Catholic politicians must vote with the church?

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How many of you remember the Pope for a Day controversy?

Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey once stirred strong negative feelings within the Democratic Party by advocating strongly for his pro-life views, even fighting to express them at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

Controversial convention buttons were created depicting devout Catholic Casey in pope garb — they read "Pope for a Day" — to mock his advocacy. It was a stupid, ugly episode.

The kindest way to look back on this is to suggest that many people are uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of faith and politics, a tension that resonates in recent comments by Lehigh County Commissioner Vic Mazziotti.

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Years back, a local church asked me and other people from various walks of life to offer brief Lenten reflections about how our faith affects us in the workplace. I'm no theologian, so I just spoke from my heart, explaining that as a Christian, I try my best — mostly subconsciously and terribly imperfectly — to follow Christ's example in the things I do and say.

To my mind, this doesn't mean that working people must consider the pronouncements of their faith's governing body for every managerial decision, legislative vote or, in my case, column stance.

I'm a member of a church that at one time didn't allow the ordination of gay pastors, a position I disagreed with. Men and women make those decisions, and they're not perfect. The hope, therefore, is not that we'll walk in lock step with church leaders on every issue. It's that our underlying faith and holy teachings — in whatever form of God we worship — will help shape our judgment and the way we live.

Mazziotti made it clear he thinks that responsibility is much more clear-cut.

He joined five other commissioners in overriding County Executive Matt Croslis' veto of a budget amendment dropping the expansion of benefits to same-sex couples who are legally married in another state.

Mazziotti said he opposed the expansion because the state does not recognize same-sex marriage. But he added, "I'm a Catholic, and in the Catholic Church individual members of the church aren't permitted to determine what is appropriate and not appropriate. … The church's position on same-sex marriage is clear. They do not support it. Were I to vote for this, I would be cooperating with behavior that my church does not condone. ... No faithful Catholic could vote for this amendment."

Croslis responded that he's a practicing Catholic also, but that the present policy is discriminatory.

Mazziotti's comments notwithstanding, political leaders of both parties have balanced their faith beliefs and public positions in different ways.

One recent Morning Call letter-writer mentioned John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president and one who had to overcome substantial anti-Catholic prejudice to win the presidency in 1960. He did this in part by reassuring people that he would not impose his religious views on the country.

"I want a chief executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none," he said in a memorable speech about his religion.

Since then, religious prejudice has faded as a factor in elections, although ham-handed attempts in 2008 to suggest that Barack Obama was a Muslim were a reminder that it hasn't entirely disappeared.

Many years after Kennedy, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a strong advocate for capital punishment, told The Morning Call that his position troubled him as a Catholic.

"It's difficult and not an easy thing for me to think differently on issues than the church does," he said.

He opted for what he felt was right for the people of Pennsylvania, perhaps mindful that its taxpayers are Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and people who don't believe in God. If you seek public office, you have a duty to serve all of them.

Elected statewide and countywide officials in Pennsylvania take this oath: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth and that I will discharge the duties of my office with fidelity."

In that regard, gay marriage still falls into a gray area, although the U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year suggests that Defense of Marriage Laws, including Pennsylvania's, are doomed. For that reason, and my own sense of right and wrong, I would side with Croslis.

Still, I'll acknowledge that Mazziotti and the other commissioners who opposed benefits for same-sex couples are correct about state law at present, so I won't quarrel with their vote or with Mazziotti's further explanation of his personal motivation. In fact, I appreciate his honesty.

But I think it's troubling to hear any public official suggest that all faithful Catholic politicians — or Jews, Lutherans or whatever, by extension — must follow his philosophy of letting church policies dictate their votes.

I think we have every right to expect independent judgment from the people we elect. 610-820-6105

Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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Bill White is a columnist for The Morning Call in Allentown, PA. His column appears in The Morning Call and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.


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