Pulpit and ballot

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Pope Benedict XVI has bestowed a key position on an American prelate who was the leader of a faction in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that believes Catholic voters should judge political candidates primarily by their views on abortion. With a presidential election looming, supporters of the separation of church and state can hope that the appointment of Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis as the head of the Vatican’s supreme judicial body will defuse the controversy in the church about single-issue voting.

Burke, an icon of conservative Catholics, is best known as the prelate who announced in 2004 that he would deny Holy Communion to Sen. John Kerry, then the Democratic presidential nominee, because he was pro-choice. Burke’s insistence that voting for pro-choice policies is the equivalent of procuring an abortion, and thus disqualification for the sacraments, puts him at one pole of a debate within the U.S. hierarchy. Now in Rome, he reiterated this view this week in a magazine interview.

At the other pole are churchmen such as Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles and Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who has been savaged by conservative Catholics for refusing to bar pro-choice Catholics such as Kerry and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from the Communion rail. Asked how he would respond to Catholic politicians who support legalized abortion, Wuerl replied: “Teach. That is what Jesus did.”


Whatever the theological validity of Wuerl’s approach, it is consistent with John F. Kennedy’s description of the relationship between church and state in his historic address to Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960. Kennedy said: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president -- should he be a Catholic -- how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”

The debate within the U.S. church over the relationship between abortion and politics extends beyond the issue of Holy Communion for pro-choice politicians. Some bishops believe that Catholic voters should impose an abortion litmus test when they go to the polls; others argue that abortion is only one issue among many, including whether a candidate embraces the church’s opposition to capital punishment and racial discrimination.

The struggle among bishops over this question has resulted in a compromise election guide for Catholic voters. It declares: “As Catholics, we are not single-issue voters. ... Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.” That prudent and nuanced view could become especially important if Barack Obama or John McCain chooses a pro-choice Catholic as a running mate. If that occurs, it will be helpful for all concerned if Burke is too busy at the Vatican to enter the fray.