Some time ago, I analyzed the Catholic vote and noted in passing how some members of the Church hierarchy, in places such as St. Louis and Colorado Springs, have gone on record as insisting that Catholic politicians who support the right to choose (on the abortion issue) must be denied the sacraments. The archbishop of Newark NJ, an admirer of the Opus Dei conservative movement, agreed, and the Bishop of Trenton came to the same conclusion regarding a liberal Catholic governor in New Jersey. The moderate voice of Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington DC was hooted down when he said that he opposed using the sacred Eucharist to make a political statement. Several months ago, when the Pope visited New York City, conservatives and the Cardinal of New York City made a big issue that one of the communicants in the Yankee Stadium mass was former mayor Rudy Giuliani, a pro choice and pro gay rights Republican.
EWTN and Father Frank Pavone have warned the laity that while there are many issues of importance in election, none should take precedence over abortion. A politician had to be right on that primary issue; all else including poverty, the war, torture and immigration lag far behind. Those Catholics who vote for a pro choice politician imperil their very souls. It was clear that the hierarchy had become an arm of the Republican Party. I raised the question of why if every thing is so clear-cut are those restrictions not apparent in other countries, including in the diocese of Rome whose bishop is also the pope. I received some nasty responses including from lay representatives of the Church in this state.
But now it appears that a 180 degree change has taken place. In the diocese of Trenton, the bishop and local church officials are saying that one can indeed support a pro choice candidate if you have a moral reason to support that candidate for his stand on other issues. Bishop John M. Smith informed his staff, "It's hard to find a candidate who supports all of the church's teaching. It is a difficult time to decide how we're voting especially this year. "One of the staff members of the diocese said that Catholics should vote their conscience. "We're not interested in creating the United Catholic States of America. We're not into endorsing party candidates or parties. We want to focus on issues." He concluded that "As Catholics, we are not single issue voters."
Why there has been such an abrupt turn in policy and in interpretation is unclear. Obviously, the American bishops are taking their cues from Rome, for they are a rather timid group. Maybe Rome sees that the Democrats are indeed likely to prevail, and its is just not in the Church's interests to be seen as a Republican group of cheerleaders as they were in 2004. Maybe the Holy See is seeing that the last seven years of a pro-life president have lead to endless problems for it in the Middle East and elsewhere including where the holy shrines are located and the demise of ancient Catholic populations in Iraq and Syria. In any case, some people in authority have done a U turn, and in the process they have restored a Vatican II respect for conscience. We are all richer because of that decision.
Michael P. Riccards is Executive Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey.