Will “Faithful Citizenship” Win the Catholic Vote For Obama?

Deal W. Hudson
October 28, 2008

If Obama wins on November 4 with the help of Catholic voters, the biggest factor in his favor will be the bishops’ own document and Web site, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”

I never thought it likely that Catholic voters could be persuaded to support a candidate with both the most extreme record on abortion and who favors gay marriage. Yet, barring a miracle, that paradox is only a week away: The New York Times is reporting Obama 22 points ahead among Catholic voters.

As I have watched the campaign unfold, especially Obama’s outreach to Catholic voters, the USCCB document has played a decisive role. “Faithful Citizenship” provided Obama’s Catholic supporters the escape clauses needed to convince Catholics they could vote for a pro-abortion candidate in “good conscience.”

There are two major loopholes in the document. First, it states that Catholics are allowed to vote for a supporter of abortion rights so long as 1) they do not intend to support that position (34) or 2) there are offsetting “morally grave reasons” (35).

Many bishops have spoken out forcefully that the document is being abused. Bishop Robert Vasa, for example, points out that voting for a pro-abortion candidate is never justified when the opponent is pro-life. Similarly, Bishops Kevin Vann and Kevin Farrell insist there are no “‘truly grave moral’ or ‘proportionate’ reasons, singularly or combined, that could outweigh the millions of innocent human lives that are directly killed by legal abortion each year.”

Obama’s Catholic surrogates made little note of the corrections. The cat, as they say, was out of the bag when the bishops approved “Faithful Citizenship” at their meeting in November 2007.

The presentation of “Faithful Citizenship” on the Web site of “Roman Catholics for Obama” is typical:

We hope you’ll spend time reviewing all of the material housed or linked from here. But if you read just two documents, please make them the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship – which explains why “[t]here may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other grave reasons” – and Barack Obama’s Blueprint for Change, which outlines all of Senator Obama’s positions and is, we think, reflective of why he is the candidate whose views are most compatible with the Catholic outlook [emphasis added].

Visit any of the pro-Obama Catholic Web sites and you will find this message taken from “Faithful Citizenship”: Catholic voters can ignore Obama’s pro-abortion record because of mitigating factors.

At least some staff at the USCCB were aware that this was the import of “Faithful Citizenship.” At a conference at Creighton University in June, John Carr, executive director of social development and world peace for the USCCB, “stressed that the bishops’ document does not shut the door on any candidate, not even one who supports abortion rights.”

By June 2008, of course, Obama and McCain were the nominees.

What sentence did Carr then quote from “Faithful Citizenship” to back up his statement?

[Carr] pointed to a caveat in the document: “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. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil” [emphasis added].

When the bishops approved this document, did they realize how it could be used politically in upcoming elections? Further, when they approved the language quoted above – “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” – why didn’t they provide more specific guidelines? The document is so abstract that it invites just the kind of abuse it is receiving at the hands of the Obama campaign.

Is this election one of the “times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons? Many bishops have said “no,” but “Faithful Citizenship” has been being taught throughout the nation’s dioceses and parishes for many months. Stories abound of parish seminars where the pro-life concern was dismissed as “single-issue” or “divisive” and “partisan.” It got so bad in the Diocese of Scranton that Bishop Joseph Martino crashed a panel discussion in a local parish and announced, “The USCCB doesn’t speak for me.”

The abuse will not end with the election, regardless of the outcome. The Catholic News Service reports that “group discussions, adult education programs, diocesan conferences, DVD presentations and Sunday Mass homilies” will not stop on November 4th.

If this is true, then the bishops need to take another look at “Faithful Citizenship” at next month’s meeting. The mere fact that so many bishops have felt the need to correct misinterpretations is proof enough that it needs an overhaul.

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