Bishops And Voting -- Confusion Or Clarity?

October 24, 2008 09:00 AM

The most recent comments regarding Catholics and their moral obligations in the voting booth come courtesy of Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York, who said in part, 

Providing support for pregnant women so they choose to have their babies is a necessary but not sufficient response to abortion. Similarly, reversal of Roe is a necessary but not sufficient condition for restoring an order of justice in our society's treatment of defenseless human life. This act by itself would not automatically grant legal protection to the unborn. It would remove an enormous obstacle to such protection, so the people of the United States and their elected representatives in every state could engage in a genuine discussion of how to save unborn children and their mothers from the tragedy of abortion. Both approaches to opposing abortion are essential. By protecting the child's life to the maximum degree possible, improving life-affirming support for pregnant women, and changing the attitudes and prejudices imposed on many women to make them see abortion as an acceptable or necessary solution, we will truly help build a culture of life.

In this statement, the cardinal and the bishop, on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, attempt to justify all pro-life efforts while setting forth, by their words, the fact that the USCCB believes that overturning Roe would merely return the right to legislate on abortion to the states. By doing so, the USCCB is denying the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade by restoring, at the federal level, legal recognition of the personhood of all human beings. It also downplays the reality of what abortion does to a child by failing to point out that every act of abortion is an act of murder.

By contrast, Archbishop Charles Chaput, in a recent address, said this: 

The truth is that for some Catholics, the abortion issue has never been a comfortable cause. It's embarrassing. It's not the kind of social justice they like to talk about. It interferes with their natural political alliances. And because the homicides involved in abortion are ''little murders'' – the kind of private, legally protected murders that kill conveniently unseen lives – it's easy to look the other way.

Archbishop Chaput paid tribute to pro-lifers who "get it" in the public square when he said,

The abortion conflict has never simply been about repealing Roe v. Wade. And the many pro-lifers I know live a much deeper kind of discipleship than ''single issue'' politics. But they do understand that the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching is protecting human life from conception to natural death. They do understand that every other human right depends on the right to life. They did not and do not and will not give up – and they won't be lied to.

While we would have preferred that he said "point of creation" rather than the oft-abused term "conception," we know what he meant, and we commend him for his clarity.

We would be remiss, of course, if we did not mention Bishop J. Terry Steib, of Memphis, Tennessee, who made it a point to tell his flock, 

We must recognize that God through the church [sic], is calling us to be prophetic in our own day. If our conscience is well formed, then we will make the right choices about candidates who may not support the church's [sic] position in every case.

The lack of clarity in Bishop Steib's statement, which was reported in the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter, does make one wonder what in the world he was actually trying to say. Or maybe that was his point. The report also noted,

Citing words from a statement, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," a voting guide issued last November by the bishops of the United States, Steib wrote that, "there may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate's unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil."

I suppose we can thank the USCCB, once again, for this confusion. But this is not so with Scranton, Pennsylvania's Bishop Joseph F. Martino, who made it very clear in an unannounced appearance at a Catholic voting forum, that he, not the USCCB, sets the tone for Catholic voters in his diocese: "No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese," said Martino, as reported by the Wayne Independent. "The USCCB doesn't speak for me. The only relevant document . . . is my letter," he continued. "There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable."

Bishop Martino's statement still rings in my ears the way a lovely symphony would. Moreover, he said so much in his pastoral letter that is so inspired, but I will limit myself to reporting only one of his wise teachings. He addressed the argument, "As wrong as abortion is, I don't think it is the only relevant 'life' issue that should be considered when deciding for whom to vote." He wrote: 

This reasoning is sound only if other issues carry the same moral weight as abortion does, such as in the case of euthanasia and destruction of embryos for research purposes. Health care, education, economic security, immigration, and taxes are very important concerns. Neglect of any one of them has dire consequences as the recent financial crisis demonstrates. However, the solutions to problems in these areas do not usually involve a rejection of the sanctity of human life in the way that abortion does. Being "right" on taxes, education, health care, immigration, and the economy fails to make up for the error of disregarding the value of a human life. Consider this: the finest health and education systems, the fairest immigration laws, and the soundest economy do nothing for the child who never sees the light of day. It is a tragic irony that "pro-choice" candidates have come to support homicide – the gravest injustice a society can tolerate – in the name of "social justice." 

Bishop Martino has defined, better than most American Catholic bishops this election season, the fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church and the reason why the direct murder of an innocent child prior to birth is so grave that nothing – I daresay nothing at all – could possibly make a greater difference to a voter of any stripe. To me, the defining characteristic of Bishop Martino's words and actions is simply having faith that, in his role as shepherd, he is not accountable to polling data, the news media or even the Catholics in his care who disagree with Church teaching. He is accountable to Christ alone. He said,

My dear friends, I beg you not to be misled by confusion and lies. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, does not ask us to follow him to Calvary only for us to be afraid of contradicting a few bystanders along the way. He does not ask us to take up his Cross only to have us leave it at the voting booth door.

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