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By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

Baltimore – U.S. Catholic bishops on Wednesday (Nov. 14) overwhelmingly approved new moral guidelines for Catholic voters that prioritize ending abortion and warn that political choices could impact a person’s salvation.
The guidelines, called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” were approved by a vote of 221-4 during the semiannual assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The bishops have issued the election-year guidelines every four years since 1976, but with candidates from both parties making “faith outreach” to voters a top priority, the bishops took pains to stake out their own role.
“This document is a summary of Catholic teaching; it is not a voter guide,” said Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of New York’s Brooklyn Diocese.
“It calls us as bishops to help form consciences for political life, not to tell people how to vote or whom to vote for or against. It offers a basic moral framework on what it means to be a Catholic and American, a believer and a voter in this coming election year.”
For the first time, the document was approved by a full session of the bishops, rather than an administrative committee within the USCCB.
The lack of debate Wednesday, however, suggests that many differences among the bishops were hammered out behind closed doors.
For instance, the bishops declined to address the issue of denying Communion to politicians who support abortion rights, as a handful of bishops have advocated for during recent elections.
The new guidelines were aimed at Catholic voters, not politicians.
The guidelines originally said voters’ choices could impact their “spiritual well-being.” On Wednesday, bishops toughened that to say such choices “may affect the individual’s salvation.”
“As bishops we know that we are truly called to warn our people,”
said Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, N.D., who pushed for the change. “If we do not warn our people that choosing `intrinsic evils’ will have an impact on their salvation, I believe we are failing.”
Other bishops, however, said the guidelines were made “to form consciences, not judge them.”
“We can’t judge with a document the state of someone’s soul,” said DiMarzio. “To give the impression that one vote could endanger a person’s salvation; I don’t think we’re ready to do that.”
The bishops highlight a range of issues — such as war, economic justice and immigration — in the 40-page document. But they make it clear that abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research should top the list.
“The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed,” the document reads, citing decades of Catholic teaching.
However, the bishops, in what several called a “groundbreaking”
step, outlined exactly when a Catholic may support a politician who supports such “intrinsic evils.”
The church considers it a “formal cooperation in evil” to vote for a candidate solely because he or she supports “intrinsic evils” such as abortion, or racism. On the other hand, Catholics should avoid becoming one-issue voters, the bishops said, and other “grave moral reasons” could inform their conscience in the voting booth.
The voter may even take the “extraordinary step” of not voting at all, the bishops said.
“It’s breaking new ground for us,” said Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Ala. “It helps us formulate positions regarding politicians … We’ve never gone that far in clarifying those issues.”
Both frontrunners in the 2008 presidential race — Democrat Sen. Hillary Clinton and Republican Rudy Giuliani — support abortion rights.
Will rank-and-file Catholics read and follow the ethical prescriptions in “Faithful Citizenship.”
Polls demonstrate that a majority of Catholics differ with their bishops on issues such as abortion and vote for politicians who support abortion rights.
“I think if we look at Catholics who practice their faith, who come to the Eucharist every week, they are listening to our voice,” said DiMarzio. For instance, he said, many Catholics are now following the bishops’ lead in opposing the death penalty.
“As (“Faithful Citizenship”) is more widely used and used to teach,” DiMarzio said, “it can be one of the ways we help them form their consciences.”
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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