The nation's Roman Catholic bishops have released a voter guide for the 2012 election that repeatedly calls abortion "evil" without making revisions some conservatives had demanded for an even tighter focus on the issue.
The document, called "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," is nearly identical to the bishops' guide published four years ago. It gives high priority to fighting abortion while also highlighting social concerns such as ending poverty and war. Catholics make up about one-quarter of the electorate nationwide but do not vote as a bloc. Most don't base their choice on a politician's stand on abortion.
The bishops have offered similar advice to Catholics before every presidential race since 1976, broadly applying religious teaching to policy concerns of the day. The document has become a point of contention within the church over which issues voters should consider most important: abortion or social justice. These differences have often led to bruising arguments - and an unusual public airing of differences among bishops. By releasing the document now, church leaders hope to minimize the chance for a public debate on the guide at their annual November meeting, although any bishop could ask to revisit the guide.
In an introductory note to the 2012 edition, the bishops highlighted six concerns: abortion, religious freedom, traditional marriage, immigration reform, fighting poverty and ending war. The document was released days after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced they had created a new watchdog committee to challenge what they considered an "assault" on religious liberty from Obama administration policies. Among the threats the bishops cited were a plan that could require Catholic organizations to cover birth control free of charge for their employees and distribute condoms as part of HIV prevention campaigns.
The introductory note warns "Faithful Citizenship" has sometimes "been misused to present an incomplete or distorted view of the demands of faith and politics." Some bishops have accused liberals of twisting the document's nuanced language to justify Catholic votes for abortion-rights supporters. The bishops also cautioned against attempts "to reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters, or to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological or personal issues."
"As Catholics we are not single-issue voters," the bishops wrote in the guide. "A candidate's position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter's support. Yet a candidate's position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support."
The guide contains no direct instruction on whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should receive Holy Communion. Each bishop has the authority to decide how to approach lawmakers within his own diocese. However, the document does emphasize statements by Pope Benedict XVI on the duty of lawmakers to serve as a "public witness to our faith."
Michael Sean Winters, a Catholic author who blogs at the independent liberal newsweekly National Catholic Reporter, praised the document for "striking not just a balance, but for showing that neither political party really conforms to the fullness of the Catholic moral vision."
"Voters have to make prudential judgments," about which candidate is most likely to follow Catholic social teaching, Winters said.
Deal Hudson, a one-time adviser to the campaign of President George W. Bush, was among those urging stronger language on abortion. He called the introductory note "a positive step toward clarifying some of the ambiguities that were advantageously spun by some seeking to water down church teachings for their own agenda."
In recent years, Catholic bishops have been struggling to reassert their teaching authority within the church. However, a recent survey found that few parishioners knew the bishops publish a voting guide. The poll conducted in May and June by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that only 16 percent of adult Catholics had heard of the "Faithful Citizenship." Of those who knew about the document, about three-quarters said it had "no influence at all" on how they voted.