The Vatican on Monday issued an exhaustive guide to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on social issues, reiterating positions against abortion, same-sex marriage and preventive war waged without compelling proof of a threat. Church officials said its release a week before the U.S. election was not intended to influence the vote.
Cardinal Renato Martino told reporters that the 525-page book, "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church," took six years to compile and was written at the behest of Pope John Paul II, "who bears full responsibility" for it. The pope issued many of the documents from which the guidelines were derived, said Martino, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
In one passage addressing behavior in politics, the book says that "a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political programme or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals."
Asked whether American Catholics could vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights, Martino deferred to Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who said the Holy See "never gets involved in electoral or political questions directly."
In recent months, a debate has unfolded at high levels of the church over candidates who advocate policies contrary to church doctrine.
Without naming Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, some U.S. bishops have said that any Catholic who knowingly voted for a politician who supports abortion rights would be "cooperating in evil." Some have said that Kerry and other politicians who have voted in favor of abortion rights should not be given Communion.
At the same time, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief arbiter of theological orthodoxy, sent a memo to Washington's Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick that appears to give Catholics leeway in certain circumstances to vote for candidates who favor abortion rights, if there are "proportionate" reasons to do so.
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of the Jesuit monthly America, said in an interview that in the book church leaders "are not telling people what to do in specific situations. They are giving moral and ethical principles and then telling people and leaders to apply them to real life."
The Rev. John P. Langan, a Jesuit priest and professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown University, said he believed the Vatican does not want to interfere in U.S. elections. He noted that Vatican officials had declined to do so during the news conference.
Bishops who have been vocal about withholding Communion from politicians on theological grounds, and advocating not voting for them, "are in the minority," Langan said, adding that "there has been a great deal of silence on the part of the U.S. bishops' conference and the leading bishops, I believe, because they don't believe they should interfere with the election."
In the book, abortion is called "morally illicit," a "horrendous crime" and a "particularly serious moral disorder."
Regarding war, the book says that when a state is attacked, "leaders have the right and the duty to organize a defence even using the force of arms." But it said that self-defense "must respect the traditional limits of necessity and proportionality. . . . Engaging in preventive war without clear proof that an attack is imminent cannot fail to raise serious moral and juridical questions."
In a meeting with President Bush in June, the pope expressed strong concern about "grave unrest" in Iraq.