By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In an effort to unify the church’s sometimes divided advocacy on behalf of both a “culture of life” and greater social justice, the U.S. bishops today overwhelmingly approved a document titled “Faithful Citizenship,” intended as their most important political statement heading into the 2008 elections.
The text was approved by an overwhelming 97.8 vote in favor, and the result drew a standing ovation from the bishops.
“This document is the result of an unprecedented process of listening carefully, consulting broadly and working diligently to build an ecclesial consensus that is true to Catholic teaching and can unite our conference,” said Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who led the effort to produce the text.
“This statement does not fit the partisan categories of right and left, Democrat or Republican,” DiMarzio said. “It calls Catholics to use their faith to shape their politics, not the other way around.”
There were efforts from the floor to sharpen the document’s language, beginning with warning voters of the spiritual stakes of their choices. Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, North Dakota, for example, proposed that a reference to how political decisions can shape a person’s “spiritual well-being” be amended to read “eternal salvation.”
“If we do not warn our people that choosing intrinsic evil can affect their salvation, then we are failing in our duty as teachers,” Aquila argued.
That amendment was defeated in a narrow vote by 51 to 48 percent, but Bishop William Lori, a member of the drafting committee, suggested that the sentence be amended to read “political choices … may affect the individual’s salvation.”
Lori said the term “may” was calculated to avoid making a direct judgment about any individual’s spiritual state. That proposal was adopted on a voice vote.
Other proposals involved the political substance of the document. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Chicago, for example, proposed adding a reference to “the continuing threat of fanatical extremism and global terror.”
“The reference to the ‘roots of terror’ reflects a naïve understanding of the global phenomenon of jihadism and fanatical extremism,” Paprocki said from the floor. “Those the coalition forces are fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere are not the poor and oppressed seeking to throw off their chains, but jihadist fanatics who believe they’re doing God’s will.”
Paprocki said that Pope Benedict XVI recognized these realities in his lecture at the University of Regensburg in September 2006, and that the U.S. conference should do the same.
His amendment was adopted by a vote of 57.3 percent to 42.3 percent.
“Faithful Citizenship" warns of two temptations to be avoided as Catholics make voting decisions.
“The first is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity,” it says. “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many.”
The second temptation, the draft says, “is the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity,” citing racism, the death penalty, unjust war, torture and war crimes, hunger and health care, and unjust immigration policies.
While placing a strong accent on the primacy of opposing such absolute moral evils as abortion and racism, the document also acknowledges that in some cases, Catholics could in good conscience vote for pro-choice candidates if “truly grave reasons” exist for doing so.
“In the end this is a decision to be made by each individual Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching,” the document states.
The text does not flesh out what might count as a “truly grave reason,” and behind closed doors some bishops expressed concern that the phrase might be misinterpreted as a “loophole” licensing Catholics to vote for pro-choice candidates.
In that light, Archbishop Charles Chaput stressed that it’s important to set the bar high.
“I think there are legitimate reasons you could vote in favor of someone who wouldn’t be where the church is on abortion, but it would have to be a reason that you could confidently explain to Jesus and the victims of abortion when you meet them at the Judgment,” Chaput told NCR. “That’s the only criterion.”
Paprocki drew the biggest laugh of the morning in proposing that a reference to “direct targeting” of noncombatants be amended to “direct and intentional” targeting. To illustrate the rationale, he provided an example.
“We’ve all heard of hunters who directly but unintentionally attack their hunting companions,” he said, a reference to a hunting accident involving Vice-President Richard Cheney.
When the laughter subsided, Paprocki argued that in modern warfare, it’s often possible for weaponry to be directed at one target but end up striking another. That amendment too was adopted.
This is the first time that the "Faithful Citizenship" document has been produced by a cross-section of committees of the bishops’ conference, and that the document has been presented to the full body of bishops for a vote. The document was a joint proposal from the committees on Domestic Policy, International Policy, Pro-Life Activities, Communications, Doctrine, Education and Migration.