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WASHINGTON LETTER Sep-29-2006 (900 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxn

What's a voter to do? Election guides offer different answers

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In the absence of a "Faithful Citizenship" document from the U.S. bishops to guide Catholic voters in this midterm election, groups as diverse as the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Priests for Life, state Catholic conferences and new organizations with names like Red Letter Christians and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good are stepping into the fray.

But the voters' guides and other election guidance offered by the groups must walk a fine line between providing nonpartisan political information -- permitted by the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt religious organizations -- and endorsing particular candidates, which is clearly banned under IRS guidelines.

Some of the offerings, like Maryknoll's one-page guide on "becoming a global good neighbor," cover general principles, while others get much more specific -- publishing candidates' responses to a set of questions on topics of interest to Catholic voters.

The New York State Catholic Conference recently mailed a 10-question survey to 400 candidates for elective office in the state. The candidates were asked to answer yes, no or "no position" to questions about school vouchers, taxpayer funding of abortion, labor rights for migrant farmworkers, same-sex marriage, the death penalty and other issues.

"The purpose is not to endorse one candidate over another or to tell Catholics how to vote, but to inform Catholic citizens as to where each candidate stands on issues of particular concern to the Catholic Church in her commitment to serve the common good," said Richard E. Barnes, executive director of the conference, in a Sept. 13 letter to candidates.

The responses of candidates for statewide office -- governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller -- were to be published in the newspapers of each of the eight dioceses in New York, while the answers submitted by candidates for the state Senate and Assembly were to go into the newspapers in the diocese that the district represents.

The Interfaith Alliance, a nonpartisan organization founded in 1994 in part to counter the view that the Christian Coalition represented the majority of Christians, takes a completely different stance, offering two guides -- not for voters but for candidates and houses of worship.

"Speak to your members on issues of the day but don't compromise religion's powerful healing force by using your authority to advance particular sectarian interests over America's shared values," says the alliance's "Campaign Season Guide for Houses of Worship."

To candidates, the Interfaith Alliance offers this advice: "It's a serious mistake to consider people of faith as just another bloc of voters like farmers, labor unions and corporate executives. ... You find teachers in schools, doctors in hospitals and farmers in their fields, but you find people of faith everywhere, not just in a house of worship."

Most of the guides make no specific mention of candidates or political parties, but instead offer a set of principles that voters should use in making their decisions.

In its 12-page brochure, "Voting for the Common Good: A Practical Guide for Conscientious Catholics," Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good suggests three principles:

-- "Inform your conscience on church teaching and the candidates' positions.

-- "Apply prudence when deciding how to apply Catholic values to voting.

-- "Vote for the common good by focusing on what's best for everyone, especially the poor and vulnerable."

"We need to understand that our church's social teachings call us to consider a broad range of important issues -- on everything from poverty to war, human rights, abortion and the environment," the guide says. "There is no Catholic voting formula and there is rarely, if ever, a perfect candidate for Catholic voters."

But there are some candidates that Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, would consider clearly imperfect.

In a booklet called "Voting With a Clear Conscience," he urges Catholic voters to "reject the disqualified."

"Suppose a candidate came forward and said, 'I support terrorism.' Would you say, 'I disagree with you on terrorism, but what's your health care plan?' Of course not," the priest of the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, says in the booklet.

"Similarly, those who would permit the destruction of innocent life by abortion disqualify themselves from consideration," Father Pavone added.

Catholic Answers, a San Diego-based Catholic apologetics organization, takes a similar approach in its "Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics," presenting five "nonnegotiable issues" on which to judge candidates for public office -- abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning and homosexual "marriage."

"It is a serious sin to deliberately endorse or promote any of these actions, and no candidate who really wants to advance the common good will support any action contrary to the nonnegotiable principles involved in these issues," the Catholic Answers guide says.

But the "Voting for the Common Good" guide rejects the notion that one voter can judge whether another's vote is a sin. "Any attempt to scare others into voting for or against a candidate violates Catholic teaching on conscience, prudence and human freedom," it says.

In a Sept. 28 teleconference launching the "Common Good" guide, Jesuit Father David Hollenbach, a theology professor at Boston College, said Catholicism "is not a single-issue religion; it deals with the fullness of human life."

"You can't put Catholic social teaching on a bumper sticker in a single phrase," he added.


Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
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