Did you know that PBS has a Religion & Ethics show? Watching PBS to get your info on religion and ethics seems strangely akin to watch the Food Network for thoughtful drama, but maybe that just me.

Anyway, they recently had a round-table discussion about what we can expect in 2010 and lefty Catholic E.J. Dionne participated. This is not one of those fun outrage posts where I mock something dopey a liberal Catholic said. However, I did find it interesting in that I agreed with a little he said and scratched my head at the rest. A few excerpts.

ABERNETHY: E.J., it is an election year again. What do you see as a result of that that will be of particular importance to believers?

DIONNE: I think, first of all, we may have the discussion on morality and the economy that was, I think, a little bit delayed, that people were trying to come to terms with what the downturn meant. I think there is going to be now a real look back and look forward as to why did we get into this mess—how much of it were practical problems, how much of it were about people not taking responsibilities seriously that they should have—the stewards of our economy, the people with a strong position in our economy. I think that debate will very much affect the elections.

Funny thing is that I think he is wrong but I actually wish he was right. I agree that we have not adequately dealt with the moral aspects of the behavior that led to the crash. I think that the excessive risk taking by individuals and businesses during the period was immoral in many cases. Much has been said about this but it has probably not been adequately addressed. What definitely has not been adequately addressed is the role government played in exacerbating and even causing many of these problems. The truth of this can be seen in the blind eye that the government has taken to Fannie and Freddie resuming their previous risky and quite possibly immoral behavior. That said, I don’t think that a debate on the morality of these individual, corporate, and governmental practices will have any impact on the election. Most people are sadly not interested in the morality of it all. If things are going up, they are happy. Inf things are going down, they are not. Period.

That’s about all the agreeing I will be doing today. Dionne goes on to frame the Catholic debate on healthcare in a way that I think is problematic in that he defines health insurance (not health care) as a moral imperative but abortion as a narrow issue. Suffice it to say I think he has it backwards.

I think what you saw among religious groups, particularly Christian religious groups, were a real difference between those who laid the heaviest stress on the moral imperative to getting everyone, or as many people as possible, covered through insurance, versus those who felt that the major emphasis on whether abortion is or is not funded and how in this health care debate. I think that’s going to have a continuing effect, because I think there is this running dialogue, certainly in the Catholic Church that I’m part of, but I think in all of our traditions, between those who believe the central emphasis of our religious group should be on a certain relatively narrow—though they would say very important—list of moral questions: abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research versus those who say that the emphasis should be on a much broader agenda having to do with social justice and how we organize our lives together in the economy. I think that discussion is going to very alive, made all the more so by the controversy of an election year.

And lastly I found humorous his defense of those poor catholic nuns who are being investigated by the bad ol’ Vatican followed by an even more humorous question by Jayson Byassee of the Duke Divinity School. Follow this discussion.

LAWTON: The Vatican says that it wants to look into the quality of life for US sisters. That has created a huge amount of consternation here in the US, as there are questionnaires that have been sent to different communities of sisters with a lot of questions. Many of them feel like we’re not going to answer some of these. So that’s going to be moving forward throughout this year, as that sort of give-and-take moves forward. Do they answer these questions? What do they say? How do they say it? What’s really behind all of these questions in the first place? That’s what a lot of people, not just among nuns but across the Catholic community, want to know. What’s really behind this study, this investigation?

DIONNE: There’s a great danger here. I think this could prove a very, very divisive move inside the church. There is enormous affection toward nuns among people who are Catholics. Many of us owe enormous debts to them for our educations and for so many other things they did. They are among the most activist—that’s a bad term in the eyes of some conservatives—as in giving comfort to the poor, helping the sick, doing all the things the Gospel says we should do. And so they risk, I think, a real backlash, if they don’t handle this very carefully. I think they are already confronting it, to some degree. They’ve got to be very careful with the nuns. I’ve got some nuns that sent that message.

BYASSEE: It is an interesting question. If you have an enormously radical form of life, based on what Jesus said we should do, can you be liberal doctrinally? It sounds like the answer may be no, right? That’s a very risky answer…

DIONNE: The answer from the Vatican may be no. It’s not clear to me that there is, first of all, any consistent sort of liberal doctrinal positions, and to the extent that they are somewhat more liberal—for example, in asserting that perhaps there is a bigger role for women to play in the authority structure of the church—it shouldn’t surprise that perhaps that the nuns, who have taken so much responsibility for helping run the church, just might have a view like that.

“They’ve got to be very careful with the nuns. I’ve got some nuns that sent that message.” That about sums it up.