The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Thursday, October 07, 2004  

Vote Your Conscience

As Atrios has observed, today is "Catholics Hate Kerry" day in the media, the most egregious example of which comes from the New York Times: "Kerry and Religion: Pressure Builds for Public Discussions" by Jodi Wilgoren and Bill Keller, a highly flawed piece, by the way, that quickly was eviscerated by Media Matters for America which noted that Wilgoren and Keller have, shall we say, severe limitations in their ability to interpret polling data.

For many American Catholics, particularly those of a moderate, liberal, or progressive bent, the Catholics Hate Kerry meme is part and parcel of a larger campaign that's been playing out for nearly a year, reaching disturbing levels in such areas as Atlanta, Boston, St. Louis, Colorado Springs, Charlotte, N.C., Charleston, S.C., and Newark and Camden, N.J. It goes by the unspoken -- but readily understood -- name, A Real Catholic Wouldn't Vote for Kerry, and it's unsettling on so many levels I scarcely know where to begin.

For a taste of the controversy you might want to read today's Los Angeles Times, which features an article, "St. Louis Catholics Debate Political Directive" by P.J. Huffstutter, that provides a balanced yet ultimately incomplete account of what's going on, one that emphasizes recent events in the Archdiocese of St. Louis under the watch of Archbishop Raymond Burke.

Archbishop Burke, as you may already know, last week issued and published a 6,700-word pastoral letter (Note: PDF file.) to his flock in which he adhered rigidly to what has become the party line, one matching the views of a certain national political party that shall remain unnamed (only because its crimes are so unspeakable): "Procured abortion and homosexual acts are intrinsically evil, and, as such, can never be justified in any circumstance. Although war and capital punishment can rarely be justified, they are not intrinsically evil; neither practice includes the direct intention [sic] of killing innocent human beings." The archbishop repeated his position that it is a "grave sin" for Catholics to vote for politicians who support same-sex marriage, abortion, or stem-cell research.

On matters such as this Catholics are directed and expected to follow the statements of their local bishops. In practice, however, most Catholics, like those of other faiths or of no religious faith at all, struggle with their consciences on difficult moral questions, questions, I might add, that are not limited to abortion, human sexuality, preemptive wars, and capital punishment. As it happens, not every American bishop has gone so far as to say that he would refuse communion to a politician who supports positions contrary to current church teaching or to such an extreme as to cast the dreaded aspersion of "grave sinner" on Catholics living in a religiously free civil society.

It may seem strange that the Church Universal and Triumphant, a church so heavily committed to doctrine, would allow for such differences among localities (i.e., the dioceses). But a former seminarian of my past acquaintance explained to me that this seeming contradiction is the result of certain determinations made at Vatican II, the details of which I will spare you. Suffice it to say that the Church recognized the need for at least some recognition of cultural differences among its vast worldwide flock.

And so, while I suspect über-Catholic Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) is the type to express "concerns" and "worries" about Vatican II -- this is customarily done by such as he in rather vague terms, leading me to conclude the "concerned" and "worried" individual is less than fully informed -- that controversial convocation serves the senator's political purposes well.

For the moment at least. That's because Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of the Diocese of Pittsburgh has not yet spoken on this matter publicly, thereby giving Sen. Santorum a guilt-free ride to endorse and enthusiastically campaign for the reelection of his colleague, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a man whose only claim to being a "moderate" Republican these days rests on his actively cultivated pro-choice reputation. (Note: Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, who came here from St. Louis, also has remained silent on the matter. I promise you this: If he adopts a similar stance, I'm leaving the Church.)

As I've said here before, We are all "cafeteria" Catholics now. I challenge anyone to find more than a relative handful of American Catholics who completely agree with and abide by every point of Church doctrine, assuming they are even familiar with it all -- and there's a lot of it. One could argue that dissent on this or that issue relieves our consciences somewhat, though others might assert this dichotomy leaves us still more perplexed. (St. Augustine, call you office.) But in the end the question becomes, what are pro-Kerry Catholics to do? What advice would I give?

In this instance, I'll let the editors of the National Catholic Reporter, far more informed and eloquent than I, speak to the issue. The NCR, in an important editorial, "Partisans Try to Narrow Catholics' Choices" (posted September 24, published in the October 1 issue), address not only the moral questions involved but the all-too-transparent political agenda.

"There is a larger issue unfolding here -- a deliberate and decided attempt to delegitimize the Democratic Party in the eyes of American Catholic voters," they wrote, adding, "Not since the late 1950s and early '60s has the question of the role of the church and its relationship with its most visible public figures so dominated the American church. And never has such a small band of ideological partisans attempted to make their narrow reading of a political race the undisputed view of the church. There is a lot at stake."

There is much at stake. Not only in the upcoming presidential election, but in the perception of and role of Catholics in American public life. I don't think I'm being reductive when I summarize the Church's stance on this matter: Democrat = Bad Catholic. Republican = Good Catholic. Catholic = Republican.

This is not only undemocratic (note the little "d"), it is dangerous. And for a church that so recently squandered heaps of moral capital protecting its (guilty) own, it is truly mystifying.

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