As various bills which could instate same-sex marriage or force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions are being considered in the state legislature, the Catholic bishops of New York state have issued a new document on the duties of Catholics in the public square.
Saying political engagement must be viewed “through the lens of our faith,” the bishops urged that Catholics let their political judgments be guided by “the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of His Church.”
The document “Our Cherished Right, Our Solemn Duty,” states that there are many important issues such as the right to life, issues of war and peace, the education of children and how we treat the poor and vulnerable. While all must be considered, “not every issue is of equal moral gravity.”
“The inalienable right to life of every innocent human person outweighs other concerns where Catholics may use prudential judgment, such as how best to meet the needs of the poor or to increase access to health care for all,” the New York bishops’ document says.
“The right to life is the right through which all others flow. To the extent candidates reject this fundamental right by supporting an objective evil, such as legal abortion, euthanasia or embryonic stem cell research, Catholics should consider them less acceptable for public office.”
The New York bishops also reference the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which states “Those who knowingly, willingly, and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil.”
“Our Cherished Right, Our Solemn Duty” also asks Catholics to examine candidates at the state level, lamenting the lack of news and the difficulty of obtaining voting records on such persons.
“While we as Church officials cannot and do not endorse candidates for office,” the bishops continue, “we encourage you to properly form your conscience by reflecting on the moral and social teachings of our Church and we strongly urge you to vote on November 4. For when we vote, we are exercising our cherished right and our solemn duty as Americans and as Catholics.”
At the close of their document, the New York bishops present a list of “important questions” for political candidates. The list includes questions on the right to life, parental rights in education, protecting marriage, immigration reform, access to health care, protecting the poor, and religious liberty.
Dennis Poust, Director of Communications at the New York State Catholic Conference, spoke to CNA on Thursday about the motives behind the document.
“Two years ago the bishops attempted to help Catholics at election time with the state legislative elections by doing a candidate survey,” he explained.
However, the response rate was “really terribly low.”
“People just ignored it, or they wouldn’t answer the questions. They didn’t want to go on record,” Poust told CNA.
He said the bishops are seeking a new way to remind Catholics of their obligations and to discuss important issues, similar to what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has done with their document “Faithful Citizenship.”
Asked about the issues active in New York state, Poust said the abortion issue was not at stake.
Calling New York “the most liberal abortion state in the country,” he commented that “even commonsense restrictions do not get to the floor of the legislature.”
“Same-sex marriage is a big issue here,” he continued, noting that New York Governor David Patterson is “strongly supporting it.” Poust noted that the governor had instructed state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages contracted in other states.
Further, he commented that the New York State Assembly has already passed a same-sex marriage bill, which is opposed by the GOP-controlled New York Senate.
However, the Republicans control the Senate only by a few votes. If control swings to the Democrats, Poust reported, same-sex marriage “could become a reality in this state.”
Poust also described proposed state legislation that would open a window on the statue of limitations for civil claims of sexual abuse of a minor.
Poust stated that the proposal is “aimed at destroying the Catholic Church.” Comparing the proposal to similar failed Colorado legislation, he said the bill would allow people to sue private institutions “going back 60 or 70 years” but not public institutions.
The New York legislature’s proposed Reproductive Health and Privacy Protection Act is also a threat to religious freedom for Catholics and other pro-life groups. The bill would state abortion is a “fundamental right” and, Proust said, could conceivably force Catholic health care providers to perform abortions.
Another possible outcome would be putting Catholic hospitals out of business as well as Catholic charities which refuse to provide or refer for abortions.
The bill was pushed “very heavily” by the disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Poust told CNA. While Gov. Patterson has supported the bill, he has not indicated if it is going to be a political priority.
CNA asked Poust if the New York bishops’ conference take a stand on whether the abortion issue can qualify or disqualify a candidate.
He explained that the document echoes the U.S. bishops’ remarks in “Faithful Citizenship” and reiterated the New York bishops’ comments that the extent to which candidates support abortion, should make them “less acceptable” to Catholics.
While a candidate’s support for abortion could disqualify him or her as an ethical choice, there could be “morally grave” reasons to support a pro-abortion rights candidate, he added.
However, Poust characterized such cases as requiring “a very high bar” of judgment and a “very difficult bar to pass.”