Someone needs the thank the US Catholic Bishops for re-releasing the 2012 voters guide for the good of the Catholic faithful once again this year. But a survey of today’s headlines shows that expressions of thankfulness will likely be few and far between.
Among those who will not be offering much in the way of gratitude are the secular media, conservative Catholics, liberal Catholics, and most of the rest of US Catholics. Of the many reports I have perused, most were at least as interested in the Bishop’s long struggle to assert their teaching authority within the US Catholic Church as they were in the content and usefulness of the document.
Additionally, it was noted that only a minority of Catholics are even aware that the Bishops offer a voters guide (they’ve been doing this for four decades), and even fewer will make much use of it. Among the conservative Catholic opinions, there is notable frustration that the Bishops do not clearly support voting against abortion as an ethical mandate for all Catholic voters; although, some surmise that the revised introduction hints towards this.
Liberal Catholics are once again at least somewhat happy to have a non-partisan document that puts immigration and poverty alongside abortion and traditional marriage, and emphasizes the use of conscience. Although, they also have to at least begrudgingly acknowledge that among the issues raised, abortion is the only one defined as “intrinsically evil” and that their idea of the use of conscience may be discontinuous with the way this recently been expressed among the bishops.
So what are the bishops to do? Continue to make everyone unhappy? I think so and I thank them for it.
US Catholicism is a diverse faith with internal tensions that become greatly exacerbated when political partisanship enters the question. In order to stay relevant the Bishops must speak out against all injustices and therefore avoid partisanship that comes at the expense of turning a blind eye to significant issues. The 2012 presidential race looks to be shaping up as a race in which no candidate will be overwhelmingly favored by Catholics who seek to uphold all the concerns raised by the voters guide and do not stack the Bishop’s concerns into a clear hierarchy; this is a move the Bishops themselves are unwilling to make against the consternation of strong pro-life voters.
President Obama has recently offended the Bishops and some Catholics with a mandate that Catholic employers provide full coverage on contraceptives, including forms some define as abortive. Although US Catholics overwhelming reject Catholic teaching on contraception, those who see this as an infringement of religious freedom may rally to the Bishop’s support. Additionally, in 2008 Obama appealed to moderate pro-life voters with the promise that, although he would uphold abortion rights, he would attempt to decrease abortions by addressing underlying causes such as poverty. However, his record in office will certainly be used against him on this issue in the upcoming election.
On the other hand, several Catholic leaders recently rebuked Gingrich and Santorum for racist remarks made during campaign speeches. Aside from this, neither of these two Catholic presidential hopefuls is entirely palatable for broad Catholic appeal. Aside from the questions of social justice and immigration reform raised in the voters guide, Gingrich has a well-known checkered past. Likewise, Santorum’s creationist views are in contrast to accepted Catholic Biblical exegesis and his apparent support for sodomy laws (at least for homosexuals) raise questions of privacy and separation of church and state. Romney is no more immune than the other candidates but may have fewer overt difficulties; his biggest problems may be the inconsistencies in his record and how he might present himself in a general election after having attempted to move far right throughout the primaries.
Finally, an issue the voters guide raises, and one that is rarely addressed well, is the question of conscience. The extremes would say that conscience is either submission to established teaching, thereby making the “intrinsic evil” of abortion the end-all in political choice, or justify the use of conscience for virtually any position, a sentiment the Bishops more strongly reject in one of the few revisions made to the 2012 guide from its 2008 version.
But this question is trivialized when the use of conscience is construed as only where a Catholic "lands" on a particular issue. Aside from this, timing and plausibility should be considered as key aspects to evaluating one’s decision to support a particular candidate. That is, issues apart from context should not determine a vote alone; they must be weighed with their likelihood to actually effect change and the possible extent of this change. Abortion is paradigmatic; for decades it has locked in a certain number of votes, and yet strong sentiments during election season rarely translate into much political action for either party. A conscientious Catholic voter should not only seek a candidate with similar convictions, but should weigh the likelihood of change on any issue against that of others while considering the relative importance these hold in their conscience.
I want to conclude by offering my gratitude to the US Bishops for explaining Catholic teaching on a range of issues that ought to factor into a Catholic voters’ decision making process. The Bishops do so in spite of a majority of US Catholics who, for whatever reasons, simply are not listening or are unwilling to listen, some who will remain single-issue voters regardless of the guide’s attention to several issues, some who will find a way to make the guide support whatever choice they make, and a field of candidates who will doubtlessly encourage further rifts among the Catholic faithful as their campaigns progress. In 2012 Catholics will undoubtedly refuse to vote in bloc, and I thank the Bishops for at least attempting to help us ground our convictions in an articulation of Catholic teaching.
I am a PhD student in Systematic Theology at Duquesne University (Pittsburgh, PA); my BA is from Wartburg College (Waverly, IA), and MA is from Catholic Theological Union (Chicago, IL). A Roman Catholic who spent several years employed by Lutherans, my interests are in Ecumenism, Theological Anthropology, and Environmentalism.