Social Ministry Day Three: No automatic ticket to Hell in 'Faithful Citizenship,' Gregory says

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Washington, D.C.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta said today that it was not the intent of the U.S. bishops in their recent “Faithful Citizenship” document to suggest that Catholics who vote for a pro-choice candidate are automatically placing their salvation in jeopardy.

I spoke briefly with Gregory before he addressed the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, offering a “send-off” to participants heading to Capitol Hill for meetings with members of Congress.

Issued last November, "Faithful Citizenship" has been the object of a flurry of competing interpretations in recent days, as it has seemingly become clear that once again Americans will be faced with a choice at the presidential level between a pro-life Republican and a pro-choice Democrat.

In a Feb. 23 op/ed piece in the Washington Post, former NCR Washington correspondent Joe Feuerherd summarized the message of “Faithful Citizenship” this way: “Tap the touch screen for a pro-abortion-rights candidate, and you’re probably punching your ticket to Hell.”

Gregory, however, said that’s not what “Faithful Citizenship” teaches.

“Defending the right to life is obviously a primary concern,” Gregory said. “It’s the point of departure for everything else.”

Nonetheless, Gregory said, it is “at least possible” that a Catholic who carefully weighs the issues could decide that, on balance, a candidate who is not explicitly pro-life is preferable to one who opposes the legalization of abortion but who does not share Catholic positions on other matters of moral importance. Gregory was speaking in the abstract, without reference to any specific candidate.

In that sense, Gregory said, “Faithful Citizenship” cannot be reduced to an absolute obligation to vote for a pro-life candidate, regardless of his or her stances on anything else.

“It’s a complicated document,” Gregory said. “It suggests that people have to think hard about their choices.”

Gregory, a former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, drew attention to another op/ed piece on "Faithful Citizenship," this one in the Feb. 26 Chicago Tribune. It's written by Charles W. Murdock, a law professor at Loyola University of Chicago.

In the piece, Murdock asserts that “Faithful Citizenship” is “far more balanced and nuanced than its critics acknowledge.”

"No one candidate or political party has a monopoly on moral positions," Murdock wrote. "The sooner that liberals and conservatives within the church accept this complexity and find a way to talk about the issues, the better off the Catholic Church will be. And, for that matter, the country."

Adopted during the bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore, “Faithful Citizenship” addresses the role of Catholics in political life. Beginning in 1976, the bishops have produced such a document regularly during election years.

In his remarks to the Social Ministry Gathering, Gregory encouraged Catholics to carry several messages to Capitol Hill:
•t“The lives of unborn children need protection”;
•t“Poor children need justice”;
•t“Families need affordable health care”;
•t“Immigrants need to be treated as brothers and sisters, not enemies”;
•t“The hungry of the world need food”;
•t“Those living and dying with HIV/AIDS need compassionate care”;
•t“The people of the Holy Land need a just peace”;
•t“The unending war in Iraq requires a responsible transition.”

Each item on the list drew applause, and Gregory himself received a standing ovation both at the beginning and the end of his comments.

“We are not a lobby,” Gregory told the social ministers, “but a community that serves the poor and vulnerable every day. We are not an interest group, nor are we advocating our own narrow interests, but speaking for the voiceless and standing up for the common good.”

Gregory described the journey to Capitol Hill as “not a secular mobilization, but, in a sense, a pilgrimage.”

“We go not bringing campaign contributions or political endorsements, but to share our principles, our everyday experience, and our passion for the poor and for peace.”

“We go not to impose some sectarian doctrine,” Gregory said, “but to add our voices and our convictions to the debates and decisions on what kind of nation we are becoming, what kind of world we are shaping.”

Gregory specifically endorsed several items on the social ministers’ agenda, including the “Pregnant Women Support Act,” which would expand child care, pre-natal care and nutritional support programs for women and children, as well as barring insurance companies from defining pregnancy as a “pre-existing condition” to deny medical coverage. The idea is to craft an anti-abortion strategy that could draw bipartisan support by focusing not on legality, but on providing resources to women.

“In supporting the basic right to life, we cannot allow mothers and children to be forced into poverty, malnutrition and hunger because the resources are not made available,” Gregory said.

Gregory conceded that some people have been surprised and even angered by the bishops’ position on immigration – “including,” he said, “even some Catholics.” He lamented what he called a “coarse and polarizing” debate on immigration policy.

“I would envision another kind of public dialogue,” he said, “where the centuries-old experience of Christianity can help balance the harsh exigencies of law.”

Sponsored by 18 different Catholic organizations, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Social Ministry Gathering brings together around 700 diocesan and parish-level leaders involved in charitable service and social advocacy. The session runs Feb. 24-27 in Washington, D.C.

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