Bishops and the Catholic electorate: One more view

The debate likely will never end over whether the U.S. bishops had any influence on Catholic voters in last week’s presidential election.  We’ve had several pieces, such as here, here and here, on the issue as well as links to some of the articles (e.g., here and here) our clients have been doing.

Taking a more in-depth look at something one of our stories from last week touched on, Our Sunday Visitor has an article in an upcoming edition maintaining that Barack Obama actually lost votes in states where bishops spoke out. What makes this article of more-than-average interest is that it’s written not by a lackey (ouch!) of the Catholic right or left but by Mark M. Gray, director of Catholic polls at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. (Gray, some of you may recall, was also one of the researchers on last year’s readership study — is the glass half empty or half full? — on the Catholic press and other Catholic media efforts.)

Obama’s strength in ‘Catholic’ states

President-elect Barack Obama won 13 of the nation’s 15 most populous states in the Nov. 4 election. That placed California, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, Massachusetts and Indiana in the Obama column, while John McCain captured only Texas and Georgia on that list.

But how did Obama do relative to McCain in “Catholic” states? Based on figures from the Official Catholic Directory, he did just as strongly.

There are two numerical measures that can be looked at: Catholic population within a state and the percentage of Catholics in a state’s total population.

Based on Catholic population, Obama won in 12 of the 15 most populous Catholic states. McCain took Texas (third most populous), Louisiana (13th) and Arizona (15th), but Obama captured California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Connecticut and Minnesota.

By the other measure, percentage of the population that is Catholic — which includes smaller states — Out of the top 15 of those states, Obama swept 11: Rhode Island (the nation’s only Catholic-majority state at 59.5 percent), Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Nevada, Illinois, Delaware, Wisconsin, California, New Mexico and New Hampshire. McCain took Louisana (12th on that list) and Texas (13th).

McCain won nine of the 10 states with the lowest percentage of Catholics in the population. From the lowest number of Catholics to the highest, those are: Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Alaska and Utah.  In Catholic population those states range from 2.3 percent to 8.7 percent. North Carolina, which Obama took, is 4 percent Catholic.

By the same token, McCain also won the 13 states that have the fewest Catholics: Wyoming, Alaska, West Virgnia, Montana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Dakota, Alabama, South Dakota, Idaho, Oklahoma and South Carolina. The District of Columbia (not a state, as its residents will readily remind you) has a Catholic population estimated at 100,000 by the Archdiocese of Washington — placing it between West Virginia and Montana, and with three electoral votes — was in Obama’s camp.

CNS Bible Blog: Signs of the Messianic age

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The miracle at Cana is of a rather strange variety. No healing or exorcism is involved, no one is raised from the dead and no sins are forgiven. It appears only in John’s Gospel.

Today, there are three separate candidates in Galilee for the Cana in question — the most established of them sports two or three churches in honor of the event. Souvenir shops sell bottles of Cana wine but the quality does not inspire much confidence in the miracle. Wedding feasts lasted for days and the bridegroom’s parents were expected to provide a lavish celebration. Family honor was at stake, and in an honor/shame-based culture its importance cannot be overstressed.

Scott M. Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis SJ

When the “mother of Jesus” (she is never named in John’s Gospel!) tells him that the hosts had run out of wine, Jesus responds in a way that makes us uncomfortable. He addresses her as “woman,” which sounds rude and disrespectful, an address he uses to her again from the cross in chapter 19 as well as to the woman of Samaria in chapter 4. It is the Greek translation of an Aramaic form of address that is formal but not disrespectful — more akin to “madam.”

His reply is unclear: “Ti emoi kai soi” — in Greek, literally “what to you and to me?” The gist of it is, “Why are you telling me?” He insists that his hour — the hour for the Passion as well as the beginning of his earthly ministry — has not yet arrived. There is tension in the story — Jesus is defined by his relationship with God the Father, not earthly ties even to his mother. But the mother of Jesus is undeterred, simply ordering the waiters to do whatever Jesus told them to do — advice we would do well to follow. The six huge stone jars were soon filled to the brim with wine of excellent quality.

A church window depicts Jesus performing the miracle at Cana. (CNS photo from Crosiers)

A church window depicts Jesus performing the miracle at Cana. (CNS photo from Crosiers)

The head steward comments on the quality of the wine and the fact that the best vintage was saved until last. This leads into the meaning of the story — it is about the change of the age — the new world and the advent of the Messiah. There are references to wine of the last days and the arrival of the new age in 1 Enoch (one of the apocryphal Gospels); Amos 9:11, 13; Joel 4:18; and Isaiah 25:6. In this first of John’s seven “signs,” Jesus revealed his glory — divine power — and in doing so announced the inauguration of the Messianic age.

The story of the woman taken in adultery (7:53-8:11) is one of the most beloved in Christian tradition. It comes as a surprise to discover that the story is missing from the earliest manuscripts that we have of John’s Gospel. Other manuscripts place the story elsewhere in the narrative; a few even place it in Luke. It probably represents a free-floating Jesus tradition that was later inserted into the text. This should not cause us concern, for the New Testament itself was created over a period of time by the church in response to the experiences of individual communities and the work of the spirit.

The crowd is out for blood and is behaving in the murderous and unthinking fashion of crowds in every time and place. Scholars such as René Girard would even suggest that what is at work here is a “scapegoating mechanism.” This occurs when a community relieves the conflict arising from competition and desire by selecting and projecting on a victim the collective negative energy and tension. And we know immediately something is wrong: adultery requires two individuals but her male partner is nowhere to be seen.

The question posed to Jesus puts him on the spot — either he will break the demands of the law or the demands of compassion and mercy. But he refuses to meet their eyes and merely bends down and writes in the sand. What was he writing? Pious tradition says that he wrote all of their sins down. Unlikely — that would take a huge amount of sand and most people were illiterate. He needn’t have been writing anything in particular — it was a device to stop them in their tracks, make them begin to wonder and question, and eventually to force them to look within themselves.

The parting words of Jesus to the woman are interesting — he does not “forgive” her because he never judged or condemned her in the first place. He merely gives her some friendly advice and sends her on his way. And that is what this passage is about -– not primarily forgiveness, but self-knowledge. The unreflective crowd was doing what mobs of people or even societies have always done -– project their unexamined darkness on individuals or groups.

Smoky stoves and global solidarity

A visit to their sister parish in San Marcos, Guatemala, led parishioners at St. John the Baptist Parish in Covington, Wash., to a new understanding about the realities of life in their sister community. An article by Terry McGuire in The Catholic Northwest Progress, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Seattle, details how the parish raised $19,000 to purchase fuel-efficient, ventilated stoves for as many as 100 families in the 10 villages that make up the Guatemalan parish.

Vatican document on use of psychological testing in seminaries available in Origins

A week ago the Vatican released the long-awaited document called “Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood.” (We had coverage of it here and here.)

The full text was difficult to find at first, but now we have it available in the latest edition of Origins, our documentary service. Origins’ subscribers can read the document by clicking here. (It’s in Vol. 38, No. 23, dated Nov. 13, 2008.)

We also offer single-copy sales of this edition of Origins for just $5. To order, call (202) 541-3290 and we’ll mail one out to you.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit and blessed are the provoked’

While the world financial crisis remains with us, for now it has been pushed from the forefront of the news in favor of this week’s historic presidential election.

But over at Provoke Radio, Jesuit Father Stephen Spahn is keeping the economy up front by exploring the spiritual lessons from the still-evolving economic upheaval.

Father Spahn, associate pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Washington, has hosted Provoke Radio since its inception in 2004. Through incisive interviews and compelling storytelling, Father Spahn makes the connection between social justice and contemporary issues of the day.

Each program closes with a catchy reminder that “blessed are the poor in spirit and blessed are the provoked.”

“We know that as thoughtful people there are many issues on our mind and some that should be that aren’t,” Father Spahn said. “We’re also faithful people and we believe on a good day that our faith should inform everything we do. (At Provoke Radio) we try to connect those dots and look at those pressing social issues.”

Sponsored by the Maryland province of the Jesuits, Provoke Radio can be heard on a handful of radio stations around the country, including in Baltimore, San Francisco, Cleveland, St. Louis, Denver, New York, South Orange, N.J., and Fairfield, Conn. Podcasts and archived programs can be accessed around the clock.

More on what the election means for us

Picking up where we left off yesterday:

10:54 a.m. ET: Catholic high school in Arizona had an election-night watch party so that “dry facts” of the classroom could come to life. (From The Catholic Sun of Phoenix)

9:30 a.m. ET: The national Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor offers three post-election perspectives:

– Editor John Norton (a proud member of the CNS alumni association from his work in our Rome bureau) writes that Catholics must find ways to work together after this divisive election season even though some are jubilant at the results and some are sickened to the core because of the president-elect’s “pro-abortion ideology.”

– Longtime Catholic author and commentator Russell Shaw has a column titled “What an Obama presidency means for Catholics,” in which he notes both the challenges facing the pro-life movement and the questions surrounding the influence of the U.S. bishops over their flock.

– Also online is the paper’s first post-election editorial, simply headlined “President Obama.”

CNS Bible Blog: No shortcuts to our `second birth’

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The story of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John, Chapter 3 is the key to understanding much of the fourth Gospel. It describes in symbolic form the human condition — the inability to understand spiritual things as well as the inability of many to understand and accept the teachings of Jesus.

The end of the prologue has prepared us for this scene, for 1:18 informs us that no one has ever seen God except the Son, who alone can make him known. All human beings are ignorant of God (according to John), even the best and holiest. There is a “glass ceiling” in our striving for God that renders direct and true knowledge of God impossible without divine help.

Scott M. Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis, SJ

Nicodemus symbolizes “everyman” and is the best that human society can create. He is educated, pious, and righteous -– a decent human being. Nicodemus appears on the scene by night -– in John’s Gospel, darkness is the absence of God.

His preliminary flattery is brushed aside by Jesus with an almost brusque insistence that one must be born from above in order to see the Kingdom of God. In a Johannine pun, the Greek word anothēn means both “again” and “above.” Speaking from the limitations of ordinary human consciousness, Nicodemus interprets the word in a literal fashion — “again” — and is therefore flummoxed in his attempt to understand the absurdity and impossibility of a grown man returning to his mother’s womb to be born a second time.

As Jesus continues, he contrasts human nature with what is born from above, the earthly and the heavenly, the above and below. In several places in the Gospel Jesus tells the uncomprehending crowds that they are from below while he is from above. Ordinary human nature is incapable of comprehending the world of the spirit or having true knowledge of God. The doors of perception must be cleansed, and only by being born of water and the spirit — baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit — can one enter the Kingdom of God and experience spiritual illumination. No one has ever ascended to heaven to be with God — only the one who has descended from there (Jesus) is able to speak from experience. The Kingdom of God is understood not as a place but a state of spiritual consciousness or awareness.

In the story Nicodemus symbolizes a whole group of people, namely those who are open or sympathetic to Jesus but do so in secret. He is attracted to the message of Jesus, but wants it both ways — he wants to be part of the system and accepted by his peers and is afraid to make a public commitment and face the cost, just like so many of us! He appears again in 7:50 and 19:39, and appears to be rather timid and weak, refusing to take a positive and unequivocal stand.

So how does one experience this second birth from above if human perception is so limited? First of all, one must recognize the flawed and provisional nature of all human knowledge, especially the conventional or received wisdom. The enigmatic parables and word plays serve to destabilize the reader’s awareness and understanding so he or she can begin to question and search.

Secondly, Jesus gives many signs that disclose his divine and transcendent identity. Those who read the signs and are willing to put their faith in him — and remain in him — are led into an ever-deepening spiritual awareness. But let the reader beware: The Johannine understanding of faith is not belief in specific doctrines or creeds. It is a total surrender of the self and all aspects of one’s life to the one who has descended from above. No shortcuts, no easy out — but a whole new life.

Outside the closed doors of the Catholic-Muslim Forum

VATICAN CITY — With great anticipation, 28 Muslim scholars and 28 Vatican officials, bishops and Catholic scholars sat down yesterday morning for the first session of the Catholic-Muslim Forum.

The Vatican published a short statement explaining that the first day of the meeting would focus on Catholic and Muslim understandings of the double commandment to love God and love one’s neighbors; the second day would look at the religions’ approaches to human rights; and the third day — tomorrow — would feature a morning meeting with Pope Benedict XVI and a public session in the afternoon to present the forum’s final statement.

The Vatican also published a list of the participants.

But, other than that, there was nothing for reporters, many of whom traveled to Rome specifically to cover the meeting.

All of the participants agreed not to speak on the record until the meeting was over.


Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, left, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the grand mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mustafa Ceric, look together at a book before opening the meeting of the Catholic-Muslim Forum at the Vatican yesterday. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, via Reuters)

Even so, journalists spent the morning on the street in front of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue hoping to catch someone. In the early afternoon the milling about moved to the lobby of the delegates’ hotel. No one was willing to be named, but at least we got an idea of what was happening behind the forum’s closed doors.

Yesterday’s discussion began with presentations by Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a leading Muslim philosopher and professor at George Washington University in Washington.

The Muslims I spoke to said Archbishop Ladaria was “very Catholic, very theological and very systematic” in explaining that God is love, that love is the relationship that exists among the members of the Trinity, that people come to know and love God through Jesus Christ. And that they are called to love others has God has loved them.

Nasr, they said, spoke without a prepared text and looked particularly as the concept of “rahma” (mercy in Arabic) as one of the names of God, one of the main qualities of Mohammed and one of the main obligations of Muslims found in the Quran, Islamic tradition and mysticism.

At a certain point, one participant said, a Muslim speaker tried to open a discussion about how “spiritual or religious arrogance,” claiming an exclusive possession of truth, “is an obstacle to love.” But the discussion took another track.

Although religious freedom, particularly the situation of Christians in predominantly Muslim countries, was expected to come up today, several Catholics raised the issue at yesterday’s evening session. They called for “reciprocity,” asking the Muslim scholars to push Muslim governments to grant Christians the same kind of freedoms Muslims enjoy in the West.

One participant said he told the group that both Christians and Muslims could come up with lists of countries or situations where the full freedom of their people is not respected. For instance, he said, Muslims could argue that the French ban on wearing headscarves or religious symbols to school limits religious freedom. But he said the forum members must find ways to address the question as religious leaders, not politicians.

Strangely enough, this morning’s session on human rights did not focus on specific situations where one side or the other feels the rights of its faithful are being limited. Instead, one member said, “We looked at how human rights flow from our faiths.”

Abdal Hakim Murad Winter, director of Britain’s Muslim Academic Trust, and Francesco Botturi, a professor at Milan’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, made the main presentations.

Winter’s talk apparently focused on how Catholics and Muslims could work together to counter the “religious apathy” of Europe and much of the Western world. More and more, he said, religion — any religion — is seen as the enemy reason and a source of conflict that the world would be better without.

There will be much more to come tomorrow.

Election ’08: What does it all mean?

(UPDATE: There are new links on a new page we’ve started here.)

Make sure you refresh this page often for the latest updates on this day after Election Day. Plus, we want to hear what you think (see below).

4:45 p.m. ET: Latest updates posted for referendums storygubernatorial and congressional story, and story on congratulations from Catholic leaders in U.S. to Obama.

3:25 p.m. ET: Sneak peek: Was it race, or something else, that led to an Obama victory? (From the CNS columns package offered to our client publications for their editorial use.)

2:13 p.m. ET: This CNS story, which ran last month, is worth a second read in light of Obama’s victory because it captures the historic nature of this election balanced by the troubling position of Obama on abortion: Black Catholics see Obama candidacy as a path to racial equality.

2:00 p.m. ET: Here’s one way of looking at yesterday’s results if you’re a pro-lifer (from the National Catholic Register): “Life Didn’t Lose – the GOP Did.”

President-elect Barack Obama smiles during the election-night victory rally in Chicago Nov. 4. (CNS/Reuters)

President-elect Barack Obama smiles during the election-night victory rally in Chicago Nov. 4. (CNS/Reuters)

1:28 p.m. ET: Quite the variety of reactions in this story in the National Catholic Reporter. Everything from “hope” and “promising” to “a tragedy because of the gap between what he (Obama) claimed to embody and what his few unscripted utterances, and his votes and associations indicate him to be.” The paper also editorializes, “In moment of hope comes the challenge of accountability.”

12:55 p.m. ET: Early story on Cardinal George’s letter to President-elect Obama now updated with more U.S. church reaction. Includes comments from Archbishop Wuerl, Bishop Zubik, Catholic Students for McCain, Priests for Life, others.

12:23 p.m. ET: Second update now posted on pope’s message to Obama and other Rome reaction. There’s an extremely intriguing comment at the end from a Rome-based missionary news agency:

Obama’s victory speech ended with the words, “God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America,” something that would not be possible in Catholic Italy and which demonstrates that religion remains at the foundations of public life in the United States.

12:06 p.m. ET: Another CNS election story, Democrats make gains in gubernatorial, congressional races, includes comments from a political science professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

11:45 a.m. ET: Don’t miss yesterday’s story on reconciliation after a particularly contentious election. We’re hearing that several parishes have called because they want to reprint it in their church bulletins. Nice to hear positive feedback from readers, especially this year.

11:25 a.m. ET: Our earlier story on the pope sending a congratulatory message to Obama has now been updated with comments from the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

11:18 a.m. ET: Backgrounder from our Latin America correspondent: When dealing with Latin America, Obama faces complexities.

11:13 a.m. ET: The Catholic Sun in Phoenix (where John McCain conceded last night) has its own story on last night’s events there.

11:02 a.m. ET: Our story on yesterday’s referendums: Church view on same-sex marriage prevails; other ballot issues fail.

10:51 a.m. ET: In addition to noticing the success of ballot initiatives on marriage (see below), the National Catholic Register has an editorial titled “Our President” noting that, like it or not, Barack Obama won the election and deserves to be treated with respect even when opposing some of his policies.

10:44 a.m. ET: The next U.S. ambassador to the Vatican? Amy Welborn says she first thought of Douglas Kmiec but then had this name flash through her mind: Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. As she says, “Hmmm.”

10:33 a.m. ET: The Catholic Key, newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., has this blog post up reminding readers that no matter who won or lost, the Lord God is the one we should trust.

10:25 a.m. ET: A blogger on the site of Commonweal magazine wonders if the day will pass without someone putting up the headline, “First Catholic VP is elected.”

10:15 a.m. ET: Big Wins for Marriage, says the National Catholic Register.

9:05 a.m. ET: Pope sends congratulatory message to Obama

8:52 a.m. ET: President of U.S. bishops congratulates Obama on ‘historic election’ (text of news release)

8:40 a.m. ET: Vatican spokesman expresses hopes for Obama’s presidency

- – -

Today we’re gathering reaction from around the church and the Catholic press to the results of last night’s election returns.

But also, what do you think? By any measure, the election of the first African-American to the presidency of the United States is historic. But also, what does yesterday’s election mean to the future of race relations, to the future of the abortion issue, to the future of the rest of the Catholic Church’s social agenda? And what about the approval in California of the amendment that defines marriage as the union of husband and wife?

We’ll be adding links here throughout the day, but you can also comment below. (Comments are moderated, but if you’re on topic yours will appear as soon as we can get to it.)


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