Church and State, Part 2
By THE MOST REVEREND WILLIAM E. LORI, S.T.D
BISHOP OF BRIDGEPORT
Many years ago, I attended a news conference at which a new Auxiliary Bishop
was introduced to the Washington, D.C., press corps. He was not from Washington,
but had been appointed by the Holy Father to serve the Catholic community in the
nation’s capital. The press was trying to size him up. One reporter asked him,
"Bishop, how do you vote?" Without missing a beat, he smiled and said, "I’m
happy to tell you. I vote in secret, every November." I figured he’d be O.K.
Well, the November election is upon us. And whether or not we are destined to
meet the press or face the nation, we have a serious duty to cast our ballots in
national, state, and local elections. It is a solemn obligation carried out in
the sanctuary of our consciences and in the sanctuary of the voting booth. But
it is not carried out in a vacuum.
As I indicated in my column last month, we are obliged to inform our minds
and our consciences so that we may vote intelligently and conscientiously. And
the social teaching of the Catholic Church is a very reliable guide in this
On pages 4 and 5 of this issue of Fairfield County Catholic, you will find a
voter's guide. It lists key issues which we as an electorate are facing, and
then offers the platform positions taken by the Democratic and Republican
parties. I invite you to study that guide. It is meant to help inform the vote
you will cast.
In this column, however, I confine myself to two questions:
1) How should a conscientious Catholic interpret this voter’s guide?
2) May a conscientious Catholic vote for a candidate who is pro-abortion?
Our voters’ guide should be considered in light of the principles that
under-gird the Church’s social teaching. As Robert Nalewajek of the Centisimus
Annus – Pro Pontifice Foundation points out, those principles are reducible to
First is a correct view of the human person. Each person, made in God’s
image, has inherent dignity. This is the basis for all human rights and
responsibilities. Persons are valuable not merely for what they have or what
they can do, but merely because they are human beings. Human worth and dignity
are bestowed by God and not by the state. Human dignity is God-given and innate.
When governmental authority believes that it grants worth and dignity to human
beings, that same authority can just as easily declare that certain persons and
classes of human beings are worthless or less than human.
Second is solidarity. This means that each person, while unique and endowed
with rights, is not solitary. Each of us is related to family and friends, to a
nation, and, ultimately, to the whole of humanity. We must therefore be
committed not merely to what best suits our private interests but rather what is
best for the common good. As individuals, we must have genuine concern for
others, especially the vulnerable and the disadvantaged. And what is true for us
as individuals is also true for our nation. We must insist that our nation
protect the lives of the innocent and the poor, and that it be a force of
justice and peace among all the nations of the world.
The third principle is called subsidiarity. This means that (and I am
paraphrasing here) a community of a higher order should not interfere in the
internal life and responsibilities of a community of a lower order. For example,
the government should not come between parents and their children except for the
gravest of reasons. Subsidiarity is violated when the state allows teenagers to
have abortions without even consulting their parents.
These three principles are at the heart of the Church’s social teaching and
are consistently applied to an array of social questions. As I indicated in my
last column, however, that teaching is "weighted." Archbishop William Levada of
San Francisco expressed this clearly at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Denver last
June: "Catholic social teaching covers a broad range of important issues, but
not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. . .
. Paramount among these moral principles is the sanctity of human life."
And that leads us to the second question to be treated in this column. May a
Catholic in good conscience ever vote for a candidate who supports the killing
of the unborn either through abortion or in the name of biomedical research?
Guidance on this vital question was offered two years ago in a document from the
Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called "Doctrinal Note . . .
Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life" – a document that
was written not just for the United States but for the world. Here is what this
important document teaches:
First, no Catholic may intentionally (formally) cooperate with the
destruction of unborn human life. It is always and everywhere a grave evil to
destroy these vulnerable human beings. For a Catholic to vote for a candidate
precisely because that candidate is proabortion is to cooperate formally in the
evil of abortion. No Catholic can do that in good conscience.
But the second question is even tougher. What about the Catholic voter who
disagrees with a candidate’s pro-abortion stance but wants to vote for that
candidate because of his or her stance on the war in Iraq, the economy, or any
of the other important issues facing our nation? The "Doctrinal Note" answers
that the Catholic voter may do so only when there are "proportionate reasons."
Here is where we have to do some hard thinking and reflecting.
We cannot determine whether "proportionate reasons" exist so long as we think
of abortion in the abstract, or imagine that unborn human lives are less
valuable than other human lives. Our moral calculations must include how many
abortions occur, coupled with an understanding that abortion really is the
destruction of human life. Seen in that light, the proportions are staggering:
1.3 million abortions take place in our country each year.
Thus, as other bishops and moral theologians have observed, the Catholic
voter may vote for a pro-abortion politician 1) if both candidates are equally
pro-abortion; or 2) if the candidate who is pro-life supports something that is
objectively more evil than the yearly destruction of 1.3 million human lives. In
addition, a Catholic may legitimately vote for a candidate who supports
imperfect legislation; that is, legislation that would reduce the number of
abortions but not eliminate them altogether – for example, a candidate who
supports the ban on partialbirth abortions.
Most everyone remembers that our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, opposed
military intervention in Iraq. He did so not because the Church condemns all war
as intrinsically evil (as is the case with abortion), but rather because he made
the prudential judgment that all the conditions for a just war did not exist.
However, the Holy Father ultimately left it to the heads of state to decide,
and did not bind the consciences of Catholic military personnel serving in Iraq.
Nor did he bind the consciences of those Catholics who support or oppose the
In other words, the position of the Holy See on the war in Iraq is much more
nuanced than is usually reported, and, as Catholic voters, we need to take note
of that fact in determining whether "proportional reasons" exist.
It is not only the Catholic Church which recognizes the evil of abortion.
Many other faiths and people of no faith at all have concluded that abortion is
the unjustifiable taking of innocent human life.
It is up to us as citizens and believers to challenge all political parties
and candidates to protect the rights of all, including the unborn. This is truly
the path to peace and justice. (To read a copy of the "Doctrinal Note . . .
Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life" from the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, visit the diocesan website:
To learn more about Catholic social teaching, I advise all Catholics to
consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially # 2419-2463); the
Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the
Modern World); and two landmark encyclicals of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul
II: Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life); Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth
Anniversary of Rerum Novarum); and the "Doctrinal Note . . . Regarding the
Participation of Catholics in Political Life."