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Court appointment one more issue for the Catholic vote, legal experts say


  • People in Portland, Maine, mourn the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Sept. 20, 2020. (CNS photo/Elizabeth Frantz, Reuters)
  • A painting of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen during a vigil in Portland, Maine, Sept. 20, 2020. (CNS photo/Elizabeth Frantz, Reuters)

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If there weren't already enough heavy considerations for Catholic voters to digest before the Nov. 3 election, there is now a Supreme Court vacancy joining a global pandemic, school choice, abortion, immigration, death penalty and other timely concerns.

Whether or not a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy can be confirmed and filled before the U.S. Presidential election, the vacancy -- following Sept. 18 death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- now promises to raise vote tempers as much as any pandemic might, while hyper-energizing the campaigns of both Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump.

The U.S. Catholic bishops note that voters are called to make informed, prudential decisions on election issues and candidates, and their document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility" has been offered as a guide to Catholic voters every presidential election year since 1976. It has also been updated periodically.

There is ample personal discernment and nuanced analysis facing voters arriving at election decisions of late, and certainly more subtle thinking is required of voters than what some media outlets and special interest groups would imply, according to two American legal academics who spoke with CNS.

On one side, for example, is Faith in Public Life Action issuing a letter signed by nearly 600 Catholics, including three former officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, calling President Trump "a threat to Catholic values" and urging Catholics vote for the common good, and not choose Trump.

On the other side is a group such as Priests for Life, whose national director, Father Frank Pavone, is urging voters "save the platitudes" and compare the records of Trump and Biden, a Catholic who supports legalized abortion. Trump "has accomplished more in his 47-month political career than Joe Biden has in 47 years," especially in regard to pro-life judges, the priest said. "Trump blows Joe Biden out of the water."

"My counterintuitive hope for Catholics in these very intense weeks running up to the election is that we are able to slow down," said Amy Uelmen, a lecturer on religion and professional life at Georgetown University Law Center and a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center on Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown.

Uelmen said she keeps taped to her computer a quote from Pope Francis' 2018 apostolic exhortation on the universal call to holiness, "Rejoice and Be Glad" ("Gaudete et exsultate"). In the quote, it Pope Francis notes that society today is "overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din."

"How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God? Finding that space may prove painful, but it is always fruitful. Sooner or later, we have to face our true selves and let the Lord enter," reads the passage.

"For myself as a Catholic voter, I sense that the best path for my own 'formation' during the election season is in dedicating time and space for a prayerful conversation with God, which can in turn inform my reflective discernment on the political implications of love of neighbor," Uelmen wrote in an email exchange with Catholic News Service.

She adds that since about 2004 she finds damage has been inflicted not only on the church but on the whole body politic through voter's guides and internet quizzes -- not authorized by the USCCB -- that overemphasize the role of simply identifying a candidate's stance on "non-negotiable" issues.

"While I believe discussion of 'intrinsic evil' can be helpful for some aspects of our cultural conversation, when it comes to the prudential work of decisions about voting, a reductionistic use of this category has proven to be confusing, if not manipulative," she wrote.

She added that for the 2020 election the passages of the current version of "Faithful Citizenship" she finds most helpful are those which clarify that when all candidates hold positions that are unacceptable under Catholic teaching, the central element is the "voter's intent."

So many of recent challenges -- the global COVID-19 pandemic, evidence of increasingly dire climate change, social justice protests -- are problems that can only be resolved if we realize not only that the life issues are connected, but all humanity is deeply connected, according to Uelmen.

"Until we build the trust we need to truly appreciate how our lives and our commitments to the good are all interconnected, we will never find true solutions to any of the enormous challenges that plague our societies and our world," she wrote, adding that as educator, she struggles toward "the long view" and how her generation can help the next generation of leaders engage with social, political, cultural and professional complexity with vision and hope.

"Perhaps we can take the time to ask them: What are your best hopes for our country, for our planet? I would venture to guess that their concerns are always going to take us beyond the next four years, into the long view," Uelmen told CNS.

In Pennsylvania, Michael Moreland, professor of law and religion at Villanova University and an expert in the areas of law and religion, free speech, constitutional law and bioethics, said he thinks documents such as "Faithful Citizenship" are helpful to Catholic voters as those teachings get refracted through parish homilies, dinner table conversations and statements by local bishops.

"It is a document that is a product of a compromise and a committee and so it has some shortcomings as a document of a committee," said Moreland, who served as an associate director for domestic policy at the White House under President George W. Bush.

"And obviously there would be some more conservative people who would hold abortion should be even more prominently featured and people on the left who think that abortion should be one of a whole range of considerations and who would lean more toward Democratic candidates," Moreland said by telephone.

"Catholics are such a big group, and among people who are trying to form their conscience and be well informed about the vote, then a document like 'Faithful Citizenship' ... helps engaged Catholics voters with a set of issues including abortion, immigration, programs for poor people and educational choice."

The U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, Moreland noted, underscores how important a presidential election can be in terms of the many federal agency and court appointments that fall upon a presidential administration. And how -- for people interested in legal issues and questions about religious freedom and the place of Catholics in political life -- one of the strongest legacies of any administration is going to be judicial appointments.

"We are going to have a debate for the next month and a half centered around that issue and the ways in which a lot of people -- especially more observant Catholics -- are concerned progressive judicial nominees will not be as protective of religious freedom, won't be as protective of educational choice and won't be as protective of the right to life," Moreland said.

Still, there is a possibility the U.S. presidential elections and the national debates around them have taken on an outsized role in American political life, and one riven with outsized social media and special interest personalities with exaggerated importance.

"A lot of it comes at the expense of people engaging more in local politics and people at some level just getting to know one another better and working within their community, which is very important as well," Moreland said.

Both political parties fall short of what the expectations might be for a robust Catholic presence in American public life.

"It is too bad we have to end up having to make this kind of catastrophic, dire choice between two alternatives in an election and to think that is what constitutes politics," he said.

"Catholic political engagement should be more robust and that we shouldn't just think of it so narrowly as a Tuesday in November every four years," Moreland said.

Georgetown's Uelman believes one way to turn down this partisan election noise might be to encourage people to turn off their TV and online reading, and to create settings where people can encounter each other as complex thinking and feeling human beings across the aisle.

"I sense that we are often mapping onto our encounters with each other extremely reductive scripts and categories that are continually re-enforced by polarized media sources," she wrote.

"So scripted are our encounters that it's almost as if people are quoting each other verbatim when they describe their critique of 'the other side.'"

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