At places of worship across the country, abortion is not an unusual topic for discussion, or even instruction.
That the subject may be given more intense attention during an election season isn’t unusual, either. That’s because even though abortion is legal, based on a 1973 Supreme Court decision, it remains one of the most divisive issues across America and an important one for many religious denominations.
That a Catholic priest in Santa Fe would issue guidance to his flock that is consistent with the Catholic Church’s official position – that abortion is a “moral evil” – shouldn’t come as a surprise – particularly after the presidential candidates staked out their positions in a nationally televised debate.
What perhaps is surprising is the archdiocese’s reaction to Father Larry Brito’s display of a sign on the side of the St. Anne Parish church proclaiming “Vote Catholic, Vote Pro-Life” and a letter to his parishioners urging them not to “vote in representatives into office who are ‘Pro-Abortion’ or as they sheepishly call themselves ‘Pro-Choice.’ ”
Brito did not name any candidates he had in mind, though in discussing Planned Parenthood he made it clear that there is “one candidate who has been endorsed by this evil organization and who has proudly embraced their endorsement.” In the presidential race, of course, that could only be Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Why is a controversy involving one denomination a public issue here? That’s because more than 380,000 New Mexicans are Catholics.
In a response to news coverage of Brito’s letter, the relatively new Archbishop of Santa Fe, the Most Rev. John C. Wester, issued a statement that said something about concern for the unborn, but appears to be a clear reprimand of Brito.
The archbishop wrote that while emotions are running high as the election nears, “these emotions do not give us license to endorse or denounce a candidate because of his or her position on a given issue.” He referred the Catholic faithful to consult a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops document called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” for advice as they prepare to vote.
“One of the fundamental points that is made in Faithful Citizenship is that the ‘Church’s leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote,'” Wester wrote. “Rather, ‘This is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.’ ”
Wester also could be concerned that abortion rights supporters might attempt to cause problems between the church and the IRS, threatening the church’s status as a nonprofit. Or it could be that he is setting a new tone on this “given issue,” that perhaps the church’s position is no longer as black and white as portrayed in the church’s official Catechism, which says:
“You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish. … Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.”
So what is a parish priest to do?
Wester’s statement seems to emphasize that abortion is just one thing for a Catholic voter to consider in a complex political world. Brito’s would seem to be that the church teaching on an “abominable” crime should figure much more prominently than other issues.
While Wester’s statement implies that the clergy can’t talk about who to vote for, or not vote for, if a pastor can’t speak about what many religious groups consider to be a moral crime in the context of an election, then what do the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of religion or speech really mean in a country that was founded upon those principles? After all, the history of Christianity is rich with the accounts of religious leaders and followers willing to die for their beliefs.
Is the new archbishop ushering in a new era of thought on the importance of abortion? That’s an interesting question Catholics may want to ponder and discuss.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.