Wednesday, August 11, 2004

An issues questionnaire sent to the presidential candidates by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is being criticized as a partisan misrepresentation of church teachings for emphasizing immigration and broadcast regulation over abortion and stem-cell research.

“These questions reflect the legislative priorities of the lay staff,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation. “A good portion of the questionnaire is partisan in nature.”

Immigration is the most heavily covered topic among the 41 questions on the seven-page questionnaire, obtained by The Washington Times. Seven questions on the survey deal with the issue — more than twice as many as all but one other matter.

The issue that bishops have consistently said is today’s most important political issue — abortion — is the subject of three questions, while aid to the poor is the subject of four.

The survey by the USCCB’s Office of Government Liaison also has the same number of questions (one) on broadcast-licensing requirements as on embryonic stem-cell research and on euthanasia.

“They’ve basically taken a ‘throw-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ approach to this,” said the Rev. Rob Johansen of St. Joseph Catholic Church in St. Joseph, Mich. “There is no indication that any of these items are of greater or lesser gravity than any other.”

To put broadcast regulation and human cloning “side by side is absurd,” he said.

Bill Ryan, deputy director of communications for the USCCB, said neither President Bush nor Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry has returned the survey.

He said he thought, based on tax law and the practice from previous campaigns, that the answers would be made public in their entirety without editorial comment from the bishops’ conference.

“We cannot add, subtract or comment on them,” he said. “We’re required as a 501(c)3 [tax-exempt entity] to publish them in their entirety.”

Patrick Fagan, a family and cultural issues fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said such a lack of comment or context means “this questionnaire confuses issues and, in this particular election, could be imprudent” and “has the potential” to undermine the public witness of the bishops of life issues.

“It depends on what’s done with it either by the office itself or the politicians who receive it,” he said.

The Rev. Bryce Sibley of Parks, La., said “issues of life” such as abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and euthanasia “have far greater weight” than anything else.

“Any economic or social teaching, from both the perspective of common sense and church teaching, will be outweighed,” he said.

In a June letter to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington and Bishop Wilton Gregory, USCCB president, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said the church allows disagreement on some issues, but not others.

“There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia,” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s chief watchdog for orthodoxy.

In their 1998 letter “Living the Gospel of Life,” the U.S. bishops themselves said “being right on other important issues can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life.”

“Failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters,” they wrote.

Mr. Ryan said the church and the bishops could provide context and weight in other forums later and said he did not think that the survey’s approach was potentially misleading.

“I don’t think there’s anybody in the country who doesn’t know what the church teaches on abortion and the other life issues, or how seriously it takes them,” he said.

Critics also said the questionnaire’s “support-oppose” format encourages merely adding up the votes.

“Some people will tick through these like a scorecard and say, ‘In a majority of cases, we voted with the church,’” Mr. Ruse said. “That’s exactly how it will be used.”

Father Johansen agreed: “A political candidate could just tot up how many things he supports or opposes regardless of their weight.”

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