One day after President Barack Obama spoke at the University of Notre Dame, an appearance that many Catholics criticized because he supports legal abortion, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh sponsored a "disputation" for its clergy on whether church teaching forbids "voting for pro-choice candidates for high political office."
One priest and one layman squared off on each side at the event organized by the office of continuing education for clergy. About 15 priests attended.
Because of his campaign pledge to expand access to abortion, and his vote in the Illinois Legislature against requiring doctors to try to save the lives of infants accidentally born alive after late-term abortions, "Barack Obama was well known for being pro-abortion," said the Rev. Michael Caridi, pastor of St. Louise de Marillac in Upper St. Clair, who argued against voting for such candidates.
"You do not give your [power to affect policy] to someone who has made his intention clear to promote a moral evil," he said.
The Rev. Frank Almade, pastor of St. Juan Diego in Sharpsburg, countered that "voting for a person is different from voting for a referendum."
Intent is crucial, he said.
"If I vote for candidate X because he or she espouses abortion, then that is ... a grave evil," he said.
But if a person votes for that candidate for other moral reasons and actively opposes the politician's support for abortion, the vote is permissible, he said.
"Many Catholics who voted for Obama voted for that kind of reason," Father Almade said.
Last year, 54 percent of Catholic voters supported Mr. Obama, compared to 52 percent of the general electorate.
At the disputation at St. Paul Seminary, East Carnegie, Bradley Tupi, an Upper St. Clair attorney, sided with Father Caridi against supporting such candidates, but took a more partisan line than his pastor did.
"The Democrat party aggressively supports actions the Catholic Church calls intrinsically evil," he said, naming legal abortion, same-sex marriage and other issues.
"As Catholics we're duty-bound to fight against the culture of death," he said.
Since fetuses are human and abortion kills a million each year in the U.S., he said, voting for a candidate that favors abortion rights is like "voting for Hitler because the Autobahn and the Volkswagen are good ideas."
Father Almade responded that calling the Democrats "the party of death" implies that the Republicans are "the party of life," which he called "very problematic."
"Each candidate, not each party, has to be reviewed on his or her own merits," he said.
"History teaches us that when the Catholic Church connects itself with one political party, it compromises our ability ... to teach in a clear and unencumbered manner."
Father Almade argued that overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that abolished state bans on abortion, wouldn't outlaw abortion but would throw the decision back to each state. Father Caridi countered that many states would greatly limit the practice. In addition, he said, laws are important because they teach a standard of right and wrong.
Father Almade responded that laws against abortion won't work unless an effort is made to change the culture that accepts abortion. Catholics must work to change the perception that opposition to abortion is a sectarian dogma, rather than a stand based on "human rights that are part of the natural moral law," he said.
In February, Father Almade was chaplain at a retreat for women who regretted past abortions.
"It was a gut-wrenching spiritual time. I think that is the future," he said. "One soul at a time we will slowly begin to overcome the evil of abortion."
He sometimes imagines an episode of "60 Minutes" 150 years from now, in which a reporter looks back at the practice of abortion "just as we look back at slavery, and asks, 'How could they have been so stupid?'"
Father Caridi proposed an answer, saying "It happened because citizens willingly cooperated with people who were given power and didn't use their power to transform society for the good."
James Hanigan, a retired professor of moral theology from Duquesne University, backed Father Almade in arguing that it can be permissible to vote for candidates who support abortion rights.
He expounded on church teaching about intent and "cooperation with evil," saying that a vote for a candidate is only remotely connected to anyone's decision to obtain an abortion.
"Life is the fundamental value ... but I don't think my vote for Obama makes a hoot of difference in regard to abortion," he said. "I resent being called a sinner for it."
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.