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The endless political discussion of the 1996 elections seems at last to be over, and one gets the impression that Americans are glad it’s over. But the twists and turns of the Roman Catholic vote in the election deserve some further analysis, for they open a window on both what’s happening in the Church and what’s happening in the country. Though the Republicans maintained a majority in Congress, Catholic voting patterns varied from race to race and are therefore difficult to interpret. The pattern was more clear in voting for President. With voter turnout at its lowest since 1924, 53 percent of Catholic voters went for Bill Clinton, 37 percent for Bob Dole, and 9 percent for Ross Perot. Clinton’s Catholic total was up from 44 percent in 1992, but Dole’s was up as well–though not nearly as much–from Bush’s 35 percent. Both gains came at the expense of Perot, who had received 20 percent in 1992.

The President’s success in increasing his share of the Catholic vote in 1996 has been attributed to a number of factors: effective use of Catholic institutions as backdrops for photo-ops on the campaign trail, friendship with certain Catholic leaders, and an emphasis on some social issues calculated to appeal to Catholics. In addition, the strong and costly effort of organized labor may have helped recapture working-class Catholics who had been in the Perot column in 1992. Dole, on the other hand, not only seemed to lack a strategy for appealing to Catholics, but seemed uncomfortable with the opportunities that came his way.

In light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and repeated statements of the United States Catholic Conference, Catholics ought to be identifiable in the electorate by voting patterns based on moral concerns, not on party membership or party loyalty. They should support candidates who display moral integrity and whose positions are consistent with Catholic moral concerns. They should withhold their support from those who hold positions that violate the Church’s moral teaching. But in the 1996 elections, it is clear that many Catholics arrived at their electoral choices on other grounds. The question is, what actually happened and why?

In the fall of 1995, the American bishops issued a statement––”Political Responsibility: Proclaiming the Gospel of Life, Protecting the Least Among Us, and Preserving the Common Good”––intended to speak about moral and human issues of special concern to Catholics. Declaring that “elections are a time for debate and decisions on the leaders, policies, and values that will guide our nation,” the statement reminded voters that they needed “to register and vote; to understand issues and assess candidates’ positions and qualifications; and to join with others in advocating for the common good.” Exhorting Catholics “to share our values, raise our voices, and use our votes to shape a society more respectful of human life, human dignity, and human rights,” it noted that Pope John Paul II’s 1995 visit to the United Nations “was a powerful call to use our freedom in the service of truth, to protect human life and human dignity, and to stand up for unborn children, poor families, and immigrants.” It then listed twenty specific issues for consideration from abortion to welfare reform. More than 500,000 copies were circulated; it was often quoted or referred to in articles in Catholic journals about the election and in September a special update was sent to all the bishops urging that they continue their efforts to inform people on the moral dimensions of campaign issues. When we look at the election results, we must admit that our great effort was a failure. Many of those elected, especially President Clinton, took positions directly opposed to Church positions on abortion, aid to parents for educational choice, welfare, immigration, the economy, and international affairs. And Catholics voted for such candidates without any apparent scruple or concern.

At the November meeting of the bishops, there was no discussion of the election results. Some bishops privately expressed surprise and frustration at the support Clinton received, especially after his veto of the partial-birth abortion ban. They were also frustrated by the election of candidates who openly reject––if not ridicule––the positions of the bishops.

Nonetheless, the bishops’ statements on political responsibility can be useful educational tools. Written by staff at the Bishops Conference––and, unlike other statements of special concern, not brought to the full body of bishops for discussion and amendment––the political statements have been issued every presidential election year since 1976. Over the years the statements have become too long and general, and give the impression that all the issues they discuss are of equal significance. In 2000, a new process should be employed so that all bishops are consulted on the content, structure, and intent of the statement. The final version should be reviewed and agreed on by the entire conference of bishops. It should be shorter, take a tone of moral forcefulness, and give Catholics more pointed advice on how to measure candidates in light of their positions. The statement should also explain clearly why Catholics should refuse to vote for those who fail in personal integrity or who hold positions contrary to the moral teaching set forth in the document. As a model, they might take Sydney Callahan’s effective essay in Commonweal explaining that, although a lifelong Democrat, she would vote for Dole as her only effective protest against Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth abortion ban.

The chosen issues should be given a careful ordering, based on Catholic moral teaching and relevance to the choosing of candidates. Issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and racism should be singled out because of their moral importance. The 1995 statement quotes liberally from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical The Gospel of Life, but it does not reflect the doctrinal priority given by the encyclical to moral teaching on abortion, euthanasia, and the taking of innocent human life. In 1989, addressing abortion as a moral and political issue, the bishops themselves stated that “no Catholic can responsibly take a pro-choice stand when the ‘choice’ in question involves the taking of innocent human life.” In explaining the consistent ethic of life, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin emphasized that Catholics can disqualify those who support or promote abortion: “I don’t see how you can subscribe to the consistent ethic and then vote for someone who feels that abortion is a ‘basic right’ of the individual.” The 1995 political responsibility statement urged that “religious voices in public life must persuade, not just proclaim, and the test of our witness is not only how strongly we believe, but how effectively we persuade and translate our beliefs into action.” Future statements must note the moral difference of the issues addressed. Some positions are fundamental and nonnegotiable. On other issues the bishops may have a preference for one public policy approach over another, but it is not a clear-cut case of one preference being good and the other morally unacceptable. Disagreement in these instances between the bishops’ position and a candidate’s need not disqualify the candidate. Further, government financial aid for Catholic education, while not a clear issue of moral evil, is a valid priority for Catholics and, whether achieved by vouchers or tax credits, should be given greater emphasis as a matter of fairness and justice.

How to formulate specific questions in a timely manner remains a problem for statements on political responsibility formulated a year before the elections. The section on international affairs in the 1996 statement, for example, was quite general and composed too early to take account of later statements made by a number of bishops criticizing U.S. policies that undermine or refuse support for Catholic Relief Services. Similarly, though the popes have repeatedly supported the United Nations, the bishops never addressed the issues of the U.S. failure to pay its dues or the U.S. campaign against former Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Future statements would also benefit from a careful examination of the limits on political activity by Church agencies set by the Internal Revenue Service. The Federal Code says that tax-exempt nonprofit agencies are not to be involved in lobbying or political campaigns to a substantial degree. But President Clinton campaigned in non-Catholic churches, Protestant leaders openly endorsed candidates, and Planned Parenthood––in full-page, clearly political ads in national newspapers opposing Republicans who rejected abortion––asked for tax exempt donations to Planned Parenthood. Legal scholars have different opinions as to the precise meaning of the IRS regulations and their extension in specific rulings. But it seems to me that the bishops have been given an excessively cautious interpretation of what Catholic entities may do. As the election drew near, written or spoken references critical of President Clinton’s support for partial-birth abortion were increasingly disallowed on the grounds that such criticism might give the perception of involvement in prohibited political activity. The perception theory does not appear to be an IRS ruling, however, but a USCC interpretation. And the same caution did not seem to apply to all other issues or candidates, as evidenced in newspaper accounts of other USCC staff

From letters I’ve received and discussions I’ve had, I find it increasingly clear that if my fellow bishops and I want to implement our teaching on political responsibility, we must find a way to inform Catholics of the positions of candidates on critical moral issues and to make clear that some positions are so much at variance with Catholic teaching that candidates holding them are disqualified from Catholic support. This is essential if bishops expect to have an impact on the adoption of laws and social policies that support and protect the dignity and rights of the human person and the common good. Those elected to public office at every level are aware of the positions of the bishops and their agencies, but they seem unconvinced of their seriousness and determination. Some legislators dismiss life issues on the ground that good Catholics can agree to disagree on such matters, especially if they support the Church on other social issues. Other legislators openly reject the positions of the bishops, claiming that influential Catholics such as Father Robert Drinan provide them an alternate position. Fr. Drinan’s tactics have seriously undermined the efforts of the bishops and those who represent them.

It is time we take seriously the role assigned to the bishop in terms of teaching and public leadership. The encyclical The Splendor of Truth reminds us that “the fundamental rules of social life entail specific demands to which both public authorities and citizens are required to pay heed.” Bishops are urged to be personally vigilant that the sound doctrine of Catholic morality is taught and applied in the circumstances of public life as well as in the privacy of conscience. When a legislator, an advocacy group, or a so-called “Catholic spokesperson” attempts to mislead people, the bishops and their representatives must denounce such efforts and declare that those who perpetrate them are not in union with the bishops, their agencies, or, in some cases, with the Catholic Church.

Clearly, we have a long way to go in defining our role in public and political affairs. Obvious questions remain about how exactly to translate witness into action. The bishops tried on partial-birth abortion, staging an unprecedented press conference and prayer service with all the American cardinals on the steps of the Capitol urging a Senate override of President Clinton’s veto. Reports on the bishops’ efforts were muted from September on, however, and were virtually lost as election day drew near. President Clinton not only vetoed the original bill, but tried to justify his veto by displaying at his highly orchestrated press conference women he claimed had had partial-birth abortions––and pointedly identifying two of the women as Catholics. When the Bishops Conference sent a questionnaire to the presidential candidates, asking their position on a range of topics, the President’s staff declared that Clinton had signed as Governor of Arkansas a law banning third-trimester abortions, with an exception for life and health, and would sign a bill against partial-birth abortions if it contained a health exception. This response was circulated for publication in diocesan papers, but there was nothing to indicate that it was a misleading answer: The health exception would have radically reversed the intent of the bill, and Clinton was widely praised by pro-abortionists for supporting partial-birth abortion with his veto. Clinton’s popularity seemed to overshadow his moral failure, and the efforts of the bishops on partial-birth abortion were further frustrated.

Despite these questions, however, there is much that can be done. For too long the Catholic bishops have been passive, withdrawn, or indirect in trying to give leadership. The 1996 elections should serve as a wake-up call for review and appraisal and a warning that proclamation will not effectively be translated into witness and leadership unless our message is clear, morally compelling, and unyielding.

James T. Hugh is the Roman Catholic Bishop of Camden, New Jersey.

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