BALTIMORE — The U.S. bishops have instructed Catholics they must assign top priority to opposing abortion and to other fundamental moral issues when deciding how to vote in elections.

“That is the core of the document — that the obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions,” Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, told the Register.

“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility From the Catholic Bishops of the United States” was approved on a 221-4 vote Nov. 14 during the bishops’ fall general assembly in Baltimore.

The bishops release an updated version of “Faithful Citizenship” every four years. However, pro-life advocates have criticized earlier versions of the document for not stating clearly that Catholics should give primacy to life issues when participating in the political process.

The new document responds to those concerns. In its extensive discussion on how Catholics should form their consciences on political issues, it singles out abortion and euthanasia as “intrinsically evil” matters that “must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned” by Catholics.

According to the document, “Similarly, direct threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life, such as human cloning and destructive research on human embryos, are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as racism, torture, genocide and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified.”

The U.S. bishops caution specifically against “a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many.”

Speaking shortly before the Nov. 14 vote to ratify “Faithful Citizenship,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Policy, said the document clearly distinguishes between “intrinsic evils like abortion and racism that can never be supported, and the related, but different, moral obligation to serve ‘the least of these,’ seek justice and pursue peace.”

Top Issue

Later in the document, abortion is highlighted as the top issue of Catholic concern in a section that lists 10 goals that America should pursue as a nation. According to the bishops, Catholics should ask political candidates how they plan to “address the preeminent requirement to protect the weakest in our midst — innocent unborn children — by restricting and bringing to an end to the destruction of unborn children through abortion.”

Brian Burch, president of the lay advocacy group Fidelis, praised the new version of “Faithful Citizenship” for spotlighting abortion.

“The document distances the bishops from the ‘seamless garment’ approach introduced by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin during the 1980s,” Burch said in a Nov. 14 press release.

“The ‘seamless garment’ philosophy intended to focus attention on a ‘consistent ethic of life’ where opposition to abortion was combined with prudential approaches to caring for the poor or the environment. Unfortunately, the ‘seamless garment’ was hijacked by pro-abortion Catholic politicians like [former New York Gov.] Mario Cuomo and others, who had no interest in protecting unborn children from abortion.”

Said Burch: “Today, the bishops have courageously reasserted their role as shepherds by instructing Catholics that, despite legitimate differences on other issues, abortion must always be opposed.”

The bishops stress in “Faithful Citizenship” that it is not the Church’s role to tell Catholics which candidates to vote for.

Instead, the document states, “Catholic voters should use the framework of Catholic teaching to examine candidates’ positions on issues affecting human life and dignity, as well as issues of justice and peace, and they should consider candidates’ integrity, philosophy and performance.”

Devoted More Attention

The bishops devoted much more attention to this version of “Faithful Citizenship” than to earlier ones, which were drafted mainly by a single committee of the bishops’ conference. This time, the bishops who chair seven key bishops’ conference committees — including the pro-life committee — all participated directly in drafting the new document.

The 2007 version is also the first to come before the full body of bishops. In past years, the documents were approved by the Administrative Committee, made up of the executive officers of the conference, elected committee chairmen and elected regional representatives.

Cardinal Rigali said that the bishops gave so much importance to the document because forming consciences for faithful citizenship “is an extremely important thing for a Catholic.”

“The document itself is a call to political responsibility,” said the cardinal. “And the faithful are challenged to form their consciences in accord with the teaching of the Church, and in accord with right reason and in accord with the natural law.”

Cardinal Rigali acknowledged that there have been difficulties in the past in communicating Church teachings about political responsibilities to Catholic Americans. But, he said, “the bishops have great hope that the people of God will listen to the teachings of the Church” as articulated in “Faithful Citizenship.”

According to Cardinal Rigali, the task for bishops, priests and laypeople now is to ensure that the document is widely distributed, discussed in depth and “prayerfully accepted” at the parish level. To assist that process, the U.S. bishops also approved a 2,000-word summary of “Faithful Citizenship” for use as a parish bulletin insert.

The bulletin insert is posted on the Internet at The complete “Faithful Citizenship” document, other relevant bishops’ conference and Vatican documents and parish planning suggestions are also available on that website.

Open Minds

The new document won’t help Catholics who refuse to reform their consciences if their beliefs conflict with fundamental Church teachings, Cardinal Rigali said.

“If a person says, ‘I’ve already made up my mind, and so I read the document only with the intention of seeing if this agrees with me or not, and as soon as there is the slightest difference between my opinion and the document then I discard it’ — this mental approach, this spiritual approach will never work,” he said. “We have to read it with the docility of faith and the understanding that none of us knows everything, and therefore the Church offers us this as a help.”

Cardinal Rigali warned that excessive political partisanship also hampers formation of an authentically Catholic political understanding.

“People have to realize that their consciences need to be formed,” Cardinal Rigali said. “And being Christian is so much more basic to us than automatically following a Democratic or a Republican agenda.”

(CNS contributed to this story.)

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.