Catholic Bishops’ Taxing Task: Election-Year Statement
Peter Steinfels writes in The New York Times:
On the eve of every presidential election year since 1976, the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops have issued a set of reflections on Catholics’ political responsibilities. The task has probably never been so challenging as it will be in two weeks, when approximately 300 bishops from around the country meet in Baltimore.(emphasis added)
The reason dates from the 2004 election, when “Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops’ official booklet-length reflections, met competition from punchier conservative voter guides insisting that the church’s position on five “nonnegotiable” issues — abortion, euthanasia, embryonic-stem-cell research, human cloning and same-sex marriage — should determine how Catholics vote.
“Faithful Citizenship” was also upstaged by a minority of determinedly anti-abortion bishops who ignited a debate over whether Catholic politicians favoring legal access to abortion — the Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, prominent among them — should be barred from receiving Communion. This was of course catnip to the news media, with some reporters mounting what became irreverently called the “wafer watch.”
Actually, the bishops’ election-year statements had always highlighted abortion as a crucial issue for Catholic voters, but they had never isolated it from a broad range of other moral concerns like war, poverty, racial discrimination, failing schools, criminal justice and health care.
After 2004, however, it seemed inevitable that “Faithful Citizenship” would be recast.
Some bishops worried that its broad range of concerns provided a loophole for ignoring the so-called “nonnegotiables.” Some bishops, often the same ones, complained that the bishops’ Committees on Domestic Policy and on International Policy played too great a role in shaping the statements, with an insufficient role for the more conservative Committees on Pro-Life Activities and on Doctrine.
Finally, it was decided that the entire body of bishops should debate and vote on the statement in open session, rather than have it discussed and decided in closed meetings by the 50-plus members of the Administrative Board.
So no fewer than seven committees of bishops have now developed the proposed statement for 2008 and sent their 13,000-word draft to the whole hierarchy for reactions and amendments.
Given the conservative pressures, the draft’s continuity with previous statements is noteworthy. Indeed, many phrases and themes appear in the draft almost unaltered from preceding statements. “A consistent ethic of life should be the moral framework for principled Catholic engagement in political life,” the document states, affirming the prevailing but sometimes contested view that opposition to abortion should be linked to other issues.
The bishops clearly want to distinguish this document from partisan voter guides. They not only repeat what they have said in past years — “we bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote” — but also go into theological intricacies of making moral judgments about “intrinsically evil” actions like abortion, euthanasia, torture and deliberate attacks on noncombatants in warfare.
No doubt this careful balancing reflects the varying priorities among the bishops. Whether such nuance will prove pastorally effective or successfully compete with more pointed voter guides produced by Republican-leaning or Democratic-leaning Catholic groups is an open question. The bishops explicitly discourage such independent efforts in their text. In addition, they have drafted a brief summary, “The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” for use as an insert in parish bulletins.
But most of the pressure will probably come from bishops pressing amendments to make abortion and related issues into “nonnegotiables” that should override all other considerations for Catholic voters.
As I've said previously, this document doesn't appear to offer anything groundbreaking, and looks to be broadly worded enough to provide "political cover" for Catholics of all stripes - whether liberal, moderate, or conservative, Republican, Democrat, or independent - to justify continuing to do whatever it is they've already been doing whenever it comes to "voting their values".
It would be interesting to see if those bishops who remain dissatisfied with this approach will follow Bishop Olmsted's lead and draft voter guides of their own for use in their respective dioceses.
UPDATE (30 October)
For debate on this topic over at Vox Nova, see Tony A's post "USCCB Debates Consistent Ethic of Life"
Previous Pro Ecclesia posts on this subject:
Bishops' Document to Offer New Guidance on Catholics' Political Role
Vox Nova on Voter's Guides
Dueling Catholic Voter Guides
More on Catholic Voter Guides
Columnist: "Christian Right Driving Wedge Into US"
More From Amy Welborn on the "Dueling Catholic Voter Guides"
"Catholics in the Public Square" by Bishop Olmsted
Catholics Find Voting Guides a Test of Allegiance
Toledo Blade: "Catholic Voting Guide Gives Church Perspective"
Weigel: "An Electoral Battle of the Booklets?"
"Not An Approved Catholic Voter Guide"
Kentucky Parishes Cautioned on Partisan Political Activity