Seeking guidance on how to apply the teachings of her Catholic faith at the ballot box, Tina Cashio went to a meeting at her Baton Rouge church.
"I didn't learn anything new," the St. Aloysius parishioner said after the meeting a few weeks ago. "I wish they would take a stand, but they're still just telling you to find your viewpoint."
Headlines from the last year might have given the impression the church had taken a stand as American bishops have contended with President Barack Obama's administration over a Department of Health and Human Services mandate they claim jeopardizes religious freedom by unfairly requiring employer health plans to pay for contraceptives despite church teachings against their use.
More recently, Religion News Services reported how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops complained of "inaccurate" statements being made in the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, both Catholics. The bishops took issue with Biden's claims that Catholic hospitals and similar institutions won't be forced by the mandate to provide contraception coverage to employees, RNS reported.
And a discussion in the media over who has the right to be called Catholic briefly ensued after a columnist employed by the bishops challenged the use of the word "Catholic" in the name of Catholics for Choice and similar organizations whose agendas are contrary to church teachings.
Nevertheless, the Internal Revenue Code prohibits the Catholic Church, because of its federal income tax exemption, from endorsing or opposing political parties and candidates, and officials in the Diocese of Baton Rouge have sought to comply.
The choice in presidential candidates is a personal decision between individual voters and their God, explained Donna Carville, media liaison for the diocese, adding a variety of church teachings might influence someone's choice.
"There are social justice issues versus moral issues of abortion and the right to life," she said. "All we can ask is they make an informed decision and vote to the best of their ability from what their faith is based upon."
The Rev. M. Jeffery Bayhi, a television host as well as pastor of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Zachary and Our Lady of the Assumption in Clinton, advocated choosing the person in the upcoming presidential election who would do the least harm.
Bayhi said the church has been clear on issues concerning the right to human life, especially abortion.
"People say that's just one issue, but the reality is if you're the one being aborted, there is no second issue," he said, but added, "We cannot stop with the dignity of the human person only being born, but we need to safeguard dignity in every age at every stage."
The Rev. Bob Stine, pastor of Christ the King Parish and Catholic Center at LSU, said there is no candidate who reflects all of the Catholic Church's values and beliefs.
"It's always a question of the person being aware of what the church teaches with regard to abortion and social justice, and then taking those teachings of the church and looking at the platforms of the parties and what they say they stand for," he said.
It is possible for two good Catholics to vote for two different candidates, Stine said.
Nationally, a majority of Catholics favored Barack Obama in 2008 and current polls show the same is true in 2012. However, Michael Pasquier, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at LSU, noted Catholics favored Republican George Bush over Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
Identifying factors, such as ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality, influence how Catholicism manifests within individuals and how people choose leaders, Pasquier said.
"There are many ways in which Catholics define Catholicism. It's perhaps the most messy when applying those definitions of Catholicism to American public life and voting and forming conscience of faithful citizenship."
He said many Catholics follow a consistent ethic of life, but there's a line between the precision of Catholic teachings and the challenges of living as a Catholic in America.
"Several different studies estimating Catholic use of contraception in America, though numbers vary, say about 90 percent of all Catholic adult women have or are currently using contraceptives," Pasquier said.
Pasquier pointed to the diversity of Catholics as an explanation for their voting differences, though he said Louisiana Catholics often fall on the conservative side of the political spectrum, consistent with Southern culture.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., a Baton Rouge native who graduated from LSU, spoke recently to three separate Catholic audiences in Baton Rouge, telling those at Our Lady of Mercy that America "depends on the quality of its citizens and the formative institutions of culture that give rise to our reason."
At St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Zachary, he called a federal mandate that private health insurance plans cover contraceptives an assault on religious freedom.
And during, a fundraiser for Baton Rouge's Catholic radio station, Fortenberry insisted that small is beautiful when it comes to government.
"The primary responsibility for the outcomes and well being (of society) belongs to the smallest and most intimate form of community, the family," he said.
Social justice advocate Ray Sylvester, of Houston, encouraged an audience at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Baton Rouge to make informed choices in line with 2,000 years of Catholic teachings, because getting involved in politics can help shape society in light of those values.
The church as an institution cannot support "intrinsic evils" and "non-negotiables," such as abortion and assisted suicide, Sylvester said. But no priest is "going to tell me how to vote."
"We have free will," he said. "If I voted for a candidate who believed in those things, I would not tell anyone."
It is the "non-negotiable, intrinsic evils" clause, however, that causes problems for some Catholics, who maintain the list preached most is incomplete and, therefore, as the National Catholic Reporter put it in its Oct. 26 edition, a "canard." The nation's largest independent Catholic newspaper called the use of exclusive abortion-gay marriage-embryonic stem cell research-cloning, euthanasia as the sole guide to selecting an acceptable candidate "partisan distractions and should be ignored."
While acknowledging those issues are "evils" as defined by the church, the paper says Catholic doctrine goes well past that "tidy list." It quoted encyclicals by Pope John Paul II in which he lists intrinsically evil acts as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, voluntary suicide, the mutilation of humans, physical and mental torture, attempts to coerce the spirit, subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, and trafficking in women and children, degrading work conditions and treating laborers as mere instruments of profit. "These are a disgrace . . . and they are a negation of the honor due the Creator," wrote the pontiff.
Saying that some of the evils are greater than others, wrote the National Catholic Reporter, is a deception because dealing with any evil will always require "prudential judgment" in a plural democracy.
In a weekly bulletin article to St. Aloysius parishioners, the Rev. Than Vu, vicar general of the diocese, defended the church's right to voice opinions on moral issues and those that affect life in the United States, but acknowledged the complexities of applying those in an election.
"It's tempting to focus on our favorite causes while neglecting others, whereas a truly Catholic position is one that's able to hold the tensions, live the ambiguity, and embrace the mess!" Vu wrote. "The mystery of the Incarnation requires nothing less than that."e_SFlb
LSU journalism students Luke Johnson and Brian Sibille contributed to this story.
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