Responsibility of U.S. Catholic Voters and Candidates in Upcoming Elections

Interview with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick

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NEW YORK, AUG. 31, 2004 ( «Freedom of conscience, but only after informing oneself in depth on the teachings of the Church,» is a formula that should guide the political decisions of Catholics, explained Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington.

The U.S. electorate, about one quarter of which is Catholic, will vote for a new president in November. Without showing favoritism to any one candidate, the USCCB Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians, of which Cardinal McCarrick is the head, has given guidelines to help the faithful in their «moral duty» to be responsible, as the cardinal explained in an interview with the Italian newspaper Avvenire.

Q: In a bipartisan system, such as that of the United States, it is very difficult for a candidate’s programmatic platform to satisfy every element of Catholic social doctrine. How must a Catholic conduct himself in face of two necessarily imperfect candidates?

Cardinal McCarrick: To find the ideal candidate it is not only difficult but impossible. We tell the faithful, however, with clarity that it is always important to continue supporting the principles that define Catholic morality and to keep them alive in the candidates’ conscience as well as in that of the voters themselves. We wish to make it understood that as pastors we are profoundly involved and interested in the country’s public life.

Q: What pointers do you give as bishops to American Catholics who are preparing to vote in November?

Cardinal McCarrick: The premise is that the bishops do not favor one candidate over the other. We do not want to enter directly into political decisions. What we do is to indicate Catholic social doctrine and the documents on the relationship between public life and Catholicism published by the Holy See, and to present to the faithful the criteria that must guide a Catholic’s political options. The underlying idea is that to be a responsible citizen is a virtue and to participate in the political and electoral process is a moral duty.

Q: What, then, are the principles that a Catholic must put in first place when making a political decision?

Cardinal McCarrick: First is respect for life. This must be the foundation of every discussion and political decision. But it is not the only value of reference. Catholic doctrine also indicates as necessary a responsible policy in regard to questions linked to peace, social justice and aid to the poor. We seek to communicate to the faithful that responsible citizenship means to know these topics and to safeguard them. We also say that every decision must be made in freedom of conscience, but only after informing oneself in depth on the teachings of the Church.

Q: In recent months more than one American bishop has spoken, publicly or in the episcopal conference, of the possibility of not offering the Eucharist to candidates who profess themselves Catholics, as John Kerry, but support the right to abortion. The documents of the U.S. bishops from a recent assembly in Colorado seem to be cautious on the matter. What is the conclusion of the task force you head?

Cardinal McCarrick: We are still working on the question, but for the time being the decision is left to each bishop, who knows better than anyone else the circumstances that are verified in his diocese, as well as the commitment and action of local politicians. We have complete confidence in the fact that each one of them will be able to make the right decision. But we have made all the bishops note that, as the episcopal conference, we want to avoid the inflaming instrumentalization of a political character of the Eucharist and that the altar is not the appropriate place for battles that can and must be fought in other places.

Q: What is the function of the Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians?

Cardinal McCarrick: The objective of our work is to dialogue and educate. We then seek the best way to place ourselves in relation with the Catholic politicians of both parties, and we try to keep the dialogue open with all. We want to explain to them which are the important topics for a Catholic and why. And we remind them that even in respect of their freedom of conscience, if they act in disaccord with Catholic doctrine, they must not, in conscience, approach the altar to receive Communion.

Q: Last week, you and other American cardinals participated in a congress of the Knights of Columbus association in which George W. Bush also participated. The U.S. press has interpreted it as an implicit support of the president’s election. What is your response?

Cardinal McCarrick: I responded to the invitation of an association that is very active in all U.S. dioceses and contributes enormously to vocations and to the charitable activity of U.S. Catholics. It is the major Catholic association of the United States and by tradition it always invites the U.S. bishops and cardinals to its annual assembly, which I, for example, never miss. No one, including myself, went in honor of the president, but for a profitable day of meetings and work.

Q: The most absurd interpretations of the behavior of members of the Church in the United States are the order of the day in the electoral campaign. Do they disturb you? Do you think that they can be avoided?

Cardinal McCarrick: Instrumentalization and misunderstandings are always possible, and it is very difficult to avoid them. Especially if a pastor lives and works in the district as I do, he is even more involved in national political life and is even more exposed to the attention of the media. It is important to know how to deal with these situations without fomenting scandal, and the task force I head offers the bishops many suggestions in this respect.

The main thing is to always have an open dialogue with all, even at the risk of misunderstandings. I have found myself more than once «in problems,» so to speak, for being ready to meet with everyone and talk with everyone, but I intend to continue to do so. The example of the Holy Father in this regard is clear and I will always try to follow him.

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