Feeling any pressure to cast the right vote Nov. 4? Imagine how some Roman Catholic parishioners are feeling in Missouri.
“Judgment Day is on its way,” Bishop Robert Herman of the Archdiocese of St. Louis wrote last week in the St. Louis Review. “For many, this coming election may very well be judgment day, for this election will measure us . . . More than anything else, this election is about saving our children or killing our children. This life issue is the overriding issue facing each of us in this coming election. All other issues, including the economy, have to take second place to the issue of life.”
Herman’s statement reflects the Roman Catholic teaching that abortion is a sin. But it also reflects a particularly political strategy, according to Catholic writer Rev. Thomas J. Reese — namely that Catholics should support candidates who want to make abortion illegal, including most Republicans. This election, though, some prominent Catholics are carefully staking out a different political course — one that encourages Catholics to consider pro-choice candidates who support social programs that reduce the need for abortion.
“The traditional pro-life strategy has been to try to make abortion illegal. This has meant supporting Republican candidates,” Reese writes in his On Faith blog. Some Catholic pro-lifers now say that’s a failed strategy. “These pro-lifers are saying . . . support (Democratic) candidates who will actually reduce the number of abortions through social programs that help women choose life when they get pregnant.”
Officially, U.S. Catholic bishops support both strategies. Two Church leaders emphasized the point again in a statement Tuesday: “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 (v. Wade) is a necessary but not sufficient condition for restoring an order of justice in our society’s treatment of defenseless human life,” said Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop William Murphy of New York.
A year ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tried to nip this brewing issue in the bud with a document called Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. “We Bishops have the … responsibility … to provide moral guidance on the moral dimensions of public decisions, and to encourage the faithful to carry out their responsibilities in political life,” the bishops said. “In fulfilling these responsibilities, the Church’s leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote.”
That didn’t impress Bishop Joseph Martino of Pennsylvania, who last month ordered priests in his diocese to read a letter warning that voting for a supporter of abortion rights amounts to endorsing “homicide. Sunday, he defended his acts. “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese,” said Martino. “The USCCB doesn’t speak for me. . . The only relevant document … is my letter.”
It also didn’t impress Bishop Arthur Serratelli of New Jersey, who criticized “the present Democratic candidate” in his weekly column. “If this politician fulfills his promise, not only will many of our freedoms as Americans be taken from us, but the innocent and vulnerable will spill their blood,” Serratelli wrote.
No doubt bishops Herman, Serratelli and others who are speaking out believe they are abiding by the letter of that law, providing “moral guidance” but not endorsing or opposition specific candidates by name. But Catholics know that one position favors McCain and the other Obama. In effect, they are telling people how to vote.
As U.S. citizens, they have that right. But at least one Catholic bishop believes his colleagues have another responsibility, especially in such a divisive election season.
“Being Catholic has never been known to be an easy path to salvation,” Bishop J. Terry Steib of Memphis wrote in a pastoral letter last week.
“Jesus never promised us a rose garden devoid of hard choices. He did, in fact, tell us that if we were to be his followers, we must pick up the cross daily and follow him. Part of the cross in the upcoming election may well be in realizing that different people may in good conscience arrive at different decisions about how they will vote.”
Wouldn’t it be helpful to hear all religious leaders say that?