BISMARCK, N.D. — Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck, N.D., defended his letter on the election, which was read this weekend at parishes in North Dakota, against demands by a state senator that it be withdrawn or changed.
“It’s with a properly formed conscience, which we regularly nourish with prayer, the sacraments and continued study, that we can ... set a good example, which ultimately isn’t about you or me,” Bishop Kagan told Catholic News Agency Oct. 30.
The example we set, he emphasized, presents Christ to other people.
Bishop Kagan is the ordinary of Bismarck and is serving as the apostolic administrator of Fargo while the see is vacant. As part of his role, Bishop Kagan issued the letter asking parishioners “to vote as a Catholic citizen with a properly formed Catholic conscience.”
Bishop Kagan wrote that the teachings of the Church are “the means for us to properly form our consciences, so that we seek always what is true and good.”
He went on to say that intrinsically evil actions, such as abortion and euthanasia, “must always be rejected and opposed” and that issues that do not directly affect the life and dignity of people are secondary to these.
Though Bishop Kagan “will not tell you how to vote,” he wrote that “I ask you to vote for the candidates who represent you as Catholic citizens. Please do not vote for the candidate who is most likeable.”
Responding to an advance copy of the letter, however, state Sen. Tim Mathern asserted in an Oct. 23 statement that the obligation to “follow your conscience” is in conflict with the obligation of Catholics to form their conscience according to Church teaching and that Bishop Kagan’s teaching “short-circuits conscience formation.”
Mathern’s statement also characterized Bishop Kagan’s letter as “a request on voting for or against a specific person or party,” thus risking the Church’s nonprofit status.
Though no candidates or parties are mentioned by name in the letter, Mathern believes Bishop Kagan’s plea not to vote for the “most likeable” candidate is too particular.
“North Dakotans who have been exposed to political coverage or advertisements this election season can readily identify the candidate who is considered the ‘most likeable,’” he said. “Repeatedly, newspaper reports use this designation for one candidate, as do ads against her candidacy.”
Bishop Kagan responded to CNA, however, that he wrote the letter out of concern for the souls of the Catholic faithful under his charge.
“There isn’t a circumstance that can ever justify you or me checking our faith at the door and then going in and doing something that is contrary to what we say we believe.”
“It does a great disservice to other Catholics, and to those who are not Catholic, if we create one of those artificial divisions between what I believe as a Catholic and what I do as a Catholic.”
Bishop Kagan added that “conscience can be in error” and that, while there are things that are “easily recognized” by individual consciences as true or false, there are also matters “in between.”
“And that’s where the relationship between Church authority and conscience ... becomes so necessary and essential, because it’s not always clear what is the truth and therefore what is the good.”
“So it’s that recognition that there is an authority ... that can inform and properly form one’s conscience so it recognizes the truth and then directs the person to seek that which is true and good.”
He said the relationship between authority and conscience is a “complementary” one and that authority and conscience are not meant to be “at odds” with one another.
“For a Catholic to properly form and inform his or her conscience, so that the truth is recognized and the good is pursued ... one has to be able to look to the authentic teaching of that truth,” he said.
“I was taken aback when my use of an adjective (likeable) was interpreted as endorsing one candidate over another,” Bishop Kagan said. “I’m not singling out anybody; I’m talking about all candidates, and I stand by that. ... I don’t regret using that adjective.”
“Why would I base my choice of a candidate on likeability rather than a reasoned examination of the candidates’ positions on all of the important issues?” he asked.
The bishop noted that the response to his letter has been overwhelmingly positive. Of more than 400 emails he has received about it, only six have objected to the letter. And the Bismarck Diocese’s Facebook page has more than doubled since Friday.
Said Bishop Kagan, “The response I’ve seen has been overwhelmingly in support ... so that as many Catholics as possible are reminded of essential Catholic Church teachings as we are to apply these in daily life, whether it’s voting in an election or business practices or whatever it may be.”