Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Catholic bishops' letter on voting causes a stir, with critics likening it to an endorsement of McCain

12:00 AM CDT on Tuesday, October 14, 2008
By SAM HODGES / The Dallas Morning News

Some North Texas Catholics are upset with a letter written to them by their local bishops, saying it amounts to an endorsement of John McCain for president.

"I was personally offended," said Phillip Archer of Dallas. "My bishop basically told me that if I vote for Barack Obama, I will go to hell."

The letter by Bishop Kevin Farrell of the Diocese of Dallas and Bishop Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Fort Worth says in part: "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."

Mr. Obama, the Democratic candidate, supports abortion rights. The Republicans' nominee, Mr. McCain, favors overturning Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that protects abortion rights.

The bishops' letter was distributed or read at parishes across the Diocese of Dallas this weekend. The Fort Worth Diocese is distributing the letter through its newspaper, which is being mailed to all registered Catholic families in the diocese.

Nicole LeBlanc said several people at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Dallas walked out during the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass when the letter was read at the time usually reserved for a homily.

Ms. LeBlanc, an Obama supporter, said she, too, was upset.

"As a Catholic, we're taught about being independent moral agents with free will," she said. "That letter from the bishops is basically telling us that if we vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights, we are basically immoral and our souls are imperiled."

Ms. LeBlanc also said she felt the letter "has gone too far towards bringing political endorsements in the church, which is obviously not legal."

She and Mr. Archer, who also attends Holy Trinity, said a protest of the letter is likely to occur outside the headquarters of the Dallas Diocese on Wednesday afternoon.

The bishops declined to comment Monday. By Monday afternoon, the Diocese of Dallas had received 30 comments on the letter, 80 percent of them supportive, said communications director Annette Gonzales Taylor.

"I don't think it's an endorsement or a condemnation of a specific candidate," said Rick Nyman, a Frisco Catholic who applauded the letter. "I think it's a reminder of what church dogma is. If you like it, fine. If you don't like it, that's not so fine, but we love you anyhow."

Ms. Taylor said the letter was not an endorsement of any political candidate but sought to clarify Catholic teachings, particularly a document issued by U.S. bishops called "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." She said the bishops felt the document was being misunderstood by some in their dioceses.

Ms. LeBlanc said she has studied the document and believes the bishops have drawn from it selectively, emphasizing one approach to combating abortion and leaving out other key issues.

" 'Faithful Citizenship,' to me and a lot of other Catholics, allows us to form our consciences, weighing all those issues, even though we may vote for a candidate that does not favor outlawing abortion," she said.

The bishops' letter evoked criticism from the nonprofit group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"This is clearly an attempt on the part of these bishops to do an end-run around the federal tax law ban on electioneering by churches," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, the group's executive director.

But Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University and a Catholic, said the bishops are "completely in the clear from a legal standpoint" with the letter and accurately reflect the church's teaching.

"They are choosing to be more proactive about giving political guidance than most bishops so far have been, but there is nothing radical about the theology underlying their message," Dr. Wilson said.

The bishops' letter quotes from "Faithful Citizenship" as it identifies other "intrinsic evils," including same-sex unions, euthanasia and "destructive" human embryonic stem cell research. The letter notes the church's concern with poverty, health care and immigration reform.

But abortion gets the heaviest stress.

"As Catholics, we must treat our political choices with appropriate moral gravity and in doing so, realize our continuing and unavoidable obligation to be a voice for the voiceless unborn, whose destruction by legal abortion is the pre-eminent intrinsic evil of our day," the letter says.

Both bishops are fairly new on the job, with Bishop Vann having been leader of the Fort Worth Diocese since July 2005 and Bishop Farrell of the Dallas Diocese since May 2007.

A Gallup poll in late June found slightly more support among Catholics for Mr. Obama than for Mr. McCain.

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