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THE CATHOLIC OBSERVER

October 20, 2000

To vote responsibly is a right, a duty and a privilege

By Bishop Thomas L. Dupre

Bishop of Springfield, Massachusetts

Sometimes people write to me asking me to promote a particular position or endorse a particular candidate. As a leader of the church, I am obliged to promote the teachings of the church and positions which are in harmony with them. As a matter of law, in my capacity as a religious leader, I cannot endorse particular candidates without putting the tax-exempt status of the church in jeopardy

Some might say that, as a matter of principle, I should forget tax exemption and speak out forcefully on the candidates, endorsing some and condemning others. I disagree.

To do so would imperil the many educational, charitable and religious activities of the church which help so many people, especially the needy and under-privileged in our society; and I doubt that it would do much good. In fact, it might have adverse repercussions and do more harm than good.

In our democracy, people often resent to being told whom to vote for, especially by religious leaders. Remember, however, that "separation of church and state," is a slogan, nowhere found in the U.S. Constitution, and one which has been exaggerated in meaning and is trotted out by someone every time a religious leader speaks out on a public issue.

Thus, I believe, the endorsement or condemnation of candidates for office would be counter-productive and I am opposed to it.

On the other hand, religious leaders are not barred, and, in fact, are morally bound to speak out on issues of a moral or ethical nature, or on issues having an impact on religious life and activities, or on any issues in the public domain, especially those which affect the poor, the marginalized, and those discriminated against in our society.

In spite of what some might say to erroneously mislead the public, there is no law and certainly nothing in the Constitution which precludes religious leaders from teaching and instructing their followers regarding issues having a moral or religious significance, or having serious impact on our society, especially the weak and needy, in such fields as education, health care, welfare, military defense or international relations.

All such issues are not simply political. They also have a moral aspect, some of them significantly so. They deal with issues of justice and fairness and sometimes basic good and evil.

Among these, of course, are issues pertaining to the culture of life as opposed to the culture of death. The most fundamental and significant of all human rights is the right to life. Without the right to life, all other rights are meaningless. The church teaches that human life is precious and must be respected and protected from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. Indeed, human life is inviolable. This teaching encompasses many issues, but especially those concerning abortion, the death penalty and assisted suicide.

Other issues of importance include those which support the traditional family structure and the institution of marriage defined as a life-long and faithful committed relationship between a man and a woman.

Once our people know the moral significance of these issues, it is then their responsibility to find out where the candidates stand on them. It is then their obligation and responsibility to vote for the candidate who will promote what is good and oppose what is evil, who will promote the culture of life and oppose the culture of death, who will promote the well-being of society and oppose its moral disintegration. It should never be forgotten that those who promote evil or enable it to exist must share in the responsibility for it and be held accountable.

In a democracy the people rule. They rule through their vote. In a democracy, we are not entitled to take matters into our own hands. We are not entitled to violent demonstrations or even worse insurrection precisely because we have the freedom to change the system if we want to. The means are available. They consist of education, organization and the right to vote.

Such a right cannot be taken for granted. It is a sacred duty and privilege which impacts upon our conscience to do what is right especially for those who are unable to defend themselves, for the unborn, for the weak and marginalized, for the common good of society and for a world of justice and peace.

Once our people know the principles at issue, I believe they have the intelligence and the innate good will to select and choose those candidates who best represent our values, what is right and good.

In effect, when you enter that voting booth, you are not there simply to pull a lever for your favorite candidate or in favor of your own personal and possibly selfish self-interest. You are there with the power to effect change and shape the future of our society. You stand there alone before God and your conscience.

The bishops of Massachusetts have issued moral guidelines for voting in the forthcoming election. This statement is called "Faithful Citizenship in Massachusetts." It is being made public today, Friday, Oct. 20. ... I hope you will read it in full.

Please note especially the moral teaching of the bishops on the issue of the protection of human life. It is the most fundamental and primordial issue.

"'We... in a particular way, wish to underscore the absolute centrality of the first issue, the protection of human life. Support and promotion of abortion by any candidate is always wrong and can never be justified. We will never cease to denounce abortion and euthanasia and teach all Catholics that to support those positions is to support death over life."

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