At a time when political conservatives are gearing up to recruit Catholic voters, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops reaffirmed yesterday their long-standing commitment to defend the unborn, the poor and the vulnerable while guarding against attempts to enlist the church in partisan politics.
The bishops began the widespread distribution of a 14,000-word statement on political responsibility that sets out familiar positions on issues from abortion and welfare to immigration and arms control, but also declares, "Our moral framework does not easily fit the categories of right or left, Republican or Democrat."
Although the Catholic bishops have issued statements on political responsibility before every presidential campaign since 1976, the latest statement comes at a time when the role of VTC religion in politics is more prominent.
For the first time, the bishops are not only releasing their statement to news organizations but sending copies of the 32-page pamphlet to the nation's 19,000 parishes, with order forms for buying more.
The statement was adopted unanimously at the September meeting of the 54-member Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The bishops' interest in getting this message out far exceeds what it's been in the past," said John Carr, who oversees the bishops' offices on domestic and international issues. "What feeds this in part is that the message echoes the Holy Father's call to protect the unborn, reach out to poor and welcome the newcomer," he said, noting that the pamphlet opens with excerpts from Pope John Paul II's speeches in the United States last month.
But the bishops are also aware of an effort by the Christian Coalition, the largely evangelical Protestant political organization headed by Pat Robertson, to set up a Catholic auxiliary claiming to speak for Catholics.
The group, the Catholic Alliance, has produced fliers declaring that it "represents Catholics before the U.S. Congress, state legislatures and local governing bodies." The fliers include a "score card" on congressional voting, rating representatives and senators on what the flier calls the "Catholic Alliance position."
In some cases, the Catholic Alliance score card gives politicians positive ratings for positions that the bishops have actually opposed, such as voting for welfare legislation that cuts off benefits for children born out of wedlock to mothers on welfare.
The statement welcomed "the growing discussion of the role of moral values in public life," but it rejected "religious leaders telling people how to vote or religious tests for candidates."
"We bishops specifically do not seek the formation of a religious voting bloc," they said. Their task, they said, was to offer a framework of guiding moral principles and to encourage church members to participate in public debate over alternative policies.