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Catholic bishops political actors

Sometimes I blink in amazement at today’s American political world.

Our first Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, won the 1960 election by pledging to ignore any Catholic pope, bishop or priest who attempted to dictate policy.

Now our second Catholic president, Joseph Biden, is being warned by Catholic leaders that they can punish him if he does not comply with their political dictates. They would deny Biden access to communion, and some Protestant leaders are encouraging them.

Talk about a political boost.

Anti-Catholic sentiment – even prejudice – was a powerful force in the 1960 campaign. Leaflets, newspaper columns, and speeches by Protestant leaders may not have been broadcast on social media, but they did. still reached millions of people with the message that Kennedy would bow down to his church.

Part of that sentiment was undoubtedly sincere, and part of it was simply political for conservatives who feared Kennedy’s liberal Democratic agenda.

Kennedy was worried enough to accept an invitation to speak to a large group of Protestant leaders and face the accusations head-on:


“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish; when no public official requests or accepts instructions of public order from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; when no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly on the population in general or on the public acts of its officials; and where religious freedom is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all, ”he told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960.

Here we are, 60 years later, in a very different world. Religious leaders and organizations are openly political actors these days. Not only are they doing well, but they are thriving.

Part of this change has to do with the issue of abortion, which was not on the political radar in 1960. When the United States Supreme Court in 1972 legalized abortion, religious groups and allies conservatives began to organize against abortion.

This fall, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will consider a draft Eucharist document that could result in Biden being denied access to Communion unless he works to put U.S. law on it. abortion in accordance with the Catholic bishops.

Interestingly, this potentially aggressive religious political action comes at a time when the American people as a whole appear much less religious. Ten years after Kennedy’s election, only 11% of Americans said they had never been to church. By the end of the last decade, it was up to 27 percent.

Despite the importance of Catholic bishops and the evangelical religious right, religious leaders may have less real influence on public spirit than they did a half-century ago. For example, polls consistently show that a majority of American Catholics believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, and a quarter of American women who have an abortion are Catholic.

Kennedy told ministers: “Whatever question comes before me as president – on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or whatever – I will make my decision … in accordance with this. that my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to external pressures or religious dictates.

This is the idea that the Catholic bishops seem to dispute. Do they really think Americans are okay with bishops and popes telling presidents, senators and governors what to do? What if the rabbis told the story? And the ministers? And the imams?

Peter Slocum of Keene is a former Albany political journalist and public health advocate.


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