Tell me, but don’t tell me. Say it. But don’t.

If you listen to as much Catholic radio as I do (and I listen to far too much of it for my own good), you know Catholics can’t vote for Obama. If you are a Catholic and go to church even occasionally, especially during an election year, you probably know this, too. In fact, if you know anything at all about Catholicism in America, I’m sure you’re aware that Catholics, under no circumstances, are allowed to vote for Obama.

Not because any bishops or Catholic ministries have actually said, “Catholics must not vote for Obama.” They are forbidden from saying so because the Catholic Church in America and its formally endorsed religious ministries are classified by the IRS as 501(c)(3) charitable or nonprofit organizations, exempt from some federal income taxes. In order to enjoy these exemptions, such organizations are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” They can’t tell you who to vote for, and they can’t tell you who not to vote for. Not specifically. Not by name.

Today on Catholic Answers Live, a caller asked Jimmy Akin who she should vote for. She said she doesn’t know much about politics, but she knows that the sanctity of life is the most important thing, and she just needs some guidance. Akin explained that the Church and apostolates such as Catholic Answers Live would be in violation of the rules set by their 501(c)(3) statuses if they were to identify by name who they thought the faithful should vote for. To address issues of voting, then, nonprofits usually take one of two routes: either they teach how the faithful must understand and vote on the issues, or they explain where each candidate stands on the issues without saying how the faithful must vote on those issues. The US Bishops and ministries such as Catholic Answers, Akin continued, have chosen to take the former route.

And how. Catholic Answers produces a booklet called The Voter’s Guide for Serious CatholicsEWTN offers A Brief Catechism for Catholic VotersThe US Conference of Catholic Bishops has Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (with a shorter version available for distribution in church bulletins).

And this, of course, is how we all know Catholics can’t vote for Obama: because in explaining how Catholic principles should direct the way the Catholic faithful should vote, these offerings elevate abortion over all other issues. Above all else, a Catholic must not vote for a “pro-abortion” candidate. And we all know Obama is that candidate. 

(Gay marriage is right on up there, too: Catholics can’t vote for a candidate in favor of that, either–also Obama. But abortion is the big one.)

All day long on Catholic radio, program hosts–Johnnette Benkovic, Al Kresta, Teresa Tomeo, Jim & Joy, Raymond Arroyo, Patrick Coffin–and their guests find every possible way to remind you that abortion is the most important issue, the one issue on which you must not differ from the Church in any way, the issue with no conceivable parallel, on which your vote must depend. And they know all the arguments a voter might pose against this absolute voting mandate, and they tell you why those arguments don’t count. All that counts is abortion. If a candidate favors legal abortion, nothing else matters.

As Oregon Bishop Robert Vasa said, a candidate’s “pro-abortion” status is a “disqualifying condition” for Catholics.  EWTN says it’s a sin to vote for such a candidate. Baltimore Archbishop William Lori challenged Catholic voters “to step back from their party affiliation” (a reference to Catholic voters’ historical affiliation with the Democratic party?) and not vote for any candidate who stands “for something that is intrinsically evil, evil no matter what the circumstances” (an obvious reference to abortion taking precedence over other issues such as the death penalty). Michigan Bishop Alexander Sample indicated that opposition to abortion “is absolutely ‘non-negotiable’ when it comes to weighing the issues before us in any election cycle.” Illinois Bishop Thomas John Paprocki actually went farther and cited the Democratic party’s support of abortion, saying that voting for someone with that platform “makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.”

Presumably, the Bishops expect that Catholic voters will take these statements seriously and make sure they know, before going to the polls and placing their eternal salvation in jeopardy, which one of these candidates favors legal abortion (as if they did not already know). Helpfully, the bishops of my own state of Florida have taken the other tactic Jimmy Akin cited for nudging voters in the right direction: they compiled a comparison of the candidates‘ positions on issues. The Florida Bishops remind us that they do not endorse one candidate over another, and they point out that they listed the issues in alphabetical order, implying that they are not attempting to assign more weight to one issue over another. Alphabetically, of course, abortion is first on the list.

I seriously question how these Catholic entities, individually and in combination, can claim not to be telling Catholics which candidate to vote for or against. Of course they are telling them to vote for Romney; at the very least, they are telling them not to vote for Obama. Obama is the Democrat; the Democrats are pro-choice. Romney is the Republican; the Republicans are pro-life. You can’t go to such extreme lengths to make sure people get it that “pro-abortion” doesn’t get the Catholic vote and then act like you don’t have specific candidates in mind, no matter how many times you say you are not endorsing or condemning a specific candidate.

These statements seem designed to conform to the letter of the law concerning the IRS’s restrictions against tax-exempt nonprofits’ intervention in political campaigns, but they defy the spirit of the law. Observe:

voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.

I suppose one could argue that the bishops’ statements and the radio personalities’ discussions, if they count as “voter education,” do not–strictly speaking–evidence bias. There’s no “evidence”; they don’t say anyone’s name. They make the requisite “I’m not talking about anyone in particular” statement at appropriate intervals. They may have the effect of favoring a candidate, but because they included the right qualifiers, there is no “evidence” of bias.


An organization may take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office as long as the message does not in any way favor or oppose a candidate. Be aware that the message does not need to identify the candidate by name to be prohibited political campaign activity. A message that shows a picture of a candidate, refers to a candidate’s political party affiliations, or contains other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography may be prohibited political campaign activity.

This recognizes that a message that is “in any way” in favor or opposition of a candidate may not necessarily identify the candidate by name. Still, strictly speaking, it may be interpreted to mean that the only prohibited indirect messages are pictures, references to party affiliations, or references to the candidate’s platform or biography. And strictly speaking, the Bishops et al have not employed these particular indirect messages.

All of this hearkens back to the old-school accusation that Catholics are legalistic. I once heard a story that a king in the Middle Ages wanted to eat lamb on Fridays when only fish was allowed for Catholics. The king had his servant toss a lamb into the lake and then “fish” it out, so he could eat it after all.

“Look, we’re not telling you who to vote for. Just don’t vote for someone who is pro-abortion. Also, do vote, because if you don’t vote, a pro-abortion candidate might get elected. You should vote, but not for the pro-abortion one. Think hard about which candidate is pro-abortion. Are you thinking of him? Okay, now don’t vote for that one. I’m not saying who that is.”

It really bugs me when they do that. It seems so dishonest. Why do they have to dance around their message? Why don’t they just come out and say what they mean? Because they’d lose their tax-exempt status, of course. But if abortion really is the ultimate issue, under which all other considerations are subordinate… if indeed voting for a candidate who is in favor of legal abortion is the same thing as endorsing genocide… if all Catholics’ eternal souls are in jeopardy if they check the wrong box on the ballot… if this issue is really as important as all that, then the Bishops et al actually have a responsibility to name names. The money doesn’t matter. All that is at stake is worth more than however much could be lost if the tax exemptions were given up.

But if the money matters more than making sure the message is crystal clear, then the motive is political, and the message isn’t worth all it’s hyped up to be.

Here’s what I think. Abortion is serious, but it is also a very nuanced issue. Catholicism is a monarchy and does not have to see nuance where it does not want to, and it may set laws and directives however it sees fit. But America is a democracy, and a democracy can only be nuanced. For this reason, the pro-life movement will never be successful–not ultimately–if it continues to pour the majority of its energy into reducing abortions through legislation. I’m in favor of reducing abortions, but that’s not how to get it done. I am doubtful that abortion will ever be illegal in America; I think it’s likely that all resources put into the effort to criminalize it are simply wasted. And if abortion ever became illegal, those in favor of a woman’s right to choose wouldn’t simply give up. The fighting over the legislation would continue for eternity. Meanwhile, energy that could be spent reducing abortions by addressing things like poverty and education continues to be wasted. And by the way, people don’t have abortions just because it’s legal, which means they won’t stop having abortions just because it’s illegal.

Also, it is not in conservative candidates’ best interest for abortion to be illegal, and they are the ones who allegedly want to put a stop to abortion, and so I am doubtful that electing the unnamed candidate who opposes the unnamed pro-abortion candidate will actually result in serious anti-abortion legislation. I am also cynically doubtful that conservatives actually want abortions to decrease at all, legal or illegal. If abortion stops being an issue, those candidates lose their best voter attractant. They have the Catholic Church at the ready steering voters their way, and abortion is the Church’s most powerful tool. What happens if it loses its potency?

All of these directives and pamphlets and statements attempt to make abortion into something black and white, and it’s not. As I have formed my political conscience over time, I have not found the statements of the Bishops et al to be sufficiently nuanced as to add anything to my thought process. Mostly they just infuriate me.

If you’re wondering who I’m going to vote for next month (as if you haven’t already figured it out)… I’m not telling.

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2 Responses to Tell me, but don’t tell me. Say it. But don’t.

  1. Marsha says:

    This is a very well articulated discussion, and I thank you for that. My only complaint is when you identify Democrats or anyone as “pro-abortion”. No one is pro-abortion. It’s just that some people think that abortions should be rare, safe, available and legal.

    • Thanks for your comment! I definitely agree with you that nobody is pro-abortion. I used that expression since it’s used by so many of the commentators I’m talking about. I also object to “anti-life” and “anti-choice,” both of which are also inflammatory, often intentionally. Nobody is “anti-life.” Nobody is “anti-choice.”

      In fact, I kind of object to “pro-life” and “pro-choice”; at least I don’t personally identify as either of those. I just don’t think a one-word label is a suitable way to describe my feelings about such a complex issue.

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