Bishops and Campaign 2004

WASHINGTON — Catholic participation in the recent U.S. presidential election was substantially higher than four years earlier, according to a Nov. 30 report by the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University. In 2004, 63% of Catholic voters turned out, as opposed to 57% in 2000.

With the scandal of a pro-abortion Catholic candidate thrust into center stage and with issues of life and death hanging in the balance, those voters heard more from their bishops, priests and Catholic lay leaders than they did in any election in recent memory.

Most bishops used the opportunity as a teaching moment. The majority used “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility,” a document provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to help their flocks make voting decisions.

“Faithful Citizenship,” published for every general election since 1976, examines a range of moral and social issues at stake in the public square. It exhorts Catholics to consider candidates on the “full range of issues” — the “life” issues, such as abortion, as well as concerns about the poor and vulnerable, workers’ rights, the environment and world peace. Voters are urged to “not isolate a particular element of Catholic doctrine.”

In the section “Protecting Human Life,” the guide declares that “the deliberate killing of a human being is always morally wrong.” That, it says, includes abortion and euthanasia, but also war, nuclear-weapons proliferation, land mines, global arms trade and the death penalty.

In the recent election cycle, most bishops also included materials that they or their state Catholic conferences produced. Material used in individual dioceses was often much more explicit than “Faithful Citizenship.” The breakout on fundamental moral and social positions among candidates was so clearly defined that when individual bishops did present the Catholic position on the “counter-cultural” issues, they were quickly accused of being partisan, and often harshly attacked.

Bishop John McCormack of Manchester, N.H., for example, circulated some 40,000 voter guides based on “Faithful Citizenship,” accompanied by a letter which clearly laid out moral imperatives. A local weekly railed against him in response.

Among those who defended Bishop McCormack was Paul Melanson, a parishioner at St. Marie’s Parish in Manchester. “The Gospel has political implications for those who follow Christ and who have a role to play in the political process,” Melanson said in a letter published on the website of Faithful Voice, a Massachusetts Catholic organization. In a phone interview, Melanson said, “Bishop McCormack’s voting resource represents an attempt by him to care for the spiritual needs of his community.”

While not endorsing a specific candidate, in a pastoral letter to his diocese, the bishop advised his people to “take time to learn what is true and good and what will serve the common good and to vote for the candidates that best serve these truths.”

In a letter for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Archbishop John Donoghue wrote: “As a bishop of the Church, I cannot tell you for whom to vote. But I can teach you, on behalf of the Church, the manner in which you must decide for whom to vote.” The archbishop stressed the importance of an informed conscience and pointed out that the Church holds her members to “complete acceptance of her teaching on matters of faith and morals.” He indicated that a Catholic is never permitted to vote for a candidate because of his or her support of abortion rights.

In a joint statement with Bishops Robert Baker of Charleston, S.C., and Peter Jugis of Charlotte, N.C., Archbishop Donoghue stated that any Catholic who publicly espoused proabortion positions was not to be admitted to Communion within their jurisdictions.

In a series of articles and letters, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago also directly instructed his community on the Catholic meaning of “the common good” and unabashedly called abortion “a crime against humanity.” It is “the primary political concern” and not merely one of a “laundry list” of moral issues, he said. Cardinal George stated that Catholic officeholders and voters must “evaluate their political choices in light of their faith” and echoed the U.S. bishops’ position that “voting to protect legal abortion is a form of cooperating in the evil of abortion itself.” He spoke out strongly against politicians who claim to be Catholic while compiling a pro-abortion voting record. He added that a minister of holy Communion “may and sometimes must” refuse to give Communion to such manifest and obstinate sinners.

In addition to a lengthy pastoral letter, “Faithful Citizenship” and other material, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke opted to use the “Voters Guide for Serious Catholics” produced by San Diego-based Catholic Answers. This guide identifies five “non-negotiable” issues for voters, which, according to Catholic doctrine, are “intrinsically evil.” It quotes heavily from papal and magisterial sources. More than 50,000 copies were distributed, according to Julie Sheerin of the archdiocesan Respect Life Office, and the archdiocese reordered several times.

Nationwide, at least 8 million copies of the guide were mailed out, according to Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers. Although the proabortion group Catholics for a Free Choice complained to the Internal Revenue Service about Catholic Answers, Akin explained that the apologetics organization had gotten “expert legal opinion” prior to putting the guide together. He dismissed the actions of Catholics for a Free Choice as a “frivolous attempt at intimidation.”

Some bishops, though — including those in Alaska; St. Bernardino, Calif.; Saint Paul and Minneapolis and St. Cloud, Minn. — expressed serious objections and decided against using the Catholic Answers guide. According to Dennis McGrath, communications director for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, the role of the Church is to be pastoral and teach, not to do anything that would dictate, or endorse a political candidate. James Birnbaum, attorney for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., expressed legal reservations to its use with respect to the tax code.

According to Sharon Foyka of the Diocese of St. Cloud, who discussed the use of the Catholic Answers guide with her pastor, the guide was “highly frowned upon” because “it was not approved by the bishops.”

Catholics For a Free Choice also filed complaints with the IRS against the Archdioceses of Denver and St. Louis and the independent group Priests for Life, accusing them of violating their tax-exempt status by being partisan. To date, the IRS has not taken any action on these complaints.

Addressing the matter Nov. 14, Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, stated: “We have a message that goes far beyond any political party. … If the political parties and candidates swap positions tomorrow on the fundamental right-to-life issue, our message would not change.”

Commenting on the actions of bishops leading up to the election, Archdiocese of Los Angeles spokesman Tod Tamberg said, “I am exceedingly proud of my Church and the efforts that have been made to help Catholics have informed consciences.” He applauded the bishops’ conference on “Faithful Citizenship” and pointed out the heroic challenge the Church has accepted in attempting to explain the rightness of its positions in a secular, pluralistic society.

Kathleen Mylott writes

from New York City.