In a forceful restatement of Roman Catholic teaching, the Vatican told Catholic politicians Wednesday that they cannot be faithful to church teachings if they vote against the church's positions on issues such as abortion.
"A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals," according to the statement, titled "Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life."
The statement, issued through the authoritative Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and signed by Pope John Paul II, adds that the church is not attempting to wield political power or to impose its beliefs on the wider culture.
But the church serves a proper function in calling on the Catholic faithful, particularly those in political life, to be morally coherent, the statement says. Moral consistency in the Catholic tradition serves the common good and the human person, it adds.
The 19-page declaration, approved in November but not made public until Wednesday, also touches on war and peace. In addition, it discusses Catholic organizations and publications that it says take positions on political issues that either make the church's teaching ambiguous or are simply wrong.
Polls have repeatedly shown that many American Catholics disagree with the church's opposition to all abortion as well as its stand against the death penalty.
For politicians, the abortion issue generally has been the most difficult one to handle. A number of Catholic politicians over the years have said that they personally oppose abortion but also believe that women have a right to make the decision themselves, and therefore have voted in favor of abortion rights.
The Vatican statement reiterates church teachings that no such division of public and private morality can be allowed.
"There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called spiritual life, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called secular life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture," the statement says.
"No Catholic can appeal to the principle of pluralism or to the autonomy of lay involvement in political life to support policies affecting the common good which compromise or undermine fundamental ethical requirements," it adds.
In circumstances in which it is not politically possible to overturn or repeal a law allowing abortion, an elected official could support "proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law," the statement says.
The Vatican statement restates past teachings, said Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, and Father James Fredericks, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
The restatement could have been prompted by new developments in science and politics, including recent debates over cloning, they said.