Life, Death ... and Farm Subsidies?

WASHINGTON — One of these things is not like the others, say critics of a new questionnaire being sent to presidential candidates: abortion, human cloning, euthanasia and the dollar amount of the minimum wage.

Three are intrinsic evils, always gravely evil in themselves, and prohibited by absolute moral norms derived from the natural law. The fourth is a prudential political matter about which Catholics and non-Catholics alike may legitimately disagree.

Yet a new 41- item questionnaire by the staff of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will confuse the public by blurring lines and giving issues such as welfare reform the same moral gravity as partial-birth abortion or the sanctity of marriage, said Bishop Rene Henry Gracida.

“There is no clear unequivocal position of the Church on such issues as the minimum wage, immigration, farm subsidies, etc.,” said the Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, in a statement he prepared for the Register. “The questionnaire can only result in confusion in the minds of Catholic voters who do not understand that there is no moral equivalence between these two groups of issues.”

Candidates are asked to “support” or “oppose” statements on issues pertaining to abortion, child-safety gun-locks, immigration and distribution of farm subsidies. Most of the prudential questions pertain to issues central to the platform of the Democratic National Committee.

Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry's record is one of the most pro-abortion in the Senate. He has voted at least six times against banning partial-birth abortion. That's the procedure in which a doctor forces a woman to go into labor late in her pregnancy, then kills her child with scissors as the child is being born.

While Sen. Kerry has skipped a majority of Senate votes this year, he made a point of coming back to vote against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act — also known as Laci and Connor's Law.

President George Bush, a Republican, is a Protestant whose policy is more aligned with the Catholic position on the non-negotiable moral issues. Bush opposes abortion, signed a law making partial-birth abortion illegal and said he supports a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being between a man and a woman.

John Kerry was one of only 14 senators to vote against 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which banned federal recognition of homosexual marriage and same-sex partner benefits. When Republicans tried to bring the federal marriage amendment to the floor of the Senate this summer, Kerry wouldn't vote to even allow a debate on homosexual marriage.

“When this document is made public, it will immediately be used by John Kerry to argue that he's a good Catholic,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington. “Out of 41 questions, almost all reflect priorities in the Democratic platform and only a few pertain to doctrinal issues of the Church.”

The topics given the most attention in the questionnaire are immigration and refuges, with seven queries. Three questions pertain to abortion and school choice; two questions address capital punishment, gun control, agriculture and rural development, economic aid for the poor, housing assistance, federal education programs and marriage issues. Fourteen other topics — ranging from health care to cloning to embryonic stem-cell research — each have one question.

Crisis magazine first obtained a leaked copy of the questionnaire and shared it with the Register.

G. Daniel Harden is a member of the board of directors of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, based at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Harden says confusion among Catholics about doctrinal and prudential issues has diluted the authority of the Church for decades. Such confusion, he said, becomes institutionalized when the U.S. bishops’ conference mixes the two.

“Studied Catholics have come to expect this kind of thing from the staff of the USCCB,” said Harden, a religion scholar at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan. “Once again, they have compromised the credibility of the bishops by speaking on prudential issues as though they're fixed doctrine of the Church.”

Patrick Fagan, chairman of the board of directors of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, says the survey “goes right to the heart of the confusion of the Church.”

“The bishops’ conference is mixing the universally forbidden with the legitimately optional,” said Fagan, the William H.G. Fitzgerald Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “No one may ever choose any means to evil ends, but we may choose many different means and timing to good ends. It is precisely here that the bishops’ conference confuses, and may be confused. I am sure the bishops themselves are not. It is time for them to exercise their teaching authority on their staff.”

Bishops’ conference staffers have heard the critics, and they simply disagree.

“It's total nonsense. It's just absolutely not true,” conference spokesman Bill Ryan said of charges that the survey was written to benefit Kerry over Bush.

Ryan insists that the bishops’ conference remains nonpartisan. Recently, in fact, Ono Ekeh was fired from the bishops’ conference when he was discovered administering a “Catholics for Kerry” Internet newsgroup from his office. Ekeh worked in the Secretariat for African-American Catholics.

“I can't discuss a personnel matter, but he (Ekeh) has gone public saying he was fired for running that Internet site from the conference,” Ryan said. “What can you deduct from that? I think it's fair to say the conference wouldn't stand for any partisan campaigning from this office.”

The conference has published a survey of presidential candidates since 1988, when the campaign pitted then-Vice President George H.W. Bush against former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Ryan says the survey has always contained a wide array of questions of interest to Catholics.

“We don't agree this survey confuses Catholic issues with political issues,” Ryan said. “Take immigration, for example. This is an issue of tremendous importance to the Holy Father, and therefore, it's of interest to Catholics.”

Ryan said he doesn't know if the bishops’ conference has received a completed survey from either candidate yet. Sometime after both surveys are returned, he said, the results will be published and distributed to the media by the conference's Catholic News Service.

Ryan said it's true that some issues in the survey are more in line with Church teachings than others. However, he believes Catholics are capable of understanding the disparity in moral gravity between the minimum wage and abortion.

“Our purpose was not to make all of these issues appear equal, and any Catholic who wants to know exactly where the Church stands on any of these questions can easily find the answers by visiting our website, where there are many statements on all of these issues,” Ryan said.

Bishop Gracida said the bishops’ conference should follow the lead of Catholic Answers the next time it distributes a survey. The apologetics organization, based in San Diego, has published its own presidential survey that focuses only on the issues of abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem-cell research, human cloning and homosexual “marriage.”

In the meantime, Bishop Gracida says, “I can only hope that both presidential candidates will refuse to reply to the questionnaire, or, if they do reply, that the leadership of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will recognize the danger to Catholic voters and will publish those replies with a clear teaching on the greater importance which should be attached to the replies that have far greater moral implications for the nation.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in Boulder, Colorado.