Guest Post: North Dakota Bishop’s Letter Seems To Endorse Berg Over Heitkamp In Senate Race

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Earlier today there was a post on SAB about North Dakota state Senator Tim Mathern criticizing Catholic Bishop David Kagan over a letter he is disseminating to parishes in the state. Senator Mathern asked that his statement on the matter be published as well.

Bishop David Kagan has prepared an internal letter to be read in all Roman Catholic parishes in North Dakota during the liturgies of the weekend of October 27 and 28, 2012. The letter engages in partisan politics and damages the bounds of personal conscience, the Church’s role in building the common good, and the non-profit status of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. I urge Bishop Kagan to withdraw or change the letter.

As a matter of respect for the person of Bishop Kagan and Office of Bishop, I have attempted to speak with Bishop Kagan about the letter, which was scheduled for release this weekend but has come to my attention in advance. My preference was to ask him privately to change or withdraw the letter as written. Yesterday, I was informed by Bishop Kagan’s staff that Bishop Kagan would not be returning my call. As a private conversation is not possible, it is now my responsibility to communicate publicly about this matter of immediate importance.

Bishop Kagan’s letter is here [Scroll down].

I ask Bishop Kagan to withdraw or change the letter for three primary reasons:

1) The Bishop’s position is inconsistent with the principle of Primacy of Conscience, a long accepted position of Roman Catholic moral theology.

The Bishop’s letter states: “A properly formed Catholic conscience will never contradict the Church’s teachings in matters of faith and morals.”

As exemplified in the sentence above, Bishop Kagan short circuits conscience formation by insisting that properly formed conscience must follow his direction. He speaks as if the Church and he himself are infallible on matters of personal conscience. In a misstep of power, he colludes the complicated doctrine of papal infallibility with the positions of the Church. A Catholic owes a duty to listen thoughtfully to the Bishop, but if in “good conscience” he or she cannot give assent, the Catholic must be free to follow his or her own conscience, which is the true moral responsibility.

On his blog, Franciscan author Richard Rohr writes about the primacy of conscience: “Although the first principle of Catholic morality is that ‘You must follow your conscience,’ we usually immediately override it with the second principle, which is that ‘You must form your conscience’ through Scripture, tradition, and prayer, which I surely agree with. It balances individualism with community. But let’s never forget the first principle is still first!”

In placing the second principle before the first, Bishop Kagan’s letter impedes the needed discussion of what we all can do to promote the value of life and solve difficult public policy issues.

2) Bishop Kagan’s approach misuses parishioners’ trust in Church authority and is therefore not in the best interest for the Church or the building of the common good.

The Bishop’s letter states: “There are some actions that are never acceptable and should not be made so by law.” After outlining some of these actions, the letter then says: “These are called ‘intrinsically evil’ actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned.” Ultimately, the letter declares: “In this election year, the positions of the two political parties and the positions of their candidates are well known.”

While the Bishop has a right and responsibility to teach on matters of faith and morals, the difficulty arises when he applies the teaching to this specific practical case. Doing such and including it as a request on voting for or against a specific person or party misuses the trust of the people in the Church and damages their faith.

As the Franciscans state in a recent Directorate: “In the election sphere today, there is often an attempt to link our Catholic faith squarely with one political party. Although most religious leaders assert that our faith is not adequately represented or served by the platform of any particular political group, some, overtly or tacitly, strain to demonstrate how one party is the only morally acceptable choice. Such effort is wasted. The world is a morally complex and ambiguous place, especially when it comes to political decisions.”

Further, in “Authority and Conscience,” Cardinal Avery Dulles teaches: “There is always a temptation for church authorities to try to use their power to stamp out dissent. The effort is rarely successful, because dissent simply seeks another forum, where it may become even more virulent. To the extent that the suppression is successful, it may also do harm. It inhibits good theology from performing its critical task, and it is detrimental to the atmosphere of freedom in the church. The acceptance of true doctrine should not be a matter of blind conformity, as though truth could be imposed by decree. The church, as a society that respects the freedom of the human conscience, must avoid procedures that savor of intellectual tyranny.”

In addition to the issues noted by the Bishop, there are issues of equal concern which the Conference of Catholic Bishops have asked citizens to consider; these issues include poverty, immigration, war and peace, and the Ryan budget. Serious and devoted Catholics who are of both political parties are now weighing a host of issues.

To direct parishioners toward or away from one particular political party is a misuse of faith and trust. Sitting in the pews, parishioners have every reason to expect that the message will be relevant to current events and issues of conscience. However, endorsement of a political candidate, either by inference or direct statement, serves to disenfranchise, discourage, and even, to some, harm. Such an act bends religious faith toward service of a political party.

When Bishop Kagan states that the “positions of their candidates are well known,” he suggests that one party conforms to the Bishops’ view of Catholic teaching and the other does not. This is not the case, and for both parties, the party platform neither dictates nor controls the views and votes of the candidates themselves. This has been apparent in the presidential race; consider the views expressed by the platforms of the parties and the expressions of Governor Romney and President Obama. The differences between parties and candidates become even clearer in statewide and local district legislative races.

3) Bishop Kagan’s letter refers to a specific candidate or candidates and political parties, which strikingly risks the Church’s 501(c)(3) non-profit status.

The Bishop’s letter states: “Please do not vote for the candidate who is most likeable.”

North Dakotans who have been exposed to political coverage or advertisements this election season can readily identify the candidate who is considered the “most likeable.” Repeatedly, newspaper reports use this designation for one candidate, as do ads against her candidacy. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is currently running an ad that says: “North Dakotans think they like Heidi Heitkamp…You might like Heidi…”

The Bishop’s counter-endorsement of one candidate serves as an endorsement of her opponent. The Bishop explicitly urges parishioners to vote, saying “Each Catholic citizen has the privilege and duty to participate in our Nation’s governing by the exercise of our constitutional right to vote…As your Bishop I urge you to exercise this cherished right.” He then indicates who not to vote for.

As a condition of non-profit status, the United States Internal Revenue Service tax codes prohibit 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations like churches from endorsing any candidate. Even the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, in their guidelines regarding “Activities to Avoid,” state the following: “In order to avoid violating the political campaign activity prohibitions, parishes, other church organizations, and their representatives should remember these guidelines: Do not endorse or oppose candidates, political parties, or groups of candidates, or take any action that reasonably could be construed as endorsement or opposition.” [Emphasis added.]

In closing, I urge Bishop Kagan to withdraw his letter due to its infringement on the Primacy of Conscience, its effects on parishioners and the common good, and its violation of proper conduct for non-profits.

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