to do exactly that, to exercise an authority over public life he does not and should not possess.

Quinn attended 13 years of Catholic school — the church already had its chance to mold him. Now he is 63 and an adult. It is Quinn, and not Cardinal George, who gets to decide how his faith influences his life. I’m sorry to be the one to deliver the news.



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