The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

The bishops and the ’08 election

Another election year is coming, and you know what that means.

Yes, that’s right: another document from America’s bishops. After the communion controversy of 2004, will we have another “wafer watch” in 2008?

The New York Times’ Peter Steinfels ponders what lies ahead:

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.


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 have tried, however, to give the 2008 document a distinctly more authoritative and doctrinal flavor. Whereas the 2004 statement was titled “Faithful Citizenship,” this draft is titled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Formation of conscience — the idea that properly exercising one’s conscience is not just a matter of gut feeling but requires serious study and reflection, especially on the teachings of one’s church — was not missing as a theme in the bishops’ previous statements. But here it has new prominence.

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.


The passages on “opposition to intrinsically evil acts” are almost always illustrated by first mentioning abortion, rather than, say, torture or unjust war. But those passages regularly link the duty to avoid evil to a positive duty to do good: “The moral imperative to respond to the needs of our neighbors — basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education and meaningful work — is universally binding on our consciences.”

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.


The next challenge will be the open debate scheduled for the Baltimore meeting, set for Nov. 12-15. One group of bishops may well ask why the war in Iraq, which the bishops have regularly criticized and which is apt to be central to next year’s general election campaign, does not loom larger in the document. Many Catholics, including those who judged the war unjust from its inception, are torn as to what American obligations in Iraq are now.

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.

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