Proclaiming a sense of new energy and empowerment, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops on Wednesday issued instructions to Catholic voters that their eternal salvation could be at stake when they cast ballots.
Bishops emphasized that voters must consider the church's teachings on abortion and other moral issues when they select a candidate for the White House or any other office. If they don't, bishops said, it's not clergy who will judge them but God.
"It is important to be clear that the political choices faced by citizens have an impact on general peace and prosperity and also the individual's salvation," the bishops said in the document, titled "Faithful Citizenship." "Similarly, the kinds of laws and policies supported by public officials affect their spiritual well-being."
Bishops have drafted a similar document every four years since the 1976 presidential election, when concerns centered on Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe and recovery from the Watergate scandal. But the guidelines issued Wednesday for the first time spelled out possible consequences as well as giving much more nuanced instruction to the Catholic electorate than in years past.
Voters are implored not to support abortion-rights political candidates but also advised that views on abortion should not be the sole factor. Catholics should also weigh church teaching on such moral issues as immigration, just war and poverty, bishops said.
"It was groundbreaking not in the sense that it changed any doctrine or added any doctrine," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. "What we did provide for the first time in this document is some concrete guidance in how a voter goes about making prudential judgments."
Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said previous statements in his memory have not spelled out such specific consequences. The statement reflects the bishops' frustations with pro-choice Democratic politicians and Republican leaders who focus solely on ending abortion, he said.
For many bishops, approving the statement recalled the heyday of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1970s and 1980s, when the group earned a reputation for going against the grain and exercising moral authority. "The Challenge of Peace," a historic pastoral letter that tried to explain church teaching on war, peace and the nuclear arms race, was issued in 1983 under the leadership of the late Joseph Bernardin when he was archbishop of Cincinnati.
Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento noted that the document was approved on the anniversary of Bernardin's death. "In a way it replicates what we did 30 years ago," he said.
The document does not tell voters which candidates or party to favor. It also does not address whether priests should deny communion to Catholic politicians who stray from church teaching. Cardinal Francis George, the newly elected president of the conference, said bishops probably would discuss the issue this week behind closed doors.
The voting guidelines followed a letter issued by outgoing President Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., calling for a responsible transition in Iraq.
"Our nation must focus on the ethics of exit than on the ethics of intervention," Skylstad wrote. "The morally and politically demanding but carefully limited goal of responsible transition should aim to reduce further loss of life and address the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, the refugee crisis in the region, the need to help rebuild the country and human rights, especially religious freedom."
Russell Shaw, information director for the bishops' conference from 1969 to 1987, said it's too soon to tell whether the bishops have emerged from the sexual abuse crisis and entered a new era of influence. But the bishops' optimism is clear.
"They are looking for hopeful signs that they have turned the corner," said Shaw, who observed the meeting this week.
Fighting back from financial woes caused by the abuse crisis, the conference reorganized last year, resulting in a more collaborative process to develop such statements. They debated the statement publicly for the first time.
As a result of the public debate, bishops were able to shape the document on the floor. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Chicago insisted that the guidelines urge Catholics to consider the religious roots of current conflicts overseas.
"The people who coalition forces are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and a dozen other locales are not the poor and oppressed seeking to throw off their chains," he said. "They are jihadist fanatics who believe they are doing God's will."
Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Ala., praised the document, which he says "gets to the guts of the moral and conscience formation."
"We've never gone that far in clarifying those issues," he said. "Bishops can't always get inside a person's head."
Whether they can get inside the ballot box is another question, though the initiative may get an extra boost when Pope Benedict XVI visits the United States in April, the peak of primary season.
The Catholic electorate tends to be diverse ethnically, politically and even religiously, noted Gregory Smith, a research fellow at the Pew Institute on Religion and Public Life. Adherence to Catholic social teachings often corresponds with church attendance, which varies, and just as many Catholics voted for President Bush in 2004 as for John Kerry.
Karl Maurer, a director of the conservative Catholic Citizens of Illinois, said "If the statement had been more stern and more clear" it would impact the behavior of voters as well as the politicians they have to choose from, he said.
Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, said the bishops' guidelines convey an important message about the breadth of Catholic social tradition. "The key is what people hear from their pastor and get in the pews," she said.
Dissent=damnation? I don't recall even Pat Robertson saying that. Given the total number of people who are damned in his eyes is far greater, but I'm really fucking sick of this shit.
And for those playing along at home, "Proclaiming a sense of new energy and empowerment" is Catholic for "You've forgotten by now that we used our bureaucracy to aid and abet pedophiles, right?"