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Reports by the Vatican (2003) and
Catholic Leadership Conference's (2005)

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The Vatican's 2003 doctrinal note:

On 2003-JAN-16, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an 17 or 18 page document (sources differ) titled: "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life." It was approved by Pope John Paul II and signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. 1 It instructs Catholic politicians to not support any legislation or government regulations which contradicts the church's "nonnegotiable ethical principles" concerning abortion, physician assisted suicide, same-sex marriage and other ethical issues. The note states that "Scientific progress has resulted in advances that are unsettling for the consciences of men and women, and call for solutions that respect ethical principles in a coherent and fundamental way. Catholics, in this difficult situation, have the right and the duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life and to the responsibility of everyone in this regard." The document declares that: ''John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a 'grave and clear obligation to oppose' any law that attacks human life. For them and for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.''

According to the official Vatican web site, the Congregation was "Founded in 1542 by Pope Paul III...[as] the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. Its task was to defend the Church from heresy. Its current assignment is "to promote and safeguard the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world...The congregation is now headed by Prefect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. 1

Associated Press reported that: "The Vatican said it was publishing the document now because of medical and scientific advances and because of the 'emergence of ambiguities or questionable positions in recent times.' " 2

Vatican officials stated that the release of the guidelines was not timed principally in reaction to any specific events. 3 However, the note was released just before the 30th anniversary on 2003-JAN-22 of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1972 decision Roe v. Wade. That ruling removed restrictions on early abortions throughout America. JAN-22 is also the start of the Church's five day World Meeting of Families in Manila, Philippines.

The document covered many ethical topics:

bulletIn an apparent reference to physician assisted suicide, stem cell research, and therapeutic cloning, the document stated that laws "...must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death. In the same way, it is necessary to recall the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo." The guidelines state that "Those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them."
bulletIt stated that traditional marriage between one man and one woman must be protected and promoted: "The family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce."
bulletIn an apparent rejection of common-law marriage and unions by same-sex committed couples, the doctrinal note states: "In no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such."
bulletOn matters of peace, the document sated that Catholics should not confuse the church's promotion of peace and rejection of violence with "secular" pacificist and ideological visions."
bulletOn matters of politics, the doctrinal note stated: "The church recognizes that while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct [i.e. Roman Catholic] understanding of the human person. Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle.'' It rejected the idea that ethical pluralism -- the belief that all religious beliefs have validity -- "is the very condition for democracy.'' Believing that there is only one valid truth in matters of morality, the document attacked moral "relativism" -- the belief that "every possible outlook on life [is] of equal value". It said that "Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society." 4
bulletIn an apparent reference to Roman Catholic parochial or separate schools, the note stated that  politicians must give parents the right to educate children as they wished.

The document suggested that St. Thomas More, the 16th century lawyer and diplomat who was recently made the patron saint of politicians, is a model for politicians to emulate. St. More refused to renounce the pope and recognize the king as head of the English church, and was beheaded for his stance. The document  suggested that "He taught by his life and his death that 'man cannot be separated from God, nor politics from morality.' "

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Reactions to the Vatican's 2003 doctrinal note:

bulletBishop Wilton Gregory, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops,  said that the document "addresses some of the profound challenges faced by Catholic politicians and voters who are confronted with various moral and social issues in the context of a democratic society."
bulletDario Franceschini, a Roman Catholic center-left member of the Italian Parliament, said that he viewed the document as a set of suggestions. He said: "It's good advice. But it would be a mistake to look at it as an obligation. Italy is also a lay state, a lay society. When a Catholic is called to public office, he must represent the public." 5
bulletRev. Augustine Di Noia, the undersecretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said:  "Although we don't mention cloning or stem-cell research, in general, these developments will pose challenges for Catholics." 6
bulletProfessor Scott Appleby, at the University of Notre Dame said that there is no longer a coherent voting bloc among American Roman Catholics. He said: "Catholics who attempt to follow both the church's teachings on pro-life issues as well as the church's teachings on economic justice are politically homeless," He noted that the Republicans have championed the former, while Democrats have promoted the latter. He also said the scandal of child sexual abuse by American priests had undermined the credibility of some bishops in the U.S. 6
bulletThe Boston Globe referred to several American politicians who are Catholics and who do not support the church's policies:
bulletSenator John F. Kerry, (D-MA), a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, supports abortion access.
bulletHouse Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi, (D-CA), supports equal rights for gays and lesbians.
bulletFrank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma and current head of the Roman Catholic national review board on sexual abuse, supports capital punishment. 7
bulletSenator John F. Kerry (D-MA) said that ''As a Catholic, I have enormous respect for the words and teachings of the Vatican, but as a public servant I've never forgotten the lasting legacy of President Kennedy, who made clear that in accordance with the separation of church and state no elected official should be 'limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual, or obligation.' I represent all the people of Massachusetts, and they expect me to speak with respect for all of their views and values.'' His apparent reference was to John F. Kennedy's statement to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 while he was running for president. He said:  ''I believe in an America ... where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source.'' 7
bulletSenator Edward M. Kennedy, (D-MA) stated: ''I continue to agree with the clear position taken by President Kennedy. It is important to maintain the separation of church and state. I've always done that, and I will continue to do so. It's part of the oath every senator takes, to defend the Constitution.'' 7
bulletOne of the leading pro-life groups, the American Life League (ALL) is mounting a Crusade to Defend Our Catholic Church. This is an advertising campaign that will feature what it terms "The Deadly Dozen" -- twelve U.S. Roman Catholic senators who support abortion access. Included will be Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Tom Harkin (D-IA), and John Kerry (D-MA). Later, the campaign will highlight other "Deadly Dozens" from among the ranks of representatives and governors. Judie Brown, president of ALL, said: "For 2,000 years, the Catholic Church has steadfastly defended the sanctity of all human life. The simple fact is you cannot actively support abortion and be a faithful Catholic. You can't have it both ways. The Church's teachings on this matter are very clear....This crusade and the ad campaign are designed to identify those public officials who are flagrantly ignoring this truth, to bring this to the attention of both their bishops and the public at large, and demand that these public officials either recant their openly pro-abortion stance or cease claiming to be Catholic."

Their choice of the term "Crusade" may well reduce the effectiveness of their campaign. The word is a painful one for many Muslims, because of the massive death toll during the actual Crusades when Christian armies attacked Muslims in the Middle East. It is also painful for some Jews, because of the hundreds of thousands of Jews that were slaughtered by Christian armies on their way to the Crusades. 8 

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The Catholic Leadership Conference's 2005 statement:

LifeSiteNews.com reported on 2005-OCT-28:

The Catholic Leadership Conference, an annual gathering of the leaders of over 100 Catholic organizations representing in their memberships over 2 million Americans has released a statement on political action.  Quoting the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Pope John Paul II, and Cardinal Ratzinger - now the current Pope, the Catholic leaders assert that  "The ultimate political goal for Catholics must be the achievement of public policies and laws that result in the legal protection of all innocent human life and that promote the dignity of each human person without exception and compromise."

The Conference's full statement is:


We Catholic voters acknowledge the following ten obligations and guidelines. These principles should be a part of Catholic educational programs at every level utilizing all the means of social communications.

1. "In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue; participation in the political process is a moral obligation. Every believer is called to faithful citizenship, to become an informed, active, and responsible participant in the political process."[1] An informed vote by a Catholic is one that is guided by the authentic moral and social teaching of the Catholic faith.

2. Catholics should recognize that not all moral and social teachings have equal weight in determining how to cast their vote. Some teachings are directly binding and some are guided by individual prudential judgment.

3. The first obligation of government is the protection of innocent human life from conception[2] to natural death.  The Church teaches that justice requires this protection. This truth can also be known through reason unaided by revelation. On the specific "life issues" in law and public policy - direct abortion[3], euthanasia, and the killing of unborn life for medical research, Catholic teaching is unequivocal; the defense of innocent human life is an imperative.

4. Catholic voters must first make decisions about their votes based on the moral issues that are non-negotiable. First among these are the life issues.[4]

5. On prudential matters that affect the common good, Catholics of goodwill can disagree.  Though there are Catholic principles such as compassion, justice and charity that we should share, there is no single "Catholic" policy on issues like taxes, education, foreign policy and immigration reform.

6. A similar distinction was made by the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, His Emminence Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, to the American Bishops when he stated:  "There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."[5]

7. Catholic priests and bishops first and foremost are shepherds of souls. The role of these shepherds is to instruct and to remind voters, candidates and public officials of the moral obligations and social principles that should guide their political action.

8. All Catholics, especially the laity, have a right and duty to be heard in the public square.  Catholic moral teachings should be publicly espoused in such a way that they can inform law and public policy and not be artificially limited to the private domain of individual belief.

9. In their political participation, Catholics must not compromise these principles even though, at times, prudential judgment will require accepting imperfect legislation as a means of incremental progress.[6]

10. The ultimate political goal for Catholics must be the achievement of public policies and laws that result in the legal protection of all innocent human life and that promote the dignity of each human person without exception and compromise.

[1] Faithful Citizenship, USCCB
[2] Conception, as the Church traditionally teaches, means the earliest moment of biological existence.
[3] Direct abortion is any procured abortion whether chemical or surgical.
[4] There are other non-negotiable matters that are not a part of the current political debate. For example no serious candidate is advocating decriminalization sexual assault.
[5] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Letter to Theodore Cardinal McCarrick for USCCB
[6] Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae

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Further details:

The doctrinal note does not appear to have been posted on the Vatican web site. Rather, it was distributed to the various bishops' conferences throughout the world and to individual bishops. They decided how to distribute the guidelines.

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  1. "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," The Vatican, at:  http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/
  2. "Vatican Gives Catholic Pols Guidelines: Vatican Urges Catholic Politicians to Vote Along Church Lines," Associated Press, 2002-JAN-16, at: http://abcnews.go.com/wire/World/
  3. Frank Bruni, "Vatican says politicians should oppose abortion," International Herald Tribune, 2003-JAN-17, at: http://www.iht.com/articles/83682.html
  4. Daniel Williams, "Toe the line, Catholic politicians told," 2003-JAN-18, The Age (an Australian newspaper) at: http://www.theage.com.au/
  5. Victor L. Simpson, "Vatican Takes Aim at Catholic Lawmakers," Austin-American-Statesman, 2003-JAN-16, at: http://www.austin360.com/aas/
  6. Frank Bruni, "Vatican Issues Guidelines to Politicians Regarding Some Hot-Button Issues," The Salt Lake Tribune, 2003-JAN-17, at: http://www.sltrib.com/2003/
  7. Michael Paulson, "Catholic politicians warned on dissent," The Boston Globe, 2003-JAN-17, at: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/
  8. "Group to unveil 'The Deadly Dozen' senators: Ad campaign IDs Catholic lawmakers who support abortion," WorldNetDaily.com, 2003-JAN-18, at: http://www.worldnetdaily.com/

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Copyright © 2003 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-JAN-16
Latest update: 2006-OCT-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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