Catholic World News News Feature
US bishops eschew political leadership November 15, 2007
At their meeting in Baltimore this week, the US bishops approved a statement on the responsibilities of Catholics voters.
Honestly, I tried to read the full text of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship carefully. I couldn't get through it; my eyes kept glazing over.
Brevity is a virtue, particularly in the field of practical politics. If you can compress your argument into a 20-second "sound bite," or encapsulate it on a bumper sticker, you can capture public attention. If you issue a verbose 44-page statement, on the other hand, you cannot expect to command full attention.
On page 5 of their prolix statement, the US bishops announce that they "do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote." A hard-nosed political analyst, reading the statement without any particular knowledge of the circumstances, might have stopped reading at that point. He wouldn't have missed much.
Just imagine, for the sake of the argument, what might have happened if the US bishops approved a statement something like this:
A Catholic voter who casts a ballot in favor of a candidate who supports legal abortion or same-sex marriage should recognize that he may be guilty of grave sin.
Perhaps that statement is badly worded. I would welcome friendly amendments. But please give me credit: I got the job done in one sentence, not 44 pages.
If you can plow through the verbiage of the USCCB statement, on page 11 your tired eyes might light upon this subhead: "Doing Good and Avoiding Evil." Well now, that sounds like a reasonably good political program, doesn't it? Let's try to focus, and see what the American bishops say.
At #28, the USCCB statement warns against the tendency to see all issues as morally equivalent. Excellent!
The bishops' document goes on to says that certain key issues involving the defense of innocent human life are paramount. Terrific!
And then the document lists other issues-- racism, the war in Iraq, the death penalty, immigration-- that are also "serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act." Having just warned against moral equivalence, the USCCB proceeds to list a menu of issues that you could treat a morally equivalent, if you were inclined to do so.
Now skip forward to #35, where the USCCB document considers the options available to Catholic voters who are not happy with any of the candidates on the ballot:
There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate's unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.
Game, set, and match. Quoting that statement, and citing the list of causes that runs on (and on and on and on) in the USCCB statement, a Catholic voter could attempt to justify support for a candidate who favors unrestricted legal abortion and same-sex marriage, explaining that his favored candidate takes the right stand on such "morally grave" issues as gun control, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, global warming, Medicare and Medicaid, teachers' salaries, or immigration.
On the American political scene there are two sets of people looking for help from the Catholic bishops. Liberals hope that the bishops will speak out against the death penalty, the war in Iraq, welfare reform, and any attempt to crack down on illegal immigration. Conservatives pray that the bishops will put pressure on Catholic legislators to vote against abortion, same-sex marriage, embryo research, and euthanasia. Both groups will be able to find a few "money quotes" in the USCCB statement-- enough episcopal support to sustain their political battles.
In practice-- in the political realm, where these questions are played out-- the USCCB statement will have a net impact of zero.