WASHINGTON — Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine was gravely wrong to say at the Oct. 4 vice-presidential debate that he personally opposed abortion while taking a “pro-choice” stance in public office, a moral theologian says.

Kaine, a Catholic, took a “gravely immoral position” and one “that is incorrect,” Father Thomas Petri, dean of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., told CNA of Kaine’s argument that he tries to “follow the teachings of my church in my own personal life” but will not “mandate that [faith] for everybody else” through opposing abortion in public office.

“This is a human issue, not a religious issue,” Father Petri said of abortion. He pointed to Pope St. John Paul’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which insists that the right to life is the “primary right” and “without life, there are no other rights.”

One must oppose abortion not just on religious grounds, but as the primary human-rights issue, Father Petri said.

At Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate, the candidates were asked to reveal “a time when you struggled to balance your faith and a public-policy position” from their time in public office.

Kaine, a baptized Catholic who attends St. Elizabeth parish in the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, answered that when he was governor of Virginia, he was religiously opposed to the death penalty, but allowed executions because the law of the state demanded it in certain “heinous” cases.

“I think it is really, really important that those of us who have deep faith lives don’t feel like we can just substitute our views for everybody else in society regardless of their views,” he said at the debate.

Kaine was then pressed by his opponent Mike Pence, the Republican governor of Indiana, about his support for legal abortion, and Kaine repeated the same defense: that a politician’s religious beliefs shouldn’t be imposed on others through governance and legislation.

Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae that “laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual; they thus deny the equality of everyone before the law.”

“Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law,” he continued. “There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead, there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.”

Kaine insisted that, for the Hillary Clinton campaign, “we support Roe v. Wade. We support the constitutional right of American women to consult their own conscience” and “make their own decision about pregnancy.”

People of faith should be “convincing each other, dialoguing with each other about important moral issues of the day,” he continued, “but on fundamental issues of morality, we should let women make their own decisions.”

However, religion can’t be just a private thing; it should play a key role in how a politician governs, Father Petri insisted.

“We don’t expect legislators to be blank slates,” he said. “We expect them certainly to represent the interests of their constituents, but we vote for our legislators based on their positions on things, which one would hope would be shaped by experience, by life, by family, by faith — all of these things.”

“And so one naturally has to ask how important is the faith for any person who says ‘my faith has no bearing on my work or what I do in life,’” he continued.

Kaine has received a 100% rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League during his time in the Senate. Planned Parenthood’s political arm has hailed him as “a strong advocate for reproductive health and rights” and gave him a 100% rating, too.

“He supports access to affordable birth control and has consistently voted to ensure women have access to safe, legal abortion care,” the Planned Parenthood Action Fund stated of Kaine.

The candidate has said he personally supports the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the taxpayer funding of elective abortions, but Clinton wants it repealed, and a Clinton spokesperson previously said that Kaine “is committed to carrying out Secretary Clinton’s agenda.”

When Kaine was picked by Clinton to be her running mate, his bishop issued a statement about Church teaching on abortion and legislating.

“From the very beginning, Catholic teaching informs us that every human life is sacred from conception until natural death. The right to life is a fundamental, human right for the unborn and any law denying the unborn the right to life is unequivocally unjust,” Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of Richmond stated on July 22.

Kaine also said that he believed the Catholic Church would eventually change its teaching and allow for same-sex “marriage,” while speaking at a national dinner of the “LGBT” advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. 

Three days later, his bishop issued another statement that Church teaching on marriage could not, and will not, change.

“More than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage, and despite recent statements from the campaign trail, the Catholic Church’s 2000-year-old teaching to the truth about what constitutes marriage remains unchanged and resolute,” Bishop DiLorenzo stated on Sept. 13.

“As Catholics, we believe all humans warrant dignity and deserve love and respect, and unjust discrimination is always wrong,” he added. “Our understanding of marriage, however, is a matter of justice and fidelity to our Creator’s original design.”