"We do not operate as an organization claiming to authoritatively teach the Faith. We have never claimed to speak on behalf of any bishop or the United States Conference of Bishops and explicitly disclaim any such role. Our work is focused on public policy and law, and encouraging Catholics to live out their Faith in public life," he said.
In his email to priests, Weisenburger criticized CatholicVote's name, noting "it is against canon law to use the word 'Catholic' in an organization that is not sponsored by the Church."
The bishop's remark apparently is a reference to canon 300, which deals with associations erected under the auspices of canon law. Of those groups, the canon says that "No association is to assume the name Catholic without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority."
Burch told CNA that "we have consulted canonists on the question of our name, and there is a diversity of opinion as to whether the particular canon even applies."
"There are hundreds of organizations that use the name 'Catholic' in their work without formal approval, including some like the National Catholic Reporter who have been explicitly told to cease using the name but chose instead to ignore it," Burch added. In 1968, the National Catholic Reporter was directed by Bishop Charles Helmsing of Kansas City to remove the word 'Catholic' from its name, and did not comply.
In any case, Burch said that CatholicVote has made efforts to work with bishops, and build relationships with them.
"When we incorporated in Madison, Wisconsin, we met personally with the Bishop and presented our mission and work. He was careful to distinguish between our unique role as laypersons and his leadership as bishop. He wanted to ensure that our work was faithful to church teaching and that we make clear that we were not speaking in his name or any other bishop. He approved of our work admitting that the need for formal canonical approval was uncertain. We have never published or advocated anything that we understand to be in violation of the teachings of the Church. If anyone can show me otherwise, we'd be happy to correct the error," Burch told CNA.
While Burch told CNA he understands there have been misperceptions about CatholicVote's work, "there is no confusion among anyone that has actually spoken with us. Unfortunately, in some cases, false information has been spread to try and harm our efforts. We would hope that those who have concerns about our work would seek understanding first."
Burch also told CNA that ahead of a contentious election year, he hopes more clerics will also encourage lay political activity.
"I believe it is not only appropriate, but essential that pastors and priests encourage their parishioners to register and to vote. According to our research, as much as 30% or more of most parishes include voters that are not registered, or are infrequent voters. Given the stakes of this election, every pastor in America should be preaching on the importance of Catholic participation in our electoral process," Burch said.
"You don't need to be partisan, or endorse any candidates, to remind Catholics of this moral duty," he added.
"With the likelihood of many parishes and schools closing, our charities under attack, our social service programs being shut down, and public policies that take direct aim at the Church itself, you would think our bishops and priests might muster the courage to at least ask people to vote?"
Weisenburger himself has a record of encouraging Catholics to vote, and offering guidance for the voting booth.
In a video released ahead of the 2016 election, the bishop told Catholics it is "essential that we have judges who respect the right to life and marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman, and who will protect religious freedom and rights of conscience."
In his 2020 email to priests, Weisenburger affirmed his committment to forming Catholics to vote.
"Our task as ministers of the Gospel is to preach the Gospel and the values that flow from it. Many of our Church's teachings on ethics, morality, and justice pertain to the common good and therefore are rightly known as political issues. It is our task to speak to the issues and thus to help form correctly the conscience of our people. Likewise, we are to urge them to appropriate political involvement and especially to exercise their right to vote. Experience has taught that we are quite capable of influencing the common good by influencing the conscience of our people. This does not require us to take a partisan stand," the bishop wrote.