Bishops Active at State and National Level in Current Election Cycle

State Catholic conferences have involved themselves in a variety of ways, and the U.S. bishops also have collectively identified some key issues of concern.

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WASHINGTON — With Election Day less than a week away, Catholic voters in several states will be considering many ballot measures in addition to hotly contested races for various state and federal offices. 

The individual state Catholic conferences, the public-policy arms of the states’ bishops, have surveyed candidates, compiled “informed citizenship” guides for Catholic voters and staked out positions on a host of ballot questions pertaining to matters of life, religious freedom, marriage and human dignity.

Throughout the year, the committee chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have also prepared statements and spoken out on several political issues that are impacting individual congressional races, such as immigration, marriage, national security and health-care reform.

“The USCCB comments on issues important to Catholic voters every four years, in advance of presidential election years,” noted Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the USCCB’s Pro-Life Office, referring to the “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship“ document.

“No document is issued nationally for midterm elections, though many state Catholic conferences publish statement or candidate questionnaires on websites and in local Catholic newspapers,” Doerflinger told the Register.


State Catholic Conferences

A survey of state Catholic conferences across the country shows that many have been actively engaging Catholic voters in this election cycle.

The California Catholic Conference is supporting one ballot question: Proposition 47. The measure seeks to address prison overcrowding and proposes investing in victims’ assistance, mental-health programs, public education, drug treatment and inmate rehabilitation. The state’s bishops are unanimously supporting the measure because they say the criminal-justice system in California “remains desperately in need of significant reform.”

“All human life is sacred, and, therefore, all social policies and actions in the realm of criminal justice — as with all of our individual and societal actions — must begin with respect for the life and dignity of the human person,” the California Catholic bishops said in a joint statement.

In Colorado, the state Catholic conference published a brochure urging voters to see where candidates stand on immigration, marriage, economic justice, parental choice in education, the sanctity of human life and religious freedom.

The Colorado Catholic Conference also responded to a media campaign that Catholics for Choice, a pro-abortion group that has been denounced by the U.S. bishops for misrepresenting itself as an authentically Catholic organization, launched against Amendment 67, a ballot question that would amend the state Constitution to include the unborn under the definition of “person” and “child” in the state’s criminal code. The bishops have not taken a position on Amendment 67, but they notified voters in an Oct. 23 statement that Catholics for Choice “does not speak for the Catholic Church.”

“When it comes to statistics, Catholics for Choice only chooses those findings that agree with their dissent from Church teaching. They claim that only 14% of Catholics believe that abortion is morally wrong, but well-established research consistently shows that over half of all American Catholics believe that abortion is morally wrong [as the Church teaches],” the Colorado bishops said.

Meanwhile, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops is urging voters to carefully review Amendment 2, a ballot initiative that would legalize medical marijuana. The bishops said the amendment is “problematic” because of the potential for fraud and abuse, not to mention the potential for youth to have greater access to marijuana.

“Our God-given capacity for compassion impels us to seek treatment for the sick and to alleviate the pain experienced by those who suffer. However, in doing so, we must ensure that we are not endangering those we are hoping to help by exposing them to even greater harm,” the Florida bishops said.


Voter Guidance and Social-Media Engagement

While not taking positions on any ballot questions, the Illinois Catholic bishops offered guidance for voters before they cast ballots on Nov. 4.

In their statement, the bishops said that “not all issues carry equal moral weight” and that policies that encourage intrinsically evil acts — such as abortion, human embryo experimentation and destruction and assisted suicide — can never be supported.

“Catholics with a well-formed conscience would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil if they were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stance on these policies,” the Illinois bishops said, adding that voters, when faced with a choice where both candidates accept intrinsic evils, may consider the candidate who would more likely promote other authentic human goods.

The Kansas bishops have taken to social media to engage voters. In four video reflections posted on YouTube, the state’s four bishops offer brief catecheses on marriage, religious freedom, defense of life and usury, which in Kansas and elsewhere is seen in payday loan centers engaging in predatory lending.

“The teaching on usury has been forgotten or ignored, and laws regulating it have been watered down or quietly repealed,” said Bishop Edward Weisenburger of Salina, Kan. Bishop Weisenburger added that a genuine concern for the poor “is necessary for anyone who would claim Christ as their savior.”

In his reflection on religious freedom, Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita, Kan., urged voters to give the issue special consideration, given the increasing pressures that faithful Christians are experiencing as the culture becomes more secularized.

“If a candidate thinks that Catholic teaching on marriage is something hateful that needs to be punished by the government, then how can we give that person our vote?” Bishop Kemme said.

In Maryland, the state Catholic conference surveyed candidates for Congress, governor and the General Assembly about their positions on issues of interest to Catholics. The survey covers topics ranging from protecting the unborn, physician-assisted suicide, immigration and non-public schools. 

“The public-policy positions of the Church may seem contradictory from a conservative-liberal, Democratic-Republican perspective, but from the lens of our faith, they reflect a compelling and consistent understanding of human life and the common good,” Maryland Catholic Conference Executive Director Ellen Russell said in a prepared statement.


Casinos and Personhood Amendments

The four Catholic bishops of Massachusetts have been vocal in recent weeks in calling on the commonwealth’s voters to approve ballot measures that would repeal the state’s expanded casino gaming law and legally require employers to provide earned sick time. The bishops said that the casino gaming industry “threatens local businesses, weakens the moral fabric of society and fundamentally alters communities for decades to come.”

On an earned sick-time measure — Question 4 — the bishops said the initiative would help protect the dignity of workers: “Low-wage workers, those that are most vulnerable, deserve the security of knowing that their work will result in providing for their means and the means of their families without the fear of job loss. This proposal is reasonable and fair.”

A personhood amendment in North Dakota — Measure 1 — is supported by that state’s Catholic conference. Measure 1 would amend the North Dakota Constitution to provide for the “inalienable right to life” at every stage of human development. Recent public polling has found that almost half of North Dakota voters support the measure. The initiative is a response to a 2013 state judge’s ruling that blocked a 2011 law that would have restricted the use of medical abortions.

“The people of North Dakota have a right to decide this question before the abortion lobby comes back into the state to try again to strike down laws that even the U.S. Supreme Court has said that we can pass,” said Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference.

The Tennessee Catholic bishops are also supporting a pro-life measure known as Amendment 1, which proposes amending the state Constitution to say it does not secure or protect the right to an abortion or require public funding for abortions. The amendment would also empower state legislators to enact, amend or repeal state statutes regarding abortion, including for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to protect the mother’s life.

In an Oct. 19 statement, Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tenn., said Amendment 1 addresses a “moral issue of great magnitude.”

“As bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville, I will never identify myself with any political movement,” Bishop Stika said. “But as Christians who cherish all aspects of life, especially those experienced by the unborn, we must speak up in support of issues that Amendment 1 represents.”

Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.