Statement of Bishop Robert J. Carlson
Bishop of Sioux Falls, South Dakota
On Catholic Teaching on Abortion and Political Beliefs
Within the past few weeks at least two people proclaiming membership in the
Catholic Church wrote letters to the editor to daily newspapers presenting
flawed thinking on the Catholic teaching of abortion and their particular
political beliefs. As their bishop, I have no choice but to respond to their
As people of faith, we are called to be in an intimate and personal relationship
with Jesus Christ, accepting him as Lord and Savior. Only then will our hearts
and minds, our words and actions be truly formed by Jesus Christ.
As Catholics, we learn about our faith through the reading of the Sacred
Scriptures and the teaching of the Magisterium. This teaching is found in
doctrinal instruction, encyclicals like the Gospel of Life, and other official
documents like the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. Much of this
material is collected into handy resources like the Catechism of the Catholic
The church, in our ever-changing world, always turns in faith to the Lord. As
the Bible reminds us, the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. The
teaching of the church is in opposition to the culture of death and therefore
the church is attacked by agents of the culture. Actually, if we follow Jesus,
we should expect to carry the cross of misunderstanding, attack and even hate.
As St. Peter said to the sanhedrin, "We must obey God rather than men."
The teaching of the Church
In light of the letters to the editor, I want to present the church teaching in
a straightforward manner: You cannot on the one hand support abortion rights and
on the other be a Catholic in good standing. Likewise, you cannot offer personal
opposition to abortion and then act differently in your professional life.
As the Fathers of the Vatican II Council said more than 30 years ago: "This
split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be
counted among the more serious errors of our age." (Gaudium et Spes 43)
The church, through the bishops, must teach the Gospel. I have the duty to teach
about human life and dignity, marriage and family, war and peace, the needs of
the poor and the demands of justice. As we learned during the civil rights
struggle, we have a moral responsibility to state the truth about the dignity of
every human being regardless of race. It doesn’t matter whether a particular
politician or a candidate for office agrees with us or not.
The same is true today.
The Catholic Church has taught from the beginning that the killing of the unborn
(burning them with a solution the doctor injects into the womb, cutting them up
while still alive in the womb like so much meat, or sucking out the brain in
partial birth abortion) is intrinsically evil, murder and can never be
Those who perform an abortion and those who cooperate willingly in the action,
if fully aware of the grave evil, cut themselves off from the church and
separate themselves from God’s grace. This is and has been the constant teaching
of the Catholic Church.
The common good
The letters to the editor and statements I have received in a few private
letters are clear examples of the erosion in Catholic formation for the last two
Today nominal Catholics are often soft on abortion and badly misinformed about
this and other aspects of the faith including the Eucharist and the proper
formation of one’s conscience. They fail to grasp the difference between the
common good and excessive individual rights.
In the Diocese of Sioux Falls we have the Institute for Religious Education
(IRS) offering up to 120 hours of training in the faith for religious education
teachers, Catholic school teachers, and others to have the full teaching of the
church. It will be offered again this fall, and I encourage you to take part.
Call the Education Office at 605-334-9861 and ask to be included. To date more
than 1,500 people from the diocese have enrolled for all or part of the program.
During the June bishops’ meeting in Denver, we stated clearly that the legal
system itself cooperates in evil when it fails to protect the lives of those who
have no protection. When the Supreme Court interpreted that abortion on demand
is a constitutional right, the justices failed to protect the lives of innocent
and defenseless new members of the human race; a sin against the common good.
The morality that protects human rights and thus the common good is the first
and best thing worth legislating. When a politician says, "I am personally
opposed to abortion but don’t want to impose my Catholic beliefs" or says
something like, "You can’t legislate morality," he or she fails the common good.
As the bishops stated in "Faithful Citizenship," Catholics who bring their moral
convictions into public life do not threaten democracy or pluralism, but rather
enrich them and the nation. The separation of church and state does not require
division between belief and public action, between moral principles and
political choices, but rather protects the rights of believers and religious
groups to practice their faith and act on their values in public life.
The church clearly teaches in the Gospel of Life (par. 73) and on page 6 of the
Statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (in the English
translation) that those who formulate the law (legislators at the state and
national level) have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks
human life. If you review someone’s voting record or listen to their campaign
promises, you will have the information to cast an intelligent vote.
The statement from the Congregation goes on to say, "A well-formed Christian
conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual
law which contradicts the fundamental content of faith and morals." (CDF page 6)
Morality not political activity
It is clear that from the pulpit you cannot endorse a certain political party or
speak for or against a particular candidate for office. However, pastors are
only fulfilling their duty when they share the teaching of the church with
regard to faith and morals. This is not political activity.
I have given the statement from the CDF to the priests and deacons so they can
reflect on it and address it from the pulpit when appropriate. I have asked them
to read the Gospel of Life and Veritatis Splendor and share this with the
people. This is important as we help people properly form their conscience. We
cannot be silent out of fear and anxiety, but rather we must speak the truth of
As our Holy Father said in the Gospel of Life (par. 28), "We are facing an
enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the ‘culture
of death’ and the ‘culture of life.’ We all have a responsibility which we
cannot escape of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life."
There is a faulty thinking today that all life issues are equal or the same.
Even some priests and religious and a few politicians try to promote this. The
philosophical fallacy that underpins this argument is called relativism. It
teaches that all things and issues are relative and up to the individual to
decide which is of greater importance. Some elements in the media favor it as it
"squares" in their minds with the sense of strong individualism fostered by the
culture. It goes hand-in-hand with the attitude, "whatever I think or believe,
whatever I value or want, whatever I feel or desire must be correct."
The fundamental right
But the teaching of the church, which corresponds with reality and the natural
law, is that all life issues are not equal or the same. In fact, there is one
which is primary, life itself. It is so basic and foundational that if it is not
upheld, all other issues and rights are meaningless. Opposition to abortion
binds every Catholic under pain of mortal sin and admits of no exceptions.
It was for this reason that I stated in October of 2000 that you cannot vote for
a politician who is pro-abortion when you have a choice and remain a Catholic in
good standing. For some Catholics this is a hard teaching, but I am simply
repeating church teaching: "Human life is sacred because from the beginning it
involves the creative action of God (Gospel of Life, par. 53)...the direct and
voluntary killing of an innocent human being (abortion and euthanasia) is always
gravely immoral (Gospel of Life, par. 57, 65)...protecting the mother’s health
does not justify the deliberate killing of an innocent human being (Gospel of
Life, par. 58)."
As Cardinal Ratzinger has said, "Catholics would be guilty of formal cooperation
in evil, and so unworthy to present themselves for Holy Communion, if they were
to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s
permissive stance on abortion or euthanasia." This would separate one from the
community of the Church.
If one had a properly formed conscience admitting the grave evil of abortion and
euthanasia, as the Church teaches, and does not share a candidates stand in
favor of abortion and euthanasia, but votes for the candidate for other reasons,
it is considered remote material cooperation which can be permitted, Cardinal
Ratzinger states, if proportionate reasons are present, e.g., the candidate
would limit abortions.
You cannot form your conscience properly based on popular opinion or feeling or
an article in some news magazine, but only from the Scripture and the teaching
of the church. If your personal belief or feeling is different from the church,
then you need to change.
It is not a matter of one opinion versus another opinion. As the Catechism
states in its section on abortion, when the unborn are not protected, the "very
foundations of a state based on law are undermined." (CCC, 2273). Life is "the
issue," because every other right is dependent upon it. Understand that this is
not simply one bishop’s opinion, but is the truth as revealed to us through the
church founded by Christ. Certainly, each individual conscience has rights, but
it also has duties, and one of the primary duties is to inform our conscience
through the teaching of the church.
The right judgment of conscience is not a matter of personal preference nor has
it anything to do with feelings. It has only to do with objective truth.
"Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed
conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to
reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.
The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected
to negative influence and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to
reject authoritative teachings." (CCC, 1783)
Have you read the Gospel of Life, Veritatis Splendor, the Doctrinal Notes from
the Congregation on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in
Public Life, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, and
the Catechism, especially the sections on abortion, euthanasia and conscience
What have you read?
In all honesty, how could a person oppose Catholic teaching or claim to be right
if they have never read what the church teaches? I urge all Catholics to
properly inform their conscience by reading the relevant church documents before
stating what is believed or not believed!
I join the bishops of the United States in committing myself to teaching
clearly, persuading and mobilizing Catholics and all people of good will to
defend human life and support policies that protect human life from conception
to natural death.
In the Diocese of Sioux Falls, those who act in defiance of these fundamental
principles of life should not be honored or invited to speak at Catholic
colleges, schools or parishes, or hold any office such as lector, Eucharist
Minister, usher, parish council member or religious education teacher.
While we commit ourselves to maintain communication with public officials who
make decisions every day that touch human life and dignity, we also remember
that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Catholic life. As we read in the
Scriptures, "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in
an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord."
(1 Cor. 11:27) This means that all must examine their consciences as to their
worthiness to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord. This examination includes
fidelity to the moral teaching of the church and how we live our personal and
I think we all have some work to do.