View from the Pew
Star-Bulletin / September 2006
Vote of conscience
A Catholic workshop aims to inform voters about the obligation to contribute to the moral good
The organization of Catholic bishops in the United States put its considerable moral muscle behind a couple of slaps for Catholic politicians in the past month.
Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and vice presidential candidate Joseph Biden talked about abortion as a public issue in "Meet the Press" interviews. Neither one would have gotten a good grade on a Catechism 101 test, according to press releases from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Abortion willed either as an end or a means is gravely contrary to the moral law," said bishops responding to a Pelosi comment that the church did not always teach that life begins at conception. Biden got that part right, but he was chastised for saying that a faith-based belief about the beginning of human life is personal and private and should not be imposed on others.
So should Catholics always vote against an abortion-rights politician? It's not a new question. Abortion is the loudest current issue, but politicians have been scolded, told they can't receive communion or threatened with excommunication for years and for other issues.
A workshop next Saturday will lead local pastors, parish lay leaders and any interested Catholics through the bishops' "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," a position paper issued last November to guide people to make moral choices in the voting booth.
There is no crib sheet for the course, no pocket summary that says vote against every politician who supports abortion rights. "As a church, we are not advocates, and we have to be careful of that," said David Coleman, dean of the Chaminade University Humanities and Fine Arts Department. He will speak at the workshop along with the Rev. Marc Alexander, Hawaii diocesan theologian, and Carol Ignacio, director of the diocese Office for Social Ministry.
"The bishops are trying to help individual Catholics to form their conscience; they do not say, 'Vote for this candidate.'
"What the bishops have said flows around the dignity of the human person, which then talks about the necessity to protect life at all stages," Coleman said. "It would be immoral to intend to do an intrinsically evil act such as murder, abortion. Other assaults on human life and dignity -- genocide, torture -- can never be justified."
"This opposition to evil acts opens our eyes to the good we must do; there is a positive duty to contribute to the moral good.
"The bishops go on to say there are two temptations. One temptation is to say there is a moral equivalence, to say this is at the same level as that. The bishops would say that direct killing is not just one among many evils. Catholic teaching is that taking a life is a grave moral issue.
"The other side of the temptation is to say that we are here to protect the life of the unborn and we don't have to worry about anything else.
"In the very practical view, if a candidate supports abortion, I cannot vote for that person with the intent of supporting that position.
"At the same time, if someone is pro-life, I can't use that to justify indifference that person has on other issues. A political commitment to a single aspect does not exhaust one's responsibility to the common good. There may be times when a person decides to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.
"For Catholics it is not simply a one-issue question," said Coleman.
"Nuances are needed. Unfortunately, politicians rarely have time and space to apply them, which is why they get in trouble," Coleman said.
"To try to persuade society in terms of choosing life does not negate our commitment to lessen other threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the death penalty, unjust war, the use of torture," said Coleman.
The "Forming Consciences" workshop will be from 9 a.m. to noon at the Chaminade University Ching Conference Center. The Catholic bishop's theses can be found on their Web pages at www.faithfulcitizenship.org or at www.usccb.org.
The workshop is free. There won't be a test and attendees won't be graded. Nor will church folks be subjected to an exit poll on election day.
It would be wise to think things through beforehand, however, rather than waiting until enclosed by those musty-smelling voting booth curtains to start an examination of conscience.