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When Bishops Disagree: Contradictory Statements on the US Presidential Race [Updated]

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Oct 29, 2008

Is it reasonable to think that in one American diocese it would be morally justifiable for a voter to cast his ballot for Barack Obama in this year's presidential election, but for a Catholic voter in another diocese the same vote would be sinful?

Is it possible that the moral principles which should guide Catholic voters differ from state to state and diocese to diocese?

Of course not.

Local issues may differ from state to state and town to town. But a presidential race involves nationwide issues. Particularly this year, when the key questions confronting Catholic voters are issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research, a voter's moral bearings are not altered by his geographical location. If it is immoral to vote for Obama (or McCain, for that matter) in Florida, it is immoral to vote for him in Oregon.

Yet in the past few weeks, different American bishops have issued radically different statements on the moral responsibilities of Catholic voters. Some bishops have instructed Catholics to consider abortion as the most important moral issue in this year's campaign; others have said, just as clearly, that abortion must be seen as one among many issues.

Like the rest of us, bishops can be caught up in the intense passions of a hard-fought electoral contest. Like the rest of us, they have their own political preferences, tugging in one direction or another; they have their own friends among the political candidates and their supporters. Bishops are not infallible in their political judgments; their public statements may be inaccurate, illogical, or prone to misinterpreration.

Nevertheless, even when those human factors are taken into account, this campaign season has been an unusually confusing one, for anyone who looks to the American hierarchy for moral guidance. Just in the past two days, CWN has carried News Briefs in which two American bishops pointed in opposite directions:

In South Dakota, Bishop Blaise Cupich warned voters against racism. "Voting for a candidate solely because of that candidate’s support for abortion or against him or her solely on the basis of his or her race is to promote an intrinsic evil," Bishop Cupich said. Thus he put a racism, which has not been a major issue in this year's campaign, on the same level as abortion, which has. His warning could only work to the advantage of a candidate who is a member of a racial minority-- that is, Obama, who is also the candidate most thoroughly committed to legal abortion on demand. In Texas, on the other hand, Bishop Rene Gracida stated unequivocally that a Catholic cannot in good conscience vote for Obama. But if a vote against Obama is morally suspect in South Dakota, and morally obligatory in Texas, where does that leave a voter in, say, Kansas?

The contrasting statements by American bishops has produced a striking contrast in the state of Arizona, where Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix has produced a hard-hitting booklet entitled Catholics in the Public Square, arguing that abortion is the paramount issue in this campaign, and distributed over 100,000 copies to parishioners in his diocese. In neighboring Tucson, Bishop Gerald Kicanas has not given permission for pro-life activists to hand out Bishop Olmsted's booklet in parishes. The Tucson Citizen reports:

While Kicanas did not answer my question on whether the two Arizona bishops are at odds on whether a Catholic can morally vote for a pro-choice candidate, he said each bishop bears the responsibility for teaching in his own diocese.

Perhaps he ducked the reporter's question about whether or not he agrees with Bishop Olmsted. But in effect Bishop Kicanas has given his reply. The two bishops have a distinct difference in political perspectives.

Bishop Kicanas is quite right when he says that each bishop is the primary moral teacher for his own diocese. But each bishop is also expected to teach authentic Catholic principles, and those principles do not vary from place to place. To be sure, different bishops might express moral truths in different ways, suiting their presentations to the particular needs of their own flocks. But again, what is morally obligatory in Phoenix must, in the end, be morally obligatory in Tucson. There is no logical way to resist that conclusion.

Much of the confusion about the American bishops' statement can be traced to Faithful Citizenship, a document released by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. That document has been used as the basis for starkly contrasting approaches to the moral issues of this year's campaign. Some bishops claim that Faithful Citizenship instructs Catholic voters to give primacy to the issue of abortion; other bishops say that the same document obliges voters to consider a wide range of other issues. The USCCB statement lends itself to this broad range of interpretations. Indeed it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the statement was deliberately designed to allow such different interpretations. (It is also instructive to note that Bishop Kicanas is the vice-president of the USCCB, and will almost certainly succeed to the presidency. His public stand mirrors his institutional position.)

Has any American bishop actually repudiated Faithful Citizenhip? Not quite. But in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Bishop Joseph Martino came closest, criticizing the organizers of a parish forum for their reliance on the USCCB document rather than his own uncompromising pastoral letter on the moral duties of Catholic voters. "No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese," Bishop Martino said. On that one point, he and Bishop Kicanas are in accord. A bishop is the authoritative teacher in his own diocese.

The US bishops' conference has no teaching authority, except insofar as it speaks for all the individual bishops. When individual bishops issue conflicting statements, a compromise document from the USCCB only aggravates the ensuing confusion.

The question confronting Catholic voters is a simple one, and admits a simple answer. Is it, or is it now, morally permissible to vote for a candidate who favors the unrestricted legal slaughter of unborn children? You may question Bishop Gracida's prudence if you like, but at least he has responded to that question with a clear, simple answer.

Note: Bishop Gracida has written a response to this article, which is posted with his permission on the Catholic Culture Blog.

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