Editor's note: This begins an occasional series of articles analyzing issues and personalities that are shaping the 2012 election.
WASHINGTON * The U.S. bishops' decision to make no changes in their quadrennial document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" took many observers by surprise.
In 2008, Charles Chaput, then archbishop of Denver, complained in an interview that the document was "not very clear" regarding the necessity of not voting for pro-choice candidates. "We either ought to get rid of it, or say things much clearer," said Chaput, who now heads the Philadelphia archdiocese.
During the 2008 election season, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, Pa., interrupted a parish meeting where "Faithful Citizenship" was being discussed and claimed the document had no standing in his diocese. Martino, who has since retired, issued his own pastoral letter on voting in which he foreclosed the possibility of anyone voting for a pro-choice candidate.
Raymond Burke, archbishop of St. Louis until mid-2008 and now a cardinal leading the Vatican' chief canonical court, agreed that "Faithful Citizenship" "led to confusion" among Catholics. "While it stated that the issue of life was the first and most important issue, it went on in some specific areas to say 'but there are other issues' that are of comparable importance without making necessary distinctions," Burke told an interviewer in 2009.
This summer, Deal Hudson, who once served as the Bush administration's liaison to the Catholic hierarchy, joined in the call to amend the text, writing, "We're told that no substantial edits are being made to the 2008 version of the document, so that we can expect the 2012 version to be roughly the same as its predecessor. If so, this is a problem and needs to be remedied. The 2008 version of 'Faithful Citizenship' contains several passages (Sections 34-37) that are capable of overly broad interpretation."
However, most bishops did not share the desire to revisit "Faithful Citizenship." Stockton, Calif., Bishop Stephen
Blaire, chair of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, told NCR that when he took over the committee in 2010 he convoked a meeting with the chairmen of other committees that had some interest in the text. "No one said the document needs to be scrapped. There was from the beginning a consensus to work with the text that had been approved in 2007."
Blaire called the 2007 text a "hardwon document," noting it had gone through several drafts, many amendments and a lot of consultation. The bishops approved it in November of that year in a plenary session 214-4.
Blaire said the committee chairs also suggested that an introductory note be drafted, "not adding or subtracting from the document but setting it in the current context." At their plenary meeting in June, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, "took the pulse" of the body of bishops, according to Blaire, and found they agreed with the approach Blaire and the other committee chairs had outlined: Don't amend the text, but add an introductory note. Last month, the conference's Administrative Committee approved the introductory note.
Blair said it is unlikely any bishops would challenge the decision at their next meeting. "It's all done," he said. The issue is not on the agenda for November meeting this year.
So, what happened? The political landscape has changed vastly since the bishops approved the document in 2007. The economy imploded in the last months of the Bush administration. President Barack Obama won the 2008 election, leading some bishops to fear an all-out push for more expansive abor tion laws. The bishops found …