Correction to This Article
This article about the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' stance on politicians and abortion incorrectly said that there are 194 dioceses in the United States. There are 195. This is the corrected version of the article.

I Voted for Obama. Will I Go Straight to. . . ?

By Joe Feuerherd
Sunday, February 24, 2008

Like most Maryland Democrats, I voted for Sen. Barack Obama in the recent Potomac Primary. By doing so, according to the leaders of my church, I put my soul at risk. That's right, says the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- tap the touch screen for a pro-abortion-rights candidate, and you're probably punching your ticket to Hell.

For a church that "thinks in centuries," things sure are moving quickly. Back in 2004, as Washington correspondent for the independent National Catholic Reporter, I covered what Comedy Central's Jon Stewart dubbed the "wafer wars." A handful of conservative bishops warned Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, a pro-abortion rights Catholic, that they would deny him Communion should he attempt to receive the church's most sacred sacrament.

Now the bishops have raised the stakes: It's not only lawmakers and candidates who risk damnation, 98 percent of the U.S. bishops agreed last November, but the voters who put them in office. "It is important to be clear," the bishops said in a 44-page statement titled "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," "that the political choices faced by citizens[emphasis added] not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual's salvation." Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, chairman of the committee that drafted the statement, put those high-minded sentiments into plain English earlier this month. Support for a candidate who "espouses policies that are gravely immoral" is possible "only under exceptional circumstances that are hard to imagine," he told the Cathedral Club of Brooklyn.

To Catholics like me who oppose liberal abortion laws but also think that other issues -- war or peace, health care, just wages, immigration, affordable housing, torture -- actually matter, the idea that abortion trumps everything, all the time, no matter what, is both bad religion and bad civics. It's not, for God's sake, as though we're in Nazi Germany and supporting Hitler.

Or is it? Amazingly, at least one influential bishop has made just that comparison publicly, and it's a good bet that many others believe it privately.

"In our country we have, for the most part, allowed the party of death and the court system it has produced to eliminate, since 1973, upwards of 40 million of our fellow citizens without allowing them to see the light of day," wrote Rockford, Ill., Bishop Thomas Doran in 2006. "No doubt, we shall soon outstrip the Nazis in doing human beings to death." He continued, "We know . . . that adherents of one political party would place us squarely on the road to suicide as a people."

That Doran forgets his history (five of the seven justices who supported Roe v. Wade were actually appointed by Republican presidents) doesn't obscure his point. He is not alone among Catholic bishops in his attempt to anathematize the Democrats, to make the party and its candidates illegitimate in the mind of the electorate. George Weigel -- papal biographer and intellectual guru to the new generation of conservative bishops -- said as much, as the wafer wars reached a fevered pitch. "The Republican Party is a more secure platform from which Catholics can work on the great issues of the day than a party in thrall to abortion 'rights,' gay activism, and a utilitarian approach to the biotech future that is disturbingly reminiscent of 'Brave New World,' " he wrote in his syndicated column.

This fire-and-brimstone approach to the ballot box is the long-term bequest of a conservative pope, John Paul II, enacted by a U.S. hierarchy appointed during his 27-year tenure and now by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. John Paul's key criterion in choosing the men who lead the United States' 195 dioceses was their vocal support for church teachings that have been rejected in whole (birth control) or in part (women's ordination and abortion) by many Catholics in the pews and the broader American culture. John Paul gave little weight to management or pastoral experience, as evidenced by the bishops' handling of the clergy sex-abuse crisis.

The "Forming Consciences" statement is the most pronounced sign of how much things have changed in the Catholic Church over the past 25 years. It was the U.S. Catholic bishops, after all, who cautioned in a 1983 pastoral letter that the bedrock policy of the Cold War -- nuclear deterrence -- was immoral. These 1980s bishops were sharply critical of U.S. support for authoritarian governments in Central America. In 1985, they approved a pastoral letter that included a harsh critique of U.S.-style capitalism. All the while, and with no sense of contradiction, they spoke against the United States' liberal abortion laws and funded campaigns to overturn Roe v. Wade.

But by 2004, war, peace and economic injustice had become largely afterthoughts. Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., spoke for many of his peers when he wrote in a pastoral letter that the "right to life" is an "issue that trumps all other issues."

The bishops' defenders on the liberal/Democratic side of the political spectrum -- and there are some -- are quick to note that "Forming Consciences" doesn't limit its condemnation of "intrinsically evil" acts to the issues of abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage. And they're right. The bishops say, for example, that a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who promotes the "intrinsic evil" of racism. Fair enough. But when's the last time a credible candidate for any office in the land actually advocated racism? It's a straw man designed to protect the bishops against charges that their political agenda is too narrow.

As to the death penalty, immigration, the Iraq war, health care and other social justice issues, these fall into the realm of "prudential judgment" -- areas where Catholics of goodwill, say the bishops, can disagree. This, naturally enough, provides convenient cover for Catholic candidates who support the war, think the death penalty should be expanded, would leave millions uninsured and oppose immigration reform.

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