Cardinal Daniel DiNardo (second from right) speaking at a news conference during the US Catholic bishops' annual meeting in Baltimore. Photo by RNS/David Gibson.

Catholic bishops revise voter guide after debate over ‘Pope Francis agenda’

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo (second from right) speaking at a news conference during the US Catholic bishops' annual meeting in Baltimore. Photo by RNS/David Gibson.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo (second from right) speaks at a news conference Nov. 17, 2015, during the U.S. Catholic bishops' annual meeting in Baltimore. Religion News Service photo by David Gibson

BALTIMORE (RNS) The nation’s Catholic bishops on Tuesday (Nov. 17) passed an updated guide for Catholic voters ahead of next year’s elections, but only after airing unusually sharp disagreements on how much they can, and should, adjust their priorities to match those of Pope Francis.

More than any other item on the agenda of the bishops’ annual meeting here, the debate over the lengthy voter guide, called “Faithful Citizenship,” revealed deep divides among the bishops and provided a snapshot of the extent of the “Francis effect” on the U.S. hierarchy.

In the most impassioned objection to the voter guide, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy took the floor to argue that the document -- which was a reworking of an 84-page treatise first written in 2007 -- should be scrapped because it did not reflect the way that Francis has elevated the battle against poverty and for the environment as central concerns for the Catholic Church since his election in 2013.

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“I believe that this document is gravely hobbled,” said McElroy, who was an outspoken advocate for the church’s social justice teachings even before Francis named him to the large and growing Southern California diocese earlier this year.

“Specifically, I think the pope is telling us that alongside the issues of abortion and euthanasia -- which are central aspects of our commitment to transform this world -- poverty and the degradation of the Earth are also central,” McElroy said. “But this document keeps to the structure of the worldview of 2007. It does not put those there.”

Instead, he said, the voter guide “tilts in favor of abortion and euthanasia and excludes poverty and the environment.”


Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, discusses the Catholic church's approach to refugees in a news conference in Baltimore on Nov. 16. Video courtesy of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Apparently referring to political conservatives who argue that Catholics cannot vote for candidates who support abortion rights or gay marriage, McElroy said the new draft still “provides a warrant for those who will misuse this document outside this room to exclude poverty and exclude the environment as key issues and say they are secondary, and cite this document as they have done for the last two election cycles.”

McElroy’s position was supported by a number of other bishops, some of whom were also dismayed by the number of times the draft mentioned same-sex marriage, even though the U.S. Supreme Court effectively settled the issue by legalizing gay marriage last June.

“I think we need a new document,” said Tuscon Bishop Gerald Kicanas. “I think it was a mistake to try to revise a document from 2007 when so much has happened since then.” He called Faithful Citizenship “very complex and not helpful.”

READ: US Catholic bishops meet, still struggling to adapt to ‘Pope Francis effect’

Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockon, Calif., agreed that “the times have dramatically changed” and said the “cumbersome” new draft needed to be scrapped.

But members of the committee that spent nearly a year-and-a-half reworking the voter guide rejected the pushback.

“We still think it’s effective,” a clearly irritated Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo -- chairman of the drafting committee and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- told Blaire and the other critics.

DiNardo also told the 240 bishops that the committee was only fulfilling the mandate it was given by the USCCB and said the panel had done its best to update the guide with references from Francis -- although, he added in a spiky rejoinder to McElroy, “perhaps not to your satisfaction, and to the rhetorical flourishes which you bring.”

Another member of the drafting committee, Hartford Archbishop Leonard Blair, also rejected the critiques, and he echoed comments by other conservatives who were disturbed by the idea that Francis has ushered in a “revolution” in Catholicism that their documents needed to reflect.

“There is kind of a rhetoric of regime change that is going on in the church” in the wake of the election of Francis in 2013, said Blair. “I think we have to be very, very wary of that.”

Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who was one of the original drafters of the 2007 document, agreed that the voter guide needed to be overhauled but said that would be impossible to do with less than a year to go before the election.

Instead, he said, the hierarchy should invite the presumptive nominees of each party to address the bishops when they meet again in June. That way the bishops can question the candidates directly and “keep their feet to the fire” on Catholic issues -- an encounter he said that would likely provide a better guide for Catholic voters than any document.

In the end, while many bishops acknowledged that the new document was flawed, they were stuck with it.

“I would not want the perfect to become the enemy of the good,” Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl told the bishops, in an effort to cool tempers and provide a rationale for moving ahead with what they had.

“We have a good working document. It’s not perfect.” But Wuerl said that by supporting it “we will have something done this year and not run the risk of trying to do something in the midst of an election campaign.”

In the end, the revised voter guide was adopted by a 210-21 vote, with 5 abstentions.

The disagreements over the election statement, while unusually public and often pointed, were emblematic of the tensions that Francis’ new approach -- which he personally delivered in several speeches during his U.S. visit in September -- has raised among bishops. That's especially true in the U.S., where bishops have been used to promoting an agenda that focuses on a few hot-button culture war issues.

The debates at this year’s fall meeting of the USCCB indicated that while the number of bishops in tune with the pope’s more pastoral, open approach and focus on social justice has grown, those bishops still do not have a critical mass within the American hierarchy to set a new agenda.

That dynamic was also underscored by the mixed results of votes on Tuesday for the heads of various conference committees; several of the votes featured contests between bishops seen as representatives of the “old guard” and four bishops appointed to dioceses by Francis.

On Wednesday, the final day of their meeting, the bishops were to go into a closed-door session, where some more of their differences might be hashed out -- perhaps in even more frank terms.



  1. I hate to say it (as s practicing Catholic myself) but when the bishops promulgate such voter admonitions, with such overwhelming authority on how one may conscientiously vote, essentially choosing our votes) I really feel, in all honesty, like they ipso facto relinquish the Catholic Church of its taxexempt status.

  2. I am saddened, but not surprised, that the laity can embrace the priorities of the Holy Father, but Clerics, particularly many Bishops and Cardinals, cannot. It reminds me of so many stories of Jesus and his relationship with the Pharisees and Saducees in the the Gospels. I am particularly saddened that the charismatic Cardinal DiNardo has emerged as an intransigent leader of the conservative group of Cardinals and Bishops in the US.

  3. Again, too much verbiage all vitiated by one statement. “We apologize, there were no resurrections, no ascensions and no assumptions. We will now close the doors to our churches and schools and convert them to fitness centers and parks. All future donations should be made to your local Meals on Wheels and Homes for Unwed Mothers.”

  4. “…where bishops have been used to promoting an agenda that focuses on a few hot-button culture war issues.”

    Dear Church,
    Keep your ridiculous nonsense out of our laws. How dare you involve yourselves? You want to support certain political candidates, fine. From now on we tax your churches, your property, your income and your services.

  5. @AAA,


    Ah, but you must remember this serious warning:

    “I will huff and I will puff and I will blow your house down!” – Big Bad Wolf (The Three Little Pigs (pp.23, v4)

    Checkmate, believer!

  6. ‘In the end, the revised voter guide was adopted by a 210-21 vote, with 5 abstentions.’

    To show their is a CONSENSUS among the bishops.

  7. The US Supreme Court decided that same sex marriage is the law in the United States and it is unlikely to ever be overturned given the shrinking percentage of believers and increasing number of Nones. The CC can make rules for its members but not others. So why is the CC more interested in this issue than providing healthcare for all citizens?
    The US Supreme Court decided that laws prohibiting abortion are unconstitutional. Using the same argument as with same sex marriage above, the CC can make rules for its members but not for others. Are not the 16 million children living in poverty not more important than wasting effort on an issue that is settled law in the US?
    Climate change is a greater risk to the poor nations of the world than any of the CC hot buttons. Do the bishops believe that nearly all the scientists in the world (including those in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) are lying or stupid?
    Will the CC continues down the path to irrelevance?

  8. the “admonitions” as you refer to them only remind us that as Catholics we cnnot support a candidate who thinks it permissible to kill children. If the year was 1965, the admonition would be that we do not support racists or those who would discriminate against persons of color. If all of us Catholics took our calling seriously to stop the killing of unborn children AND we demanded that any candidate who wants our vote do the same, we could end abortion. then we could put more attention to fighting poverty. But lets be frank, none of us has done enough to “care for the least of our brethren.” And bringing up “tax exempt status” is a red herring. As a Catholic I am not a second class citizen. and neither is the Church. Government is suppose to protect the weak and the defenseless. When it fails, we must make a change.

  9. “But lets be frank, none of us has done enough to “care for the least of our brethren.””

    That is a load of nonsense.
    You are trying to circumvent American law (which you find deficient) and force religious edicts to make up the difference.

    The Roman Catholic Church Political Party is operating illegally
    and it should be taxed like all other political parties. As such, its claims should be vetted in public debate – “JESUS WHO?” – “RISEN, WHAT?” – ” JEWS ARE TO BLAME FOR WHAT?” – Let’s see the superstitions get taxed into oblivion.

    You don’t like it? Then stop enabling this political party in America. And stop defending subversion of American Law. Tax these churches.

  10. Max,

    Said churches are owned by the parishioners. They built their churches, schools and hospitals with pre-taxed donations. Should we also tax other non-profits such as the Red Cross, Meals on Wheels, ACLU et al who have also built their facilities with pre-taxed donatons? And by the way, paid workers for all non-profits pay income taxes.

  11. What about the most common circumstance in which candidates take positions but would not be in a position to change policy if elected? For example, candidates may run as being opposed to abortion or euthanasia, but most elected officials are rarely in a position to address these issues. What about candidates who use wedge issues like abortion to become elected and then use their influence to further the economic interests of the wealthy and are either unable or unwilling to use their limited political capital to address the wedge issues? For decades, Republican presidential candidates have run against abortion, and a Supreme Court mostly appointed by these Republicans has upheld Roe-Wade. Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me repeatedly for decades and I will write a voters’ guide to help you fool others.

  12. Do you think the same loss of tax-exempt status applies to liberal Jews or conservative Protestants when they issue public policy proposals ?

  13. The SCOTUS decision on abortion was initially 7-2. It is now 5-4. The decision on SSM was 5-4 — 1 vote changes it.

    The Catholic Bishops should not be the 437th voice for politically correct social justice nonsense like poverty programs. These have plenty of voices among the 2 major parties, the secular political elite, mass media, academic and educatioal lobbies, etc.

    Who speaks for the unborn infant ? Who speaks for traditional marriage ? Who speaks for the civil rights of Catholics ?

  14. Yes, and the CA and Washington DC bishops are among the worst.

  15. Sure tax ’em….right after all the liberal tax exempts and left-wing Jewish and WASP groups start writing checks, pal.

  16. Bernardo,

    You don’t understand. Political parties are taxed. This has nothing at all to do with non-profit status.
    These churches actively campaign for political parties and individual candidates; they are a political party and should be taxed like any other.

    Tax them 40% as we do some other Political parties. The church wants to be in the Politics game? Let them pay for it. If it closes them down, then let them go the way of other unpopular political parties.

  17. Has the Pope said that recycling takes precedence over the lives of the unborn ? Have religious freedom, attacks on Catholic institutions, and anti-Catholicms suddenly become issues that we should ignore because the ACLU and The New York Times don’t like them ?

  18. Yes, and the CA and Washington DC bishops are among the worst.

  19. FrankieB:

    All political parties pay taxes. And now the church is a political party – an arm of the republican party.
    Tax them now.

  20. USCCB or Republicans at prayer, ate more interested in their power than the message of Francis or more importantly Christ. I follow Christ and not power drunk bishops.

  21. The document is much more balanced than I expected, and it should be of some comfort to Catholics that are struggling with how to vote. On the one hand, regarding pro-life issues, Republican nominees typically would be the logical choice for Catholics; but the Democratic party would be the logical choice regarding most of the other social justice issues that the Catholic Church advocates, such as those described in the Principles of Catholic Social Teaching (Family, Community, Preferential Option for and with People who are Poor, Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers, Care for God’s Creation, etc.). Many Catholics argue that the pro-life position takes priority over the others, and this MIGHT be true if one could believe that the Republican Party would actually take effective actions to end abortion. Unfortunately, data does not support this position, in fact abortions typically go down under Democratic Administrations. On top of that, even if Roe vs. Wade was reversed, States could still choose to allow abortions. So, a serious Catholic is forced to choose between voting for candidates that might support abortion but who also have positions more aligned with Catholics on other social justice issues – vs. voting for pro-life candidates whose positions are not consistent with social justice. Some priests are saying that voting for a Democrat at this time is a mortal sin. This seems to me to be clearly a wrong interpretation of the guidance of USCCB, and I suspect that Pope Francis would remind those priests that Catholic parishioners’ voting decisions should be driven by their consciences and not by the dictates of their local priest.

  22. or some rando commentator…or lib bishop. If a candidate is strongly AGAINST abortion and another candidate is strongly PRO-ABORTION…since abortion is actual murder, it’s a no-brainer decision for any truly Catholic voter….. and if a commentator such as “zandardad” suggest OTHERWISE s/he is one of the “wolves” who are ravaging the flock. Don’t let h/er “fleece” you!

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