How Should U.S. Catholics Vote in the Elections?

Bishops Focusing Attention on a Critical Question

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NEW YORK, OCT. 15, 2004 ( The U.S. presidential campaign is stirring intense comment in more than just the secular arena.

This year’s closely contested race between President George Bush and Senator John Kerry has prompted a wave of efforts within the Church to raise awareness about Catholics’ duties in forming their conscience before voting Nov. 2.

At one level in the Church’s contribution to the political arena is a range of documents being published to help inform the faithful.

A key document from the U.S. bishops’ conference was «Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility,» published last March. On Tuesday, the bishops of Pennsylvania announced the publication of «Catholic Conscience and Public Policy.»

The latter document aims to counter what the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference calls an «increasingly secular culture» and to defend the role of religious believers and organizations in American society.

The question-and-answer document explains the Church and its role in civic life, the state’s responsibility to religious bodies, the meaning of religious freedom, and exercising «faithful citizenship.»

It also tackles the thorny question of whether the Catholic Church is seeking to impose its morality on society and whether that violates the «separation of church and state.»

In Missouri, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis has been notably vocal in speaking out on the need for Catholic voters to defend the culture of life when they go to the polls.

In a recent pastoral letter, «On Our Civic Responsibility for the Common Good,» the archbishop explains the moral principles behind formation of conscience and how a Catholic should approach civic duties.

A summary in the diocesan St. Louis Review outlined key points of the pastoral letter, including:

— The right to act in accord with conscience presupposes that it is informed with the truth God has inscribed in our hearts and revealed in Scripture. Conscience is the voice of God within us, assisting us to choose good and to avoid evil, in accord with God’s law.

— We are morally bound in conscience to choose government leaders who will serve the common good. The first priority of the common good is the protection of human life, the basis of all other social conditions.

There can never be justification for directly and deliberately taking innocent human life: abortion, destruction of human embryos, euthanasia, human cloning.

Legal recognition of same-sex relationships undermines the truth about marriage and sanctions gravely immoral acts.

For the sake of the common good we must safeguard the good of human life and the good of marriage and family life.

The death penalty and war are different from procured abortion and same-sex «marriage,» since these latter acts are intrinsically evil and therefore can never be justified. Although war and capital punishment can rarely be justified, they are not intrinsically evil.

— To ensure the common good, Catholics have a responsibility to vote for a worthy candidate, because the welfare of the community depends upon the persons elected and appointed to office.

— It is never right to vote for a candidate in order to promote immoral practices; this is «formal cooperation» in evil.

In some circumstances it is morally permissible for a Catholic to vote for a candidate who supports some immoral practices while opposing other immoral practices. This is called «material cooperation» and is permissible under certain conditions and when it is impossible to avoid all cooperation with evil, as may well be true in selecting a candidate for public office.

There is no element of the common good that could justify voting for a candidate who also endorses, without restriction or limitation, the deliberate killing of the innocent, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, human cloning or same-sex marriage.

— If a candidate supports abortion in a limited number of cases, but is opposed otherwise, Catholics may vote for this person. This is not a question of choosing a lesser evil but of limiting all the evil one is able to limit at the time.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, has also addressed the question about whom Catholics could morally vote for in an election.

According to today’s New York Times, Archbishop Chaput in an interview said that a Catholic who votes for a candidate because of his support for abortion or embryonic stem cell research would have to go to confession first before receiving Communion.

«If you vote this way, are you cooperating in evil?» he asked, according to the Times. «And if you know you are cooperating in evil, should you go to confession? The answer is yes.»

In a recent column in the Denver Catholic Register, the archbishop addressed some of the historical events that have led many U.S. Catholic politicians to think they can embrace abortion and other illicit practices while proclaiming themselves to be faithful to the Church.

«Forty-four years ago this month (Sept. 12, 1960),» Archbishop Chaput wrote, «John F. Kennedy delivered remarks to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association wherein he effectively severed his Catholic identity from his public service. It’s OK to elect me president, he argued to a wary Protestant audience, because I won’t let the pope tell me what to do.»

«In pledging to put the ‘national interest’ above ‘religious pressures or dictates,'» the archbishop continued, «Kennedy created a template for a generation of Catholic candidates: Be American first; be Catholic second. This was an easy calculus for Kennedy, who wore his faith loosely anyway. And it was certainly what the American public square, with its historic anti-Catholic prejudice, wanted to hear.

«The Kennedy compromise seemed to work pretty well as long as the ‘religious pressures’ faced by Catholic elected officials involved issues like divorce, federal aid to Catholic schools or diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Each of these issues was important, surely, but none involved life and death. None was jugular.

«In 1973, by legalizing abortion on demand, the U.S. Supreme Court changed everything. The reason is simple: Abortion is different. Abortion kills. …»

Archbishop Chaput added: «Resistance to abortion cuts across all religions. It’s not a ‘Catholic’ issue. In fact, it’s finally not a religious issue at all, but a matter of human rights, reinforced by the irrefutable scientific fact that life begins at conception.

«After 1973, because of Roe v. Wade, Catholic elected officials faced a choice. They could either work to change or at least mitigate permissive abortion laws, while at the same time trying to repopulate the courts with pro-life judges. Or they could abandon the unborn and look for a way to morally sanitize their decision. For those who chose the latter course, the leading Catholic political figure of the day stepped in to help them out.

«Twenty years ago this month (Sept. 13, 1984), then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo delivered a speech at the University of Notre Dame that sought to give intellectual muscle to the Kennedy compromise. Cuomo, unlike Kennedy, was more educated about his faith. Cuomo, unlike Kennedy, had the benefit of seeing where Kennedy’s Houston speech had finally led. But Cuomo, like Kennedy, was a man with presidential prospects. To what degree those prospects shaped the talk he gave — ‘Religious belief and public morality: a Catholic governor’s perspective’ — is unclear. But the results remain with us still.

«Cuomo argued that ‘in our attempt to find a political answer to abortion — an answer beyond our private observance of Catholic morality’ — he
had concluded that ‘legal interdicting of abortion by either the federal government or the individual states is not a plausible possibility, and even if it could be obtained, it wouldn’t work.’ He might privately oppose abortion but, in his view, he had no right to ‘impose’ that belief on others.

«In hindsight, Cuomo’s speech is a tour de force of articulate misdirection. It refuses to acknowledge the teaching and formative power of the law. It implicitly equates unequal types of issues. It misuses the ‘seamless garment’ metaphor. It effectively blames Catholics themselves for the abortion problem. It selectively misreads history.

«In the end, Cuomo argued that ‘approval or rejection of legal restrictions on abortion should not be the exclusive litmus test of Catholic loyalty.’ With those words, he wrote the alibi for every ‘pro-choice’ Catholic who has held public office since.

«In deference to his understanding of pluralistic democracy, Governor Cuomo — despite his personal opposition to abortion — went on to resist repeated attempts to restrict abortion in his own state of New York. He also supported public funding of abortion for poor women.

«His Catholic conscience apparently did kick in on selective issues though, whether ‘pluralism’ liked it or not. Governor Cuomo vetoed legislative efforts to re-institute the death penalty — 12 times.»

Archbishop Chaput concluded: «Next month, October, is Respect Life month. It’s a good time to reflect on the meaning of the Kennedy-Cuomo legacy. In brief, it’s OK to be Catholic in public service as long as you’re willing to jettison what’s inconveniently ‘Catholic.’

«That’s not a compromise. That’s a deal with the devil, and it has a balloon payment no nation, no public servant and no voter can afford.»

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., at a gathering of priests last week, urged local Catholics to vote with «informed consciences.» He asked priests to encourage their parishioners to read the U.S. bishops’ statement «Faithful Citizenship.»

The right to life is a fundamental issue for voters, he said. «If we’re not alive, we cannot exercise our other rights.» The cardinal mentioned threats to human life, from abortion to euthanasia to embryonic stem cell research, and further threats to human life and dignity such as war, terrorism, land mines and the death penalty.

He noted that, while the Church should help inform the consciences of voters, «it’s not our job to tell them how to vote.»

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