Topeka Catholic voters in the United States have seldom been of one voice. That's been true in Kansas, where three of the last five governors have been Catholic — Sam Brownback, Kathleen Sebelius and Joan Finney — even though they each reflected very different views on issues such as abortion and health care.
But for Catholic voters who try to adhere to church teachings in their voting choices, this year may be especially difficult as leaders of the church consider making changes to the document it uses go guide Catholic voters at the ballot box.
At a meeting in New Orleans earlier this month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed unanimously to begin the process of making what they said will be “minor changes” to what is known as the Faithful Citizenship document, the church's guide on issues ranging from abortion and health care, to media ownership and farm policy.
“When this was addressed on the floor of the meeting, it was raised that the public landscape has shifted,” said Don Clemmer, spokesman for the bishops conference. “Some things have grown in prominence.”
Influence of Pope Francis
Clemmer said the Faithful Citizenship document is traditionally updated every four years, in advance of the U.S. presidential elections. But the last update, in 2011, was virtually identical to the 2007 document.
As a result, Clemmer said, it reflects very little of the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, who served from 2005 until his resignation in 2013, and nothing of the new teachings of Pope Francis I, who was elected in March 2013, four months after the most recent election.
Francis in particular has made international headlines with comments suggesting church leaders have become “obsessed” with the issues of abortion, contraception and homosexuality. But so far, those kinds of media comments have not been formalized into official papal teachings.
“We like the direction of his comments, there's no doubt about that,” said Mike Scully, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Lawrence. “But we're waiting to see what kind of documents come as a result of the attention-grabbing headlines that he's had. I'm sure a lot of Catholics are hoping for that, but nothing has been defined yet.”
Clemmer, however, said it may be premature to expect any significant departures from previous church statements on hot-button social issues.
“It's still in the bishops' court,” he said. “What we got a week before last was basically that, yes, 'this' should move forward. But 'this' was talked about as a process, not substance. It's still very much a work in progress.”
Kansas bishops still conservative
While some people may perceive Francis moving in a more moderate direction, there is little indication yet that Catholic bishops in Kansas are moving the same way. And at the national meeting in New Orleans, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent mixed signals about their willingness to moderate.
As recently as March, during this year's Kansas legislative session, three of the four bishops in Kansas signed onto a letter with other faith leaders, urging passage of a “religious freedom” bill that would have shielded individuals and religious entities from liability if they refused to recognize or take part in same-sex marriages.
House Bill 2543 had passed the House Feb. 12 by a wide margin, 72-49, despite criticism that it would legalize discrimination against gay couples. Soon after that vote, business leaders in Kansas, including the conservative Kansas Chamber, which usually stays out of debates on social issues, came out in opposition, saying it would interfere with management and employment policies in private businesses.
By the time it reached the Senate, Republican leaders had already felt the backlash and quickly buried the bill in committee. Even then, on March 6, a group of 12 faith leaders in Kansas signed an open letter to lawmakers urging its passage.
“And because the redefinition of marriage threatens to compel people by law to participate in, or otherwise support, relationships and celebrations to which they object in conscience, legal protection is required,” the letter stated.
The signers included Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Bishop John Brungardt of Dodge City, and Edward Weisenburger of Salina.
Divided Catholic vote
Exactly how much influence those kinds of pronouncements have on rank-and-file Catholic voters has never been clear.
According to Census estimates, Catholics make up about 25 percent of the adult population in the United States, making them the largest single religious denomination.
But a study by the Pew Research Center shows they have split fairly evenly between Democratic and Republican candidates over the last four presidential election cycles. About half say they support same-sex marriage and believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Church officials, however, say the Faithful Citizenship guide is not meant to tell voters specifically which candidates to support.
“The purpose of the document is to inform the Catholic conscience,” Clemmer, of the bishops conference, said. Quoting Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, he said, “No matter what, you can't take a person's prudence away from them — the actual act of making a moral decision in the face of all that. It's incumbent upon the individual Catholic to hear and learn from what the church is saying on moral matters, and it's also up to them to make that moral decision.”