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Catholic Voters Given Leeway on Abortion Rights Issue

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page A06

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's arbiter of doctrinal orthodoxy, has given Roman Catholic voters leeway under certain circumstances to vote for politicians who support abortion rights, U.S. Catholic officials said yesterday.

In keeping with Ratzinger's pronouncement, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis last week clarified the remarks he made earlier this summer, when he said any Catholic who votes for a politician who supports abortion rights is committing a grave sin and must confess before receiving communion.

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Burke now says that, in theory, there could be "proportionate reasons" that justify voting for someone who does not share the church's position against abortion -- though in practice, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "it is difficult to imagine" what such reasons would be.

In other years, Ratzinger's intricately worded statement and U.S. bishops' efforts to parse it might have escaped general notice. But in this year's super-heated political climate, they could make a difference to some voters in the tight race between Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a Catholic who favors abortion rights, and President Bush, a conservative Protestant who has signed legislation aimed at restricting abortions.

Ratzinger's statement came at the bottom of a one-page confidential memorandum that he sent in June to Washington's Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, head of a commission of U.S. bishops on Catholics in political life. It was published in full by the Italian press this summer, and the section dealing with voting was first reported yesterday by the Detroit Free Press.

"A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia," wrote Ratzinger, who is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department charged with ensuring fidelity to church teachings.

But Ratzinger added: "When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons."

Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for McCarrick, said Ratzinger's statement means that "a Catholic can never vote for a candidate precisely because the candidate supports abortion."

"However, there could be circumstances where a voter, bearing in mind the primacy of the life issue, supports the candidate for other serious reasons," she said. "Each Catholic is called to consider these issues from a faith perspective and to weigh the candidates' positions very carefully before voting."

Gibbs added that "the church speaks on issues, not on individuals. The church never tells someone who to vote for."

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