A Catholic’s Choice: Voting and the Church
November 14, 2008
A Catholic priest in South Carolina has warned his parish that if they receive Communion after voting for Barack Obama, a pro-choice candidate, they are risking their eternal souls. The Reverend Jay Scott Newman has caused quite an outcry. Some are saying that this calls into question his church’s tax exempt status, which puts limits on religious organizations’ abilities to electioneer from the pulpit. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t really add anything to that discussion. I’ve also seen complaining that the priest was stepping beyond his duties as a Catholic clergyman, or that what he wrote is somehow out of bounds on theological terms. That is simply not true. In fact, he was being a good Catholic. The real problem is what being a good Catholic entails.
A recurring complaint I’ve seen in the declamations over Newman’s letter is that it does not align with the will of this country’s Catholic population. Indeed, 54 percent of Catholic voters cast their ballot for Obama, according to exit polls. Various people, be they moderate Catholics or others, have used polls like that one to argue that the Newman, and indeed the entire Catholic hierarchy, ought to reforms their views to be more in line with those of its membership. There’s a major problem with that. The Roman Catholic Church has never been a lay-person’s democracy, and it probably never will be. In fact, they don’t have to care about your opinions at all, as the Catholic hierarchy’s job is to preserve and mandate what they believe to be “God’s word” to you, not to weigh your opinions. The numbers could show that 95 percent of Catholics voted for Obama, and the Magisterium wouldn’t have to do a thing about the doctrine that such numbers would seem to invalidate.
Another popular argument is that the Priest overstepped his boundaries and that voting ought to be seen as a personal choice removed from one’s standing in the Church. If only. The Roman Catholic Church views voting as an extension of one’s religious life and a duty; a call to “evaluate policy positions, party platforms, and candidate’s promises and actions in light of the Gospel and the moral and social teaching of the Church in order to help build a better world,” according to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States (you can download the PDF here). This same document, produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, declares that, “abortion, the deliberate killing of a human being before birth, is never morally acceptable and must always be opposed.” As far as the Church is concerned, one’s political positions and actions have a direct effect on one’s moral standing. For example, the current pope, Benedict XVI, stated that pro-choice politicians in Mexico had excommunicated themselves on the basis of their legislature. Only a month ago, two bishops in Texas said much the same thing as Father Newman did in his letter, using startlingly similar language. Compare the South Carolinian Priest’s language here:
Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exists constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil, and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of the full communion of Christ’s Church and under the judgment of divine law.”
To the Texan Bishops’:
“To vote for a candidate who supports the intrinsic evil of abortion or ‘abortion rights’ when there is a morally acceptable alternative would be to cooperate in the evil — and, therefore, morally impermissible.”
They are all completely in line with Church doctrine. Pope John Paul II had the following to say about abortion. This is the 62nd passage from his Evangelium Vitae:
Given such unanimity in the doctrinal and disciplinary tradition of the Church, Paul VI was able to declare that this tradition [regarding abortion] is unchanged and unchangeable. Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, in communion with the Bishops — who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine — I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
The official position of the Catholic Church is very clear; if you support a woman’s right to choose, you are committing a grave sin. Obviously, that is both absurd and dangerous, but then that’s religion for you. To those who sought to separate Father Newman’s actions from his religion, and to condemn him while protecting Catholicism as a whole, why were you so quick to defend what has so long been the enemy of women’s rights? To the 54 percent of voting Catholics that voted for Obama, I’ve got this to say. Clearly, your values do not match up with those of your Church. Where you stood in support of a woman’s right to choose, your religious leaders (all of them men, of course) firmly declared that the decision was not between a woman and her doctor, or a woman and her family, but between the Priesthood and God. In light of this obvious polarity, and since your membership in that organization swells their ranks and gives them legitimacy, and any money you might give only increases their power, I would beseech you to consider leaving the Church. You must decide, because the Roman Catholic hierarchy has made you decide; what are you going to be: a good Catholic, or a good person?