Deal W. Hudson
August 3, 2008
There will be much media mischief aimed at Catholic voters between now and November 4. Perhaps the best example thus far appeared in the Trenton Times on July 30.
The headline of reporter Jeff Trently’s article tells you all you need to know about his intentions: “U.S. Bishops: Vote your conscience, Catholics urged to weigh stands on all issues.”
But Trently’s version of the erroneous conscience-is-king argument is notable for several reasons: First, his bias is more obvious than usual; secondly, he puts the worst possible spin on a controversial line from “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” published by the USCCB. Finally, he misinterprets quotations from Bishop John Smith of Trenton, the bishop’s communications director, Ravenne Bennett, and the director of the Office of Social Concerns, Rev. Ronald Cioffi.
Trently begins his report with a declaration: “Single-issue voting, like simply choosing the anti-abortion candidate, is out.” In other words, the consistent teaching of the Church regarding the non-negotiable life issues is no longer more important than other issues. Did I miss an encyclical or a change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church?
According to Trently, all issues now carry equal weight. Catholic voters may weigh “each candidate’s view on the entire spectrum of social issues – including the war in Iraq, health care, housing, the plight of immigrants, as well as abortion.”
What is Trently’s evidence for this momentous change in Church teaching regarding political participation? He cites one line from “Forming Consciences” and supports his interpretation with quotes from the chancery of the Diocese of Trenton.
Here is the passage, from section 34 of “Forming Consciences“:
A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity (emphasis added).
According to Trently, Father Cioffi believes this represents a fundamental shift. “This is a change from four years ago,” Father Cioffi said, also noting that some Catholics believed former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry shouldn’t take Communion because of his position on abortion.
When Father Cioffi presented “Forming Consciences” to a staff meeting, Trently reported that Bishop Smith said, “It’s hard to find a candidate who supports all of the church’s teaching.… It’s a difficult time to decide how we’re voting, especially this year.”
To state that a political candidate doesn’t perfectly represent Church teaching obviously should not distract anyone from considering where those candidates stand on an intrinsic evil like abortion.
According to Trently, section 34 from “Forming Consciences” means that
a Catholic may vote for an abortion rights supporter, such as Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, if that candidate’s views on other moral issues outweigh his abortion stand in the voter’s conscience.
But this isn’t what the bishops said at all. The document states that it is possible to vote for a pro-abortion candidate only if the voter’s intent is not to support that position. Weighing the spectrum of issues is not the decisive factor, and any fair reading of “Forming Consciences” leads directly to the conclusion that the bishops did not publish section 34 as a loophole for Catholics to support pro-abortion politicians like Obama.
In fact, the bishops go so far as to quote the passage from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2002 “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life” that was such a stumbling block for John Kerry in 2004:
It must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals (no. 4).
The U.S. bishops echo Pope Benedict XVI’s rejection of false moral equivalence:
Not all moral issues are equal; these ten goals address matters of different moral weight and urgency. Some involve matters of intrinsic evil that can never be supported (section 90).
“Trenton Makes – the World Takes” is the slogan that has long been displayed on the bridge over the Delaware River as you drive into the city. It isn’t the job of the Trenton Times to make theology for the Catholic Church – and Catholics won’t make the mistake of accepting it without recognizing the ruse that it is.