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For U.S. Roman Catholics, there may be more at stake in November than election results. Some clerics say that Catholics could be putting their souls at risk by voting for pro-choice candidates such as Democratic presidential hopeful John F. Kerry.
Heated debate among American Catholics has intensified since July, when a memo from a high-ranking Vatican official was published offering guidelines on whether candidates who promote abortion rights are committing sin and thus should be denied the sacrament of Communion, and whether voters who support such candidates also are committing a sin.
The memo from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, contained "nothing new" in Catholic teaching, according to the Rev. James Bacik, a Toledo theologian and priest. But it has stirred an emotional and theological debate because it was written by one of the Vatican's leading clerics, entrusted by Pope John Paul II "to promote and safeguard the doctrine of the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world."
"The power of the letter is not in its content, but in its source," said Father Bacik, pastor of Toledo's Corpus Christi University Parish.
A few U.S. bishops, including Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., and Bishop Emeritus Henry Gracida of Corpus Christi, Texas, have interpreted the letter as asserting that it is a sin to vote for candidates who support abortion rights, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver said last month that politicians who vote to legalize abortion make "a deal with the devil."
Bishop Sheridan said Catholics who vote for politicians who do not uphold church teachings on abortion should not go to the altar to receive Communion.
But other clerics and scholars, including priest and author the Rev. Andrew Greeley, believe that Cardinal Ratzinger's letter grants some leeway to Catholics to vote for candidates who support abortion rights under certain conditions.
In the seven-paragraph memo, intended as a guideline for U.S. bishops in addressing the issue at their June conference in Denver, Cardinal Ratzinger outlined the church's strong opposition to abortion and euthanasia and stated that "Christians have a 'grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God's law. Indeed, from the moral standpoint, it is never licit to cooperate formally in evil.'●"
The cardinal further stated that "there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
Much of the debate centers on conflicting interpretations of the last sentence in the cardinal's memo, which stated that it would be sinful for Catholics "to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidates' permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia," but that voting for the same candidate for reasons other than his or her abortion stance "can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons."
Some church leaders say there is nothing "proportionate" to what the church calls the "grave sin" of abortion or euthanasia, while others contend it is not a simple, black-and-white issue.
Toledoan Joan Bradner asked Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo for his opinion on the Ratzinger memo during a question-and-answer session after a talk the bishop gave in September at the Toledo Club.
Bishop Blair said he believed Cardinal Ratzinger's letter was in line with Catholic teaching and that if a person votes for a pro-choice candidate because of his or her stance on other issues, and not specifically to promote abortion, "then that would not be seen as a sinful kind of cooperation."
Bishop Blair later expanded on his comments in the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Chronicle, writing that "there is a heavy burden on the conscience of the person who votes that way to justify their decision in light of the church's clear teaching that abortion and euthanasia are crimes that no human law can claim to legitimize, and the church's insistence that all have a duty to work against these crimes.
"To say that I can do something because it is not necessarily a sin is hardly the full extent of my obligation as a believer to witness to the truths of faith and morals by a holy and virtuous life, and by upright, even heroic moral choices," the bishop wrote.
Mrs. Bradner, 75, a member of Corpus Christigation as a believer to witness to the truths of faith and morals by a holy and virtuous life, and by upright, even heroic moral choices," the bishop wrote.
Mrs. Bradner, 75, who attends Corpus Christi parish, said this week that she was pleased with Bishop Blair's initial response but not his expanded statement.
"I told him after the talk that he gave a good an-
swer - clear and simple and concise," she said. "But after the Chronicle article was published, I've been thinking of dropping him a note and saying that the diocesan office has a great weakness for making simple things very difficult. He has muddled a rather straightforward issue."
While the Catholic Church is firmly opposed to abortion, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops consistently opposes single-issue voting and expressed a consensus opinion in its recent document, "Faithful Citizenship," stating that "we do not wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates. We hope that voters will examine the position of candidates on the full range of issues, as well as on their personal integrity, philosophy, and performance."
The USCCB advised Catholics to judge candidates on "the consistent ethic of life" that spans a broad range of issues including war, nuclear proliferation, health care, assisted suicide, the death penalty, and programs assisting pregnant women.
Father Bacik said a politician could oppose a constitutional ban on abortion for pragmatic reasons, saying it would be unenforceable and cause an increase in the number of illegal abortions, but the candidate could still be "pro-life" by voting for programs that would reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. "The argument within the Catholic community is not the morality of abortion; it's the best means for reducing the number of abortions," Father Bacik said.
Politicians can face complex and difficult choices, he said.
"It is relatively simple for a bishop or a priest to make a statement or preach a homily on the evils of abortion," Father Bacik wrote in a recent essay. "It is far more complicated for a member of Congress to decide how to vote on a bill which provides, for instance, much needed services for poor women, but includes funding for abortion."
The fact that more than a million abortions are performed annually in the United States is "bad for society, bad for women's health, bad for the respect for life, and a very unhealthy situation," he said. "But the question is: 'How are you going to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and reduce the number of situations where people don't feel as if they can support a child?'●"
The "proportionate reasons" that Cardinal Ratzinger mentioned in his memo could include this sort of "big picture" view of the political process, Father Bacik said.
"The 'proportionate reasons' is going to suggest that you look at the issue from many different sides, to see it from a larger perspective," Father Bacik said.
One option American Catholics are not being given is to duck the issue entirely. "Participation in the political process is a moral obligation," the bishops said in "Faithful Citizenship."
Bishop Gracida said in a statement that a voter who abstains "could well be assisting in the election of a candidate" who promotes abortion. Not actively voting for a pro-choice candidate "would not carry the same guilt as formal participation" in his or her election, he said, but "it would still be sinful, even if only a sin of omission." He added that voting for a candidate who has no realistic chance of winning also is morally irresponsible.
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