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Into the Void

Every four years since 1976, before every election cycle, the U.S. bishops issue a document intended to assist Catholics in making moral choices in the voting booth. And every time around, writes David Gibson of Religion News Service (Sept. 7), “activists on both sides of the Catholic political spectrum argue passionately about what the statement really means, whether it supports their position and why it needs to be overhauled if it doesn’t.”

Guilty as charged.

Prior to the 2008 election, the bishops gave us a document whose density and verbosity was reflected in its title: “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States.” At 43 pages long, and composed of 90 different sections, we noted at the time that it “suffers from information overload — no easy accomplishment in our information era” (“A Perplexing Political Potpourri,” New Oxford Note, Feb. 2008). Most maddening about “Faithful Citizenship,” as the bishops’ document came to be known, was that it “buries the burning political issues of the day under an avalanche of lesser considerations.”

This tendency was most evident in its treatment of the foremost “burning issue” of the day, abortion. Although “Faithful Citizenship” indicated that “intrinsically evil actions must…always be rejected and opposed” — abortion being listed as a “prime example” — the document proceeded to list various other examples of “violations of human dignity” that must be opposed, in essence equating abortion with torture, cloning, and, of all things, racism. It got worse when the document asserted that “a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil such as abortion,” but quickly conceded that “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.” In effect, “Faithful Citizenship” muffled what could have been a clarion call to reject the gravest violation of human dignity possible, the violation of the very right to life. “The bishops’ moral reasoning,” we lamented, “dies the death of a thousand nuances.”

Our verdict: “The bishops’ voter guide will ultimately prove to be useless.”

Interestingly, across the aisle, the editors at Commonweal (Nov. 23, 2007) titled their take on the bishops’ document “Intrinsically Complicated.” While they likewise pointed out problems with its loose use of the concept intrinsically evil, their gripe was quite the opposite of ours. The bishops’ “political rhetoric,” they suggested, will “alienate people of good will by focusing, in what will be perceived as a disproportionate way, on only one of the grave moral challenges voters face.” That one challenge? Abortion. The Commonweal editors lamented that the bishops’ document “puts abortion conspicuously at the top of every list of pressing threats to human dignity.”

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