By Steven Spearie, The State Journal-Register, October 24, 2020
The spiritual leader of Roman Catholics in central Illinois said abortion remained a “preeminent priority” for Catholic voters in the Nov. 3 presidential election, a reflection of a letter U.S. Catholic bishops released last year.
While that does not mean that abortion is the only issue, Springfield Bishop Thomas John Paprocki said “it’s the most important issue” this time around.
Catholic voters should also go through a discernment process, Paprocki said, and examine how their consciences are formed and what criteria they use to make decisions about who to vote for.
The information, laid out by Paprocki in two columns which appeared in the Sept. 20 and Oct. 18 issues of the diocesan newspaper, Catholic Times, doesn’t make an endorsement of either President Donald Trump or challenger former Vice President Joe Biden, but it does lay out Republican and Democrat platforms around life issues.
The writings have stirred debate among some local Catholics about the intersection of religion and politics and whether a single issue —abortion — should determine their candidate choice.
In the columns and in a separate interview with The State Journal-Register, Paprocki said it would be “a disservice” if he did not provide guidance to people about forming their consciences and working through steps to arrive at a decision.
Paprocki, who attracted national attention with his views prior to the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, has local Catholic supporters who are in step with the notion that abortion is “an intrinsic evil,” and others who contend they are more in line with a broader notion of Catholic social justice.
The columns have stoked a fervid debate by Catholics over weighing the Republican stance against abortion as a foremost issue and consideration of Biden’s Catholicism and embrace of other issues, like climate change, that other Catholic leaders such as Pope Francis have addressed.
Catholic bishops aren’t in lockstep, either. Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego pushed back against detractors of Biden’s Catholic faith based on “a specific policy position.” Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, endorsed a video by a Wisconsin priest who claimed that being Democrat and Catholic were incompatible.
Paprocki acknowledged Catholic voters’ independence. Three national polls of “likely Catholic voters” released recently all show Biden with double-digit leads over Trump.
“I would be short-circuiting the independent thinking if I came out and simply said this is who you should vote for,” Paprocki said. “In many ways, I suppose people would like a shortcut. They would like the bishops to do the thinking for them and say you should vote for this person or you should vote for that person and we don’t do that. We don’t endorse candidates, but what we do is put out the principles.
“In the end, people have to do their own thinking.”
Julie Nabb, a Springfield Catholic, said people are justifying that Biden is Catholic and therefore it’s OK for Catholics to vote for him.
“I would tell them (Biden) is not a true Catholic,” said Nabb, referring to Biden’s stance on abortion.
Nabb said she wholly supports the Florida-based Priests for Life, a controversial organization that promotes and coordinates pro-life activism and whose leader, the Rev. Frank Pavone, resigned from advisory positions this summer in Trump’s reelection campaign.
Nabb said she read Paprocki’s columns and endorsed the notion of abortion as a “preeminent priority” for voters. Nabb admitted she would have liked to have seen the bishop go even further.
“Everything was good until (Paprocki) got to the end and then I think he blew apart everything he got done saying,” Nabb said, referring to the bishop’s note that he was not telling Catholics they “must vote to re-elect” Trump. “I would have said this is what Trump has done in the area of abortion, what he’s done in his four years in office.
“I think we’re too scared that we’re going to say something wrong. Catholic voters are sitting back and not taking a real stance.”
Dr. Bruce Shevlin, also a Springfield Catholic, said Paprocki was out of bounds in trying to foist his political views on others.
“He couches (those views) in terms of his religious dogma and doctrine and I see through it,” Shevlin said.
Shevlin also chided Paprocki for saying that the Democrats “promote abortion.”
“No one promotes abortion,” said Shevlin, a retired radiation oncologist. “We allow abortion. We allow access to safe abortion for certain individuals and that should be a decision made by a woman and her husband or the father and the physician. It should not be made by legislators and it should not be made by religious zealots.”
Shevlin said his conscience is formed by Catholic social teaching, though he’s more aligned with voices like Sister Simone Campbell and Nuns on the Bus than “the good old boys club of patriarchy and the bishops establishment.
“This is my church. It’s not their church and (the bishops) don’t get to decide. I do.”
David Bertaina, an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois Springfield and a commentator on Catholic issues, said in general Catholics who are more traditional and conservative tend to put their religious identity at the top of how they vote and are more likely to fall in line with the bishops’ teachings on issues like abortion.
Other Catholics see issues like the environment, racial issues or civil rights as more pertinent, though part of the Catholic fabric, Bertaina said. That might incline them towards voting for Biden because they see that as “proportionately a better good” than voting for Trump or a third party or for a single issue, he added.
Paprocki maintained that abortion is “preeminent “because “the right to life is the first right. If a baby is killed before birth, that person will not be able to exercise any other human right.”
An introductory letter of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the official voting guide produced by U.S. bishops, mentions abortion as the “preeminent” moral issue for Catholics.
A question for the Catholic voter to consider Paprocki said: is there “a gravely proportionate reason” that would allow a person to vote for someone who is going to promote abortion?
In his Oct. 18 column, Paprocki noted there were 860,000 abortions performed in the U.S. in 2017. If someone held up that capital punishment was “a gravely proportionate reason” to vote for a candidate, Paprocki countered that there were only 22 executions that same year.
“It is hard to see,” Paprocki added, “how voting for someone who opposes the death penalty would be a proportionately grave reason to justify voting for that same candidate who promotes abortion.”
Shevlin called that argument “a straw man the bishop set up and knocked down.”
“You have to base it on the totality (of Catholic social teaching),” he said. “If (Paprocki) wants to make ridiculous arguments, I would put up, ‘would I save one child or a million frozen embryos?’ I would save one child.
“This proportionality stuff is a very flawed debate tactic and it’s nonsensical and it’s irritating.”
As for the political views he holds and decisions he makes, Shevlin believed he is on solid footing.
“My faith is part of that decision-making process,” he said. “I’m very comfortable in that.”
Bertaina said that while Catholics may feel their faith is important to them, abortion may not affect how they are going to vote because there are other issues that are more important.
“They’re essentially not convinced by the proportionality argument,” Bertaina said.
In his columns, Paprocki pointed out that Biden and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris have “vehement support for laws that promote abortion.”
Shevlin said Paprocki, despite his assertion that he wasn’t playing politics, did just that.
“He basically tells people it’s a sin to vote for Democrats,” Shevlin said. “When he says he is just giving pastoral advice answering people’s questions, I think it’s a sham. I think he is basically telling them what he wants to tell them.”
This is not the first time Paprocki, who came to Springfield in 2010, has weighed in on an election.
In 2016, Paprocki said that voters “may also legitimately conclude in conscience that they cannot vote for either (Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump).”
Prior to the 2012 presidential election, Paprocki warned that voting for a candidate from either party who promotes actions or behaviors that are “intrinsically evil and gravely sinful,” like abortion and same-sex marriage, makes that voter “morally complicit,” placing his or her soul “in serious jeopardy.”
This article first appeared HERE.