America's Catholic bishops have just thrust politicians of that faith into a very difficult position -- one in which, the bishops say, elected officials may have to choose between temporal power and spiritual life. In linking the secular duties of Catholic office-holders to an obligation to uphold the church's stand on abortion, the bishops teeter ominously on the edge of that traditional American divide known as the separation of church and state.
In a carefully worded statement, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops makes the case that Catholics in elected office "have an obligation to put their faith at the heart of their public service." There is a strong suggestion that their faith should even take preference, as the statement quotes Thomas More: "I die the king's good servant, but God's first."
Catholic office-holders are not threatened with church sanctions if they fail to oppose "profoundly unjust" laws, deemed to include not just abortion but also euthanasia, assisted suicide and capital punishment. But the statement does call into question their very Catholicism: "No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life."
Moreover, the bishops subordinate the very backbone of American civic life -- the will of the majority -- to church teachings. "No appeal to . . . majority will or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest degree possible."
The bishops are well within their rights to proclaim their faith and shepherd their flock accordingly. The Catholic Church has a wonderful history of advocating social justice. Its fierce opposition to Communism and human-rights abuses in Central America stand as beacons to the world. But there is a difference between democracy and theocracy, and the bishops' statement makes the demarcation of those two philosophies more fuzzy than it ought to be.
American democracy ultimately rests on the voted opinions of a majority of citizens. It is by no means a perfect system, as slavery, Jim Crow and the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II demonstrates. But we have yet to devise anything better.
Perhaps the most salient point here is that office-holders who are Catholic represent more than just Catholics, and their duty in their secular offices is to represent all of the people who elected them. Intrusions of the pulpit into politics -- from any denomination -- are unsettling and potentially dangerous.