BALTIMORE Roman Catholic voters and lawmakers must heed church teaching on issues ranging from racism to abortion or risk their eternal salvation, U.S. bishops said Wednesday.
The bishops didn't recommend specific policies or candidates in the 2008 election and emphasized that "principled debate" is needed to decide what bests promotes the common good. But they warned Catholics that their votes for politicians and laws affect more than just civic life.
"Political choices faced by citizens have an impact on general peace and prosperity and also may affect the individual's salvation," the bishops said. "Similarly, the kinds of laws and policies supported by public officials affect their spiritual well-being."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly adopted the statement, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," as they ended the public session of their fall meeting.
They have offered similar guidance to Catholics before every presidential race since 1976.
While the 30-plus-page document touches widely on Catholic social justice teaching, the bishops said that fighting abortion should be a priority.
"The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many," the bishops said. "It must always be opposed."
Catholics make up one-quarter of the electorate nationwide but do not vote as a bloc and often do not follow the bishops' political guidance. Surveys indicate that most don't choose candidates based on that person's position on abortion. In the current election season, none of the leading presidential candidates has been reliably anti-abortion.
The bishops said that voting for a candidate specifically because he or she supports "an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism" amounts to "formal cooperation in grave evil."
In some cases, Catholics may vote for a candidate with a position contrary to church teaching, but only for "truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences," according to the statement.
The document did not address whether Catholics who violate this guidance should continue to receive Holy Communion. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who helped draft the document, said the bishops are simply asking Catholics to "examine their consciences."
"When you look at eternal salvation, God is the only judge," said DiMarzio, of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. "All we have the ability to do is to warn people."
The document makes clear the broad concerns that keep Catholics from finding a true political home with either the Democrats or Republicans.
The bishops said helping the poor should be a top priority in government, providing health care, taking in refugees and protecting the rights of workers, and the bishops highlight the need for environmental protection.
However, they also opposed same-sex marriage, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research, in addition to their staunch anti-abortion position.
The prelates, who oppose the death penalty, said torture is "always wrong," and expressed "serious moral concerns" about "preventive use of military force." But in a very brief floor debate Wednesday before the vote, they heightened their language on terrorism, adding a sentence acknowledging "the continuing threat of fanatical extremism and global terror."
In recent years, some independent Catholics groups have been distributing their own voter booklets, with theological conservatives emphasizing abortion and liberal-leaning groups highlighting church teaching on war, poverty and social justice.The bishops urged Catholics to only use voter resources approved by the church.
On the Net: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: www.usccb.org/