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Missouri Bishop’s Letter On Voting Sparks Controversy Among Kansas City Catholics

100620_Bishop illustration (002).jpg_carlos moreno
Carlos Moreno
Bishop James V. Johnston Jr.'s letter urged Catholic voters to weigh candidates' positions on their "God-given rights that government has a duty to protect, beginning with the right to life."

In a phone interview with KCUR, Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. said he was not instructing Catholics on how to vote but rather was urging them to vote their conscience.

A letter by the bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese urging parishioners to vote for the party espousing an anti-abortion position is drawing fire from Catholics who see it as a thinly-veiled recommendation to vote for Republican candidates.

The letter by Bishop James V. Johnston Jr., which was dated Sept. 14 and addressed to “Dear Friends in Christ,” does not explicitly tell parishioners who to vote for or endorse a particular party. But after stating that government has a duty to protect “what God has already bestowed upon us as inalienable rights,” it says that Catholic voters “would do well to weigh a candidate’s position on each of these essential God-given rights that government has a duty to protect, beginning with the right to life.”

The letter has sparked outrage among some Catholics who posted heated comments on Facebook and the Nextdoor app. Some questioned whether the letter, by engaging in a form of political campaigning, violates IRS rules governing tax-exempt religious organizations.

“Separation of church and state. Remember????” said one commenter on Nextdoor.

Other commenters said that abortion was not the only issue that Catholics needed to consider.

“Voting my conscience,” said another Nextdoor commenter. “Abortion is not the only issue on the table. The church, with its sins, has no place to tell me how to vote.”

Cynthia Spaeth, a church-going member of the Visitation Parish in midtown Kansas City, told KCUR she was offended by the letter and read it as endorsing President Donald Trump.

“I think people should follow the spirit and the letter of the law and he’s not allowed to make endorsements and maintain his tax exemption,” Spaeth said. “So just on that basis it was offensive.

"But I thought it was a very narrow definition of the life issue and just way out of line. … I was sort of surprised that, at age 61, I would have a church hierarchy member telling me to vote for a lifelong libertine who probably has paid for more abortions than he’s fathered children with different wives.”

In a phone interview with KCUR, Bishop Johnston said he was not instructing Catholics on how to vote but rather was urging them to vote their conscience.

“One of the places you start is just going back to a basic understanding of conscience, and our conscience is what guides us in all of our big moral decisions,” he said. “And so I mainly wanted to begin there, to review some of the basic, fundamental understanding of what a conscience is and how do you properly form it. And if you get that right, people then can follow that and make a good decision.”

Johnston’s letter reflects the stance of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which in a letter last November said the threat of abortion is of “preeminent priority” – although it also spoke of “other serious threats to human life and dignity, such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”

Johnston is by no means the only Catholic bishop in the country urging parishioners to heed the church’s anti-abortion tenets.

Two weeks ago, Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik wrote a similar letter, urging parishioners to vote their conscience based on church teachings.

And early last month, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, endorsed a video made by a priest in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, urging Catholics who vote for Democrats “to repent of your support of that party … or face the fires of hell.”

Johnston said his letter was meant to offer a framework for Catholic voters to help inform their vote. He said it was never his intention to tell them how to vote.

“The reference to the ‘preeminent issues’ that touch on a fundamental right to life is really just borrowed from the U.S. bishops’ document, ‘Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.’ And that’s just quoting from the introductory part of that document,” he said.

Although Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. is a church-going Catholic, he has been denounced in some Catholic quarters for his pro-choice position on abortion. And when he chose U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his running mate, the bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, Thomas Tobin, tweeted: “First time in a while that the Democratic ticket hasn’t had a Catholic on it. Sad.”

Catholics, who represent 23% of the U.S. population, make up one of the nation’s largest religious voting blocs and have been assiduously courted by both parties. They have voted for the winner in nine out of the last 10 presidential elections.

The National Catholic Reporter, a Kansas City-based publication that reports on church issues but operates independently of the church, reported last month that more than 150 Catholic theologians, activists and nuns had signed an open letter to Catholic voters urging them not to vote for President Donald Trump.

“While neither political party or candidate reflects the fullness of Catholic teaching on every issue, President Trump’s character, policy decisions and cruelty toward anyone who challenges him demonstrates a fundamental contempt for what it means to be a Christian,” the letter stated.

Asked about that letter, Johnston said, “Basically, any Catholic person has a right to express their view on a variety of things, so I take it in that light. This has happened in the past, not only on elections, but on a variety of other important moral issues.

“I mean you’ll find similar letters on the death penalty, on nuclear weapons, on climate, on a variety of other things that touch on human dignity. The Catholic faithful always have a right to express their opinion. And so I don’t need to weigh in on that except that it’s something I’ve come to expect and come to see as something that’s a healthy part of our lives in the church.”

Spaeth, the Visitation Parish member, agreed with Johnston that Catholics are supposed to obey the dictates of their conscience. But she said she believed it was “an abdication of his duty as a pastor and as a church leader” to “bully us into voting or not voting one way.”

“How can you endorse somebody that literally rips screaming children from their parents and separates them, in many cases permanently, and does so in such a callous way that they don’t even make provision to ever reunite them?” Spaeth said. “And then say, but on abortion we have to have so much care for an unthinking fetus while we treat live human children this way? I think to just focus on this narrow definition misses the forest for the trees.”

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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