Conscience Stricken

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The latest Catholic prelate to push the envelope on the sinfulness of voting for Obama is Father Joseph Illo of St. Joseph’s church in Modesto, CA. After the election he sent a letter around to his parishioners saying that they “risked their state of grace” if they knowingly voted for the Democratic nominee:

If you are one of the 54 percent of Catholics who voted for a pro-abortion candidate, you were clear on his position, and you knew the gravity of the question, I urge you to go to confession before receiving communion.

After word of the letter got out and about, Fr. Illo’s superior, Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire, said that there was no need for parishioners to tell their priest whom they voted for–in other words, ixnay on the onfessioncay. And the good father issued a clarification, telling the Modesto Bee:

I affirm and support President-elect Obama and every good thing he will do for this country. He has the charisma of leadership, the gift of speech. We have hope that he will end this war and that he’ll bring stability to our economy. He’s a tremendously gifted man.

It’s important to be clear that the criteria advanced in Fr. Illo’s letter do not track the line articulated in the 2007 Faithful Citizenship statement of the USCCB:

34. Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.
35. There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.
36. When all candidates hold a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation,
may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.
37. In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue. In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.

The best known Catholic to justify a vote for Obama under this doctrine is Pepperdine law professor Douglas Kmiec, who for his pains has received a full share of obloquy from some of his conservative co-religionists. This has led, most recently, to a lively little discussion about whether it would be an insult to the Vatican for President Obama to make Kmiec ambassador to the papal state. The question is: How respectful are conservatives prepared to be of a conscientious political decision that doesn’t turn out the way they think it should?