Of Many Minds
In November 2007, the bishops voted overwhelmingly for the document, titled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” During the election season, most of them publicized it in their parishes and stuck with it in their own statements.Home to 1.5 million Catholics -- roughly 35% of the total pop. of its diocese's two boroughs -- Brooklyn and Queens backed the Democratic ticket by a ratio of more than 3-to-1.
But faced with the prospect of a victory by Senator Obama and particularly disturbed by the support he was getting from Catholics whose anti-abortion credentials were undeniable, many other bishops began to insist on giving their own interpretation. Some estimates place 50 to 60 bishops within this group, almost certainly a larger minority than four years ago. And they were the ones responsible for the public’s perception of the bishops’ role in the election....
“To the extent it was perceived that abortion was the only issue that should determine a Catholic’s vote,” Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany said this week, “I don’t think it was true to ‘Faithful Citizenship’ itself, and I don’t think it resonated with the Catholic people.”
The danger may go beyond not resonating.
Many Catholics may understandably feel that the bishops are talking out of both sides of their mouths: Catholics are not supposed to be single-issue voters, but, by the way, abortion is the only issue that counts. The bishops do not intend to tell Catholics how to vote; but, by the way, a vote for Senator Obama puts your salvation at risk. Catholics are to form their consciences and make prudential judgments about complex matters of good and evil — just so long as they come to the same conclusions as the bishops.
There is obviously a gap between the prudential leeway that “Faithful Citizenship” affirmed for Catholics and the political urgency that some bishops feel about abortion — and already some of the latter are suggesting that the document should be recast again, presumably to make conformity to one’s bishop’s judgment a litmus test for being a faithful Catholic.
In a conversation on Monday, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who had overseen the delicate process of redrafting the document, warned about moving toward endorsing candidates. “It goes against our tradition to do that,” he said. “It hasn’t done any good for the candidate, or for the church or for conscience.”
Bishop DiMarzio lamented the fact that “people want black and white answers” rather than the whole legacy of moral analysis and reflection that “the Catholic Church can offer.” At the same time, it was clear that the possibility that a well-informed, sincere Catholic might use that legacy to vote for Senator Obama strained his imagination.