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  A Christian Faith Magazine October 2004, Volume 10, Issue 3  
Church and State, Part 2
Most Reverend William E. Lori, Bishop of Bridgeport
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Washington D.C.

Many years ago, I attended a news conference at which a new Auxiliary Bishop was introduced to the Washington, D.C., press corps. He was not from Washington, but had been appointed by the Holy Father to serve the Catholic community in the nation's capital. The press was trying to size him up. One reporter asked him, "Bishop, how do you vote?" Without missing a beat, he smiled and said, "I'm happy to tell you. I vote in secret, every November." I figured he'd be O.K.

Well, the November election is upon us. And whether or not we are destined to meet the press or face the nation, we have a serious duty to cast our ballots in national, state, and local elections. It is a solemn obligation carried out in the sanctuary of our consciences and in the sanctuary of the voting booth. But it is not carried out in a vacuum.

As I indicated in my column last month, we are obliged to inform our minds and our consciences so that we may vote intelligently and conscientiously. And the social teaching of the Catholic Church is a very reliable guide in this process.

On pages 4 and 5 of this issue of Fairfield County Catholic, you will find a voter's guide. It lists key issues which we as an electorate are facing, and then offers the platform positions taken by the Democratic and Republican parties. I invite you to study that guide. It is meant to help inform the vote you will cast.

In this column, however, I confine myself to two questions:

  1. How should a conscientious Catholic interpret this voter's guide?
  2. May a conscientious Catholic vote for a candidate who is pro-abortion?

Our voters' guide should be considered in light of the principles that under-gird the Church's social teaching. As Robert Nalewajek of the Centisimus Annus - Pro Pontifice Foundation points out, those principles are reducible to three:

First is a correct view of the human person. Each person, made in God's image, has inherent dignity. This is the basis for all human rights and responsibilities. Persons are valuable not merely for what they have or what they can do, but merely because they are human beings. Human worth and dignity are bestowed by God and not by the state. Human dignity is God-given and innate. When governmental authority believes that it grants worth and dignity to human beings, that same authority can just as easily declare that certain persons and classes of human beings are worthless or less than human.

Second is solidarity. This means that each person, while unique and endowed with rights, is not solitary. Each of us is related to family and friends, to a nation, and, ultimately, to the whole of humanity. We must therefore be committed not merely to what best suits our private interests but rather what is best for the common good. As individuals, we must have genuine concern for others, especially the vulnerable and the disadvantaged. And what is true for us as individuals is also true for our nation. We must insist that our nation protect the lives of the innocent and the poor, and that it be a force of justice and peace among all the nations of the world.

The third principle is called subsidiarity. This means that (and I am paraphrasing here) a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life and responsibilities of a community of a lower order. For example, the government should not come between parents and their children except for the gravest of reasons. Subsidiarity is violated when the state allows teenagers to have abortions without even consulting their parents.

These three principles are at the heart of the Church's social teaching and are consistently applied to an array of social questions. As I indicated in my last column, however, that teaching is "weighted." Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco expressed this clearly at the U.S. bishops' meeting in Denver last June: "Catholic social teaching covers a broad range of important issues, but not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia... Paramount among these moral principles is the sanctity of human life."

And that leads us to the second question to be treated in this column. May a Catholic in good conscience ever vote for a candidate who supports the killing of the unborn either through abortion or in the name of biomedical research? Guidance on this vital question was offered two years ago in a document from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called "Doctrinal Note... Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life" - a document that was written not just for the United States but for the world. Here is what this important document teaches:

First, no Catholic may intentionally (formally) cooperate with the destruction of unborn human life. It is always and everywhere a grave evil to destroy these vulnerable human beings. For a Catholic to vote for a candidate precisely because that candidate is proabortion is to cooperate formally in the evil of abortion. No Catholic can do that in good conscience.

But the second question is even tougher. What about the Catholic voter who disagrees with a candidate's pro-abortion stance but wants to vote for that candidate because of his or her stance on the war in Iraq, the economy, or any of the other important issues facing our nation? The "Doctrinal Note" answers that the Catholic voter may do so only when there are "proportionate reasons." Here is where we have to do some hard thinking and reflecting.

We cannot determine whether "proportionate reasons" exist so long as we think of abortion in the abstract, or imagine that unborn human lives are less valuable than other human lives. Our moral calculations must include how many abortions occur, coupled with an understanding that abortion really is the destruction of human life. Seen in that light, the proportions are staggering: 1.3 million abortions take place in our country each year.

Thus, as other bishops and moral theologians have observed, the Catholic voter may vote for a pro-abortion politician 1) if both candidates are equally pro-abortion; or 2) if the candidate who is pro-life supports something that is objectively more evil than the yearly destruction of 1.3 million human lives. In addition, a Catholic may legitimately vote for a candidate who supports imperfect legislation; that is, legislation that would reduce the number of abortions but not eliminate them altogether - for example, a candidate who supports the ban on partialbirth abortions.

Most everyone remembers that our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, opposed military intervention in Iraq. He did so not because the Church condemns all war as intrinsically evil (as is the case with abortion), but rather because he made the prudential judgment that all the conditions for a just war did not exist.

However, the Holy Father ultimately left it to the heads of state to decide, and did not bind the consciences of Catholic military personnel serving in Iraq. Nor did he bind the consciences of those Catholics who support or oppose the war.

In other words, the position of the Holy See on the war in Iraq is much more nuanced than is usually reported, and, as Catholic voters, we need to take note of that fact in determining whether "proportional reasons" exist.

It is not only the Catholic Church which recognizes the evil of abortion. Many other faiths and people of no faith at all have concluded that abortion is the unjustifiable taking of innocent human life.

It is up to us as citizens and believers to challenge all political parties and candidates to protect the rights of all, including the unborn. This is truly the path to peace and justice. (To read a copy of the "Doctrinal Note . . . Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, visit the diocesan website: www.bridgeportdiocese.com/fcc.shtml.

To learn more about Catholic social teaching, I advise all Catholics to consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially # 2419-2463); the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World); and two landmark encyclicals of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II: Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life); Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum); and the "Doctrinal Note . . . Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life." All can be found on our website.

This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.

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