November 7, 2008
WASHINGTON (RNS) -- Last November, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops overwhelmingly approved a set of guidelines for Catholics to consider before they went to the voting booth.
Only four bishops voted against the 36-page document, called "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship."
Then came the 2008 election.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Joe Biden both openly challenged church teaching on abortion, which says the procedure is evil in all circumstances. A new wave of scholars and activists argued that the church's effort to criminalize abortion is hopeless and urged Catholics to consider other issues before voting.
And on Tuesday, Democrat Barack Obama won 54 percent of the Catholic vote, according to exit polls, making Biden, his running mate and a supporter of abortion rights, the nation's first Catholic vice president.
Now, as nearly 200 Catholic bishops prepare to gather in Baltimore next week for their annual meeting (Nov. 10-13), some say "Faithful Citizenship" must be scrapped, or at least overhauled.
"We need a new approach to conscience formation in the public square," said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, one of a handful of prelates who take a get-tough approach to Catholics who support abortion rights.
"`Faithful Citizenship' didn't and doesn't work because it's been applied by different people in very different ways."
Indeed, Catholic scholars like Nicholas Cafardi, whom the bishops appointed to a board investigating clergy sexual abuse, used "Faithful Citizenship" to buttress his argument that anti-abortion Catholics could back Obama in good conscience.
But it was Biden and Pelosi using "Meet the Press" to openly "misrepresent Catholic teaching" that put abortion and politics on next week's agenda, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"As the teachers of the faith," the USCCB wrote in a September statement, "we also point out the connectedness between the evil of abortion and political support for abortion. We plan to discuss the practical implications of these serious matters."
Biden's elevation to the nation's No. 2 job on Tuesday adds an element of urgency to the bishops' discussion, said Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J.
"It's a very big deal," Myers said. However, the archbishop said, his fellow prelates do not agree about how to handle the situation.
"We need to come closer to being of one mind on this matter," Myers said.
In all, about 50 of the approximately 220 active Catholic prelates strongly suggested that Catholics should not vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights this year. One, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., said voters' "eternal salvation is tied up with that important choice."
Russell Shaw, former director of communications for the USSCB, said the bishops could basically be divided into three camps: the "hardliners," who want to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, and possibly those who vote for them; the "compromisers" who want to reach an agreement with politicians; and a large majority in the middle who "don't like messy unpleasant situations like this and are just hoping it will go away."
The bishops should have agreed on a policy when Catholic Sen. John Kerry, who also supports abortion rights, made a serious run at the presidency four years ago, said Shaw, author of the recent book "Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church."
Instead, the bishops decided to let each prelate determine his own policy.
"The failure to face up to serious questions has come home to roost," Shaw said.
Deal Hudson, a conservative Catholic activist and author, is among those pushing for the prelates to amend "Faithful Citizenship."
"Catholic supporters of Obama have cherry-picked it for loopholes" said Hudson. "The bishops should have anticipated the kinds of abuse a complex document like that would undergo."
Myers said the problem lies not with "Faithful Citizenship" but with its interpreters.
"It's kind of like Vatican II," the archbishop said, referring to the seminal conclave of the 1960s that lead to wide reforms in the church. "Very clearly there are some, like Senator Biden, who are saying the church for centuries did not have a clear position on abortion and have gone all over the ballpark in making up their own positions."
Now the bishops will have Biden, a lifelong Catholic, living in the Vice President's Residence -- directly across the street from the Vatican embassy in Washington.
"I don't think it will be all that bad," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist with the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "The Catholic Church has dealt with Catholic politicians of varying stripes for over a thousand years."
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. Used by permission. All rights reserved.