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Part 2 of Phillip F. Lawler's article, "Mixed Messages." Read Part 1 here.

Competing voters’ guides

Catholic Answers, a lay apostolate based in San Diego, California, also gave top priority to dignity-of-life issues in a 10-page “Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics.” Citing papal and Vatican documents, “Voter’s Guide” identified five issues as “non-negotiable” from the perspective of Catholic teaching: abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem cell research, human cloning, and homosexual unions. Support for any of those policies, the Guide argued, should disqualify a candidate as a viable option for a faithful Catholic voter.

The “Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics,” combining cogent arguments with an attractive format, proved phenomenally popular. Frank Norris, director of development for Catholic Answers, disclosed in August that more than 1 million copies of the pamphlet were already in circulation, with thousands of people ordering copies in bulk; he predicted that at least 2 million—and possibly as many as 5 million—would be distributed before Election Day.

However, lawyers for the US bishops’ conference took a dim view of the “Voter’s Guide.” When an enthusiastic layman in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis asked for permission to distribute the “Voter’s Guide” on parish property, his request was relayed all the way to Washington, where the legal staff of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recommended against it. Though USCCB lawyers declined repeated requests for comment on the decision, a memo that they had circulated among the bishops had advised that any election-year guides or questionnaires must cover a “wide variety of issues selected solely on the basis of their importance to the electorate as a whole.” Failure to take such a broad approach, the general counsel of the USCCB warned, could be regarded as partisan political activity, jeopardizing the Church’s status as a tax-exempt organization.

Catholic Answers, which is itself a tax-exempt group, was outraged by what it saw as timidity on the part of the USCCB. On August 31, the organization took out full-page ads in the editions of USA Today printed in eight major metropolitan areas with heavily Catholic populations, putting the “Voter’s Guide” into the hands of an estimated 1 million voters. Buoyed by donations that the ads drew in, Catholic Answers ran the ads in USA Today again in October. Other lay groups joined in the distribution effort, and several dioceses—despite the advice from the USCCB—bound the “Voter’s Guide” into diocesan newspapers or ordered it distributed in parish churches.

In cautioning against distribution of the “Voter’s Guide,” the USCCB legal team had recommended that as an alternative, parishes might distribute a document entitled “Faithful Citizen ship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility.” That document, prepared by the USCCB staff, dutifully called for consideration of candidates’ views on the dignity of life, but listed dozens of other issues that voters should also weigh. Similarly, when the US bishops’ conference sent a questionnaire to the presidential candidates, the political aspirants were asked to give their opinions on 41 different questions, including such arcane issues as mandatory child-proof locks for firearms and redistribution of farm subsidies.

The USCCB questionnaire was roundly criticized for diluting the importance of Church teaching on what Catholic Answers had called the “non-negotiable” issues. Patrick Fagan of the Heritage Foundation observed that loyal Catholics can justifiably disagree on most public issues. “On immigration, on housing, on welfare . . . there are many ways to skin those cats,” he said. Bishop René Henry Gracida, the former head of the Corpus Christi, Texas, diocese, agreed, saying:

The questionnaire should have been much shorter and should have been limited to questions on those issues on which there is a clear unequivocal teaching of the Church, e.g., abortion, cloning, assisted suicide, embryonic stem-cell research, and marriage.

There is no clear unequivocal position of the Church on such issues as the minimum wage, immigration, farm subsidies, etc. The inclusion of questions in the questionnaire can only result in confusion in the minds of Catholic voters who do not understand that there is no moral equivalence between these two groups of issues. I can only hope that both presidential candidates will refuse to reply to the questionnaire….

Bishop Gracida’s wish was granted. Neither of the two major presidential candidates bothered to return the questionnaire. Chastened officials of the USCCB quietly conceded that they had “withdrawn” their questions, and would not pursue the issue. In the competition to produce a popular voting guide, Catholic Answers had won by default.

Focus on a footnote

An entirely different front in the political battle was opened on August 10, when Father Andrew Greeley published an op-ed column in the New York Daily News, arguing that abortion should not be the single determining issue for Catholic voters. In a stunning display of logical legerdemain, Father Greeley based his column on an analysis of a letter by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in which the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had reached precisely the opposite conclusion.

In his letter—which he had sent to Cardinal McCarrick prior to the US bishops’ meeting in June—Cardinal Ratzinger had argued forcefully that support for legal abortion is always sinful. He had even added: “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.” But in his newspaper column Father Greeley skipped over the entire text of the Ratzinger letter, to concentrate instead on a footnote in which the Vatican official had conceded that theoretically, there might be occasions when a Catholic voter might be able to justify a ballot for a pro-abortion candidate.

This footnote, Greeley announced, “is as close to an official statement on the subject as one is likely to get. It says that Catholics are not obliged to vote on one issue, no matter how important the issue might be.” Then he added peremptorily: “That ought to settle the matter.”

Father Greeley’s insouciant disregard for the facts—his willingness to ignore the entire thrust of Cardinal Ratzinger’s argument, and claim that a theoretical afterthought carried more authority than the main text of the cardinal’s message—had a remarkable effect. Countless American readers came away from the Greeley column with the mistaken impression that Cardinal Ratzinger had issued a new statement, to clarify the letter that had appeared in June.

Soon other American journalists followed Greeley’s lead. The St. Louis Post- Dispatch led a September 2 headline story with this sentence:

Archbishop Raymond Burke is giving St. Louis Catholics a way to vote for politicians who support abortion rights without committing a grave sin or having to go to confession.

Readers who were shocked by that report—in light of the fact that Archbishop Burke had been the most outspoken prelate in the country in his criticism of pro-abortion politicians—may never have read far enough into the story to notice the archbishop’s actual words.

To be sure, Archbishop Burke had conceded that there might—hypothetically—be circumstances under which “a Catholic who personally opposes abortion rights, votes for a candidate who supports abortion rights ‘for what are called proportionate reasons.’” But the Post-Dispatch story continued:

“The sticking point is this—and this is the hard part,” said Burke. “What is a proportionate reason to justify favoring the taking of an innocent, defenseless human life? And I just leave that to you as a question. That’s the question that has to be answered in your conscience. What is the proportionate reason?”

In context it was clear that Arch bishop Burke found no “proportionate reason” on the American political horizon, and thus could see no moral justification for a vote in favor of a pro-abortion candidate.


In the steady escalation of arguments against Catholic support for the Kerry campaign, the logical extreme might have been reached on October 15, when a Los Angeles canon lawyer announced that he had Vatican support for his contention that Kerry is a heretic, subject to the penalty of excommunication.

Marc Balestrieri had filed a formal canonical complaint against the presiden tial hopeful earlier in the year, in Kerry’s home archdiocese of Boston. Now he told EWTN’s “World Over” program that he had received an unusual, indirect communication from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith giving support to his contention that any Catholic politician who says he is “personally opposed to abortion, but supports a woman’s right to choose,” incurs automatic excommunication.

Balestrieri revealed that he had visited Rome in late August to discuss his ideas with Vatican officials. Less than 10 days after his return, he received a letter from Father Basil Cole, a Dominican theologian based in Washington, DC; Father Cole began his 4-page letter by saying that he had been asked by Father Augustine DiNoia, undersecretary of the Congregation, to give an unofficial response to questions that Balestrieri had submitted.

Father Cole wrote:

If a Catholic publicly and obstinately supports the civil right to abortion, knowing that the Church teaches officially against that legislation, he or she commits that heresy envisioned by Can. 751 of the Code [of Canon Law]. Provided that the presumptions of knowledge of the law and penalty and imputability are not rebutted in the external forum, one is automatically excommunicated . . . .

The shocking claim that the Democratic presidential candidate could be excommunicated drew an immediate storm of public attention—and a flurry of denials from Rome. Father DiNoia stressed that Father Cole’s letter was only a private opinion, and the notion that it represented official Vatican policy was “without merit.” Father Cole agreed, telling the Catholic News Service that “I wrote it as a private theologian, not with any authority.”

But even if Father Cole was writing without any mandate from Rome, his letter did carry some authority—the same authority that attaches to any logical argument, presented by a competent scholar. His argument was a strong one, and while it was not “official,” in the absence of any official answer from Rome it was surely an argument worthy of consideration.

(The Catholic News Service quoted one unnamed Vatican official as saying that Kerry is not a heretic. But an offhand quote from an anonymous source is no more “official,” and certainly no more persuasive, than Father Cole’s argument.)

Marc Balestrieri had obviously not won friends in the Roman Curia with his public announcement. But he had raised a fascinating question: Was John Kerry—potentially the next President of the United States—subject to excommunication? Several serious canon lawyers disagreed with Father Cole’s analysis, arguing that excommunication was not the appropriate remedy. But the Vatican—for official purposes, at least—was silent. And there the matter stood, as American voters headed to the polls.

Kerry’s Own Words

Selected quotes from the presidential campaign trail

August 1: “I believe in the Church and I care about it enormously, but I think that it’s important to not have the Church instructing politicians. That is an inappropriate crossing of the line in America.”

August 2: “Our founding fathers separated church and state in America. It is an important separation. It is part of what makes America different and special, and we need to honor that as we go forward and I’m going to fight to do that.

(on the fact that human life begins at conception)

July 22: “It’s a belief that is a belief of mine. It’s consistent with everything I’ve always said over 35 years of public life. It is not a new statement, but it is consistent with my personal belief system about who chooses and what happens.”

January 2003: “There is no overturning of Roe v. Wade. There is no packing of the courts with judges who will be hostile to choice. There is no denial of choice to poor women in the United States. There is no outlawing of a procedure necessary to save a woman’s life or health and there are no more cutbacks on population-control efforts around the world. We need to take on this President and all of the forces of intolerance on this issue.”

From the Code of Canon Law

915: Those who are excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.

916: A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession unless a grave reason is present and here is no opportunity of confessing; in this case the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible.

Five Non-Negotiable Issues

[From the Catholic Answers “Voter’s Guide”]

1. Abortion

The Church teaches that, regarding a law permitting abortions, it is “never licit to obey it, or to take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or to vote for it.” Abortion is the intentional and direct killing of an innocent human being, and therefore it is a form of homicide.

The unborn child is always an innocent party, and no law may permit the taking of his life. Even when a child is conceived through rape or incest, the fault is not the child’s, who should not suffer death for others’ sins.

2. Euthanasia

Often disguised by the name “mercy killing,” euthanasia also is a form of homicide. No person has a right to take his own life, and no one has the right to take the life of any innocent person.

In euthanasia, the ill or elderly are killed, by action or omission, out of a misplaced sense of compassion, but true compassion cannot include intentionally doing something intrinsically evil to another person.

3. Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Human embryos are human beings. “Respect for the dignity of the human being excludes all experimental manipulation or exploitation of the human embryo.”

Recent scientific advances show that often medical treatments that researchers hope to develop from experimentation on embryonic stem cells can be developed by using adult stem cells instead. Adult stem cells can be obtained without doing harm to the adults from whom they come. Thus there is no valid medical argument in favor of using embryonic stem cells. And even if there were benefits to be had from such experiments, they would not justify destroying innocent embryonic humans.

4. Human Cloning

“Attempts . . . for obtaining a human being without any connection with sexuality through ‘twin fission,’ cloning, or parthenogenesis are to be considered contrary to the moral law, since they are in opposition to the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union.”

Human cloning also involves abortion because the “rejected” or “unsuccessful” embryonic clones are destroyed, yet each clone is a human being.

5. Homosexual “Marriage”

True marriage is the union of one man and one woman. Legal recognition of any other union as “marriage” undermines true marriage, and legal recognition of homosexual unions actually does homosexual persons a disfavor by encouraging them to persist in what is an objectively immoral arrangement.

“When legislation in favor of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic lawmaker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.”

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