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Worcester priests huddle on role in election

Kathleen A. Shaw - T&G STAFF
Friday, September 10, 2004

WORCESTER- Bishop Robert J. McManus last night called together priests of the Diocese of Worcester for a private meeting with former Vatican Ambassador Raymond L. Flynn on how priests can play a role in the November election while staying within the law.

The bishop in a Sept. 1 letter to the priests said the church does not "involve itself in partisan politics. However, that does not mean that members of the Catholic Church should not take seriously their moral obligation to vote for elected officials who support legislation and public policy that uphold fundamental moral teachings of the Church."

The American bishops have said it is helpful for pastors to learn about the church's position on political responsibility "and the legal limits we need to observe," the bishop said.

Bishop McManus told the priests that a voter registration drive will be conducted in the diocese "in the next several weeks." The purpose of the gathering was to "help you to be equipped and informed about the moral dimension of public policy" as well as find out about the voter registration drive.

Raymond L. Delisle, diocesan spokesman, said the meeting was closed to the public and press "so that the priests will feel comfortable talking and asking questions." The meeting was held at St. Paul's Cathedral.

Bishop McManus said Mr. Flynn can present his "unique perspective" on political and moral responsibility.

Mr. Flynn, a former Boston mayor who served as Vatican ambassador at the behest of President Clinton, a Democrat, endorsed Republican George W. Bush for president in the 2000 election. He has made no endorsement in the 2004 election.

He now heads Catholic Citizenship, a Boston-based organization that has received approval from the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy and lobbying arm of the Massachusetts bishops.

Catholic Citizenship, according to its Web site, has goals that include getting Catholics to back a federal bill called the House of Worship Free Speech Protection Act that would allow churches to endorse political candidates. Churches have been free to hold voter registration drives and to hand out "voter guides" showing how candidates measure up on issues considered important by the religious communities, but endorsements of candidates would jeopardize a church's tax-exempt status.

"Ideally, we seek to get to the point where all candidates are pro-life, pro-family and promote policies to alleviate the suffering of our poorest citizens," said Larry Cirignano, executive director of Catholic Citizenship.

Plans are to identify what he called one "public policy advocate" in each parish. This person would "establish a network of informed and politically active Catholic citizens in each and every parish throughout the nation," he said.

"Politicians respond best to their local constituents - the people who vote for or against them. Utilizing the Internet, the Catholic Citizenship network will be able to interact more effectively with our public officials. Thus, when vital issues arise, our network will be prepared to provide an immediate response to legislators - on the state or national level - and thereby more effectively strengthen the Catholic influence in the political process," he said.

The role of Catholics in the 2004 election is being taken seriously by both major political parties, and some believe the so-called "Catholic vote" will be important, especially if the race between U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry and George W. Bush is a close one.

Defining the "Catholic vote" may not be easy. David Yamane, professor at Notre Dame University, South Bend, Ind., addressed the issue last fall at a seminar at the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, Hartford. Catholic voters cross the political spectrum.

"The best description of the Catholic church in America is: "Here comes everyone,'" he said.

The 65 million American Catholics constitute a quarter of the population. An August Gallup poll shows Catholic voters gave an overall edge to Kerry. However, that can be broken down into those Catholics who attend Mass weekly and those who do not.

In the 2000 election, half of Catholic voters voted for Mr. Bush while the other half voted for Mr. Gore. However, Gallup maintains that Catholics who attend weekly Mass prefer Mr. Bush and those who attend Mass less regularly prefer Mr. Kerry. The Catholics who seldom or never go to church give Mr. Kerry the edge.

Although Mr. Kerry is a lifelong Catholic, he has run afoul of the Catholic hierarchy for his votes in the U.S. Senate in favor of abortion rights. Several bishops across the country have issued statements in recent months saying that he should not receive Communion. The Catholic church condemns abortion.

The church position was softened this week, however, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said Catholics could vote for a candidate who has voted for abortion rights if he or she has voted in accordance with church teachings on a number of other issues.

Kathleen A. Shaw can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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