At the end of May, the papers were filled with stories about the new pope’s foray into Italian politics. In an address to the Italian bishops’ conference, Benedict XVI supported their call for a boycott of a forthcoming national referendum on a law passed last year that bans donations of sperm and eggs, defines life as beginning at conception, allows fertility treatment only to married couples, limits the number of embryos created through in vitro techniques to three and prohibits all embryo research.
In his speech, the pope did not mention any details of the law, but pointed out that the bishops were “committed to illuminating the choices of Catholics and all citizens” in the upcoming referendum. He framed it as a matter of defending the family and human life.
In Italy, a referendum cannot pass unless there is at least a 50 percent turnout of eligible voters. The Italian bishops hoped that, if a sufficient number of voters were to stay away from the polls on June 12 and 13, the total vote would fall below the 50 percent threshold and the initiative to repeal the law would fail — which is exactly what happened.
A Communist politician called the pope’s remarks an “unwarranted interference in the affairs of the Italian state.” Similar charges had been raised when the late Popes Paul VI in 1974 and John Paul II in 1981 sought unsuccessfully to overturn laws permitting divorce and abortion.
The question is whether the pope’s intervention on this matter does constitute an unwarranted interference in the political process. The answer here is “No.”
There is a major difference between church officials speaking out for or against a particular piece of legislation and their endorsement of, or opposition to, candidates for political office. In the first instance, they are simply fulfilling their moral obligation to instruct the faithful on issues of great moral importance. In the second, they would be engaging directly, and in a gravely imprudent manner, in partisan politics.
Whether one agrees in whole or in part with their actual position on the matter, the pope and the Italian bishops were on solid theological and pastoral ground in urging voters to stay away from the polls in order to deny the referendum the 50 percent turnout required for validity.
The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World insisted that the church “should be genuinely free to preach the faith, to proclaim its teaching about society, to carry out its task among people without hindrance, and to pass moral judgments even in matters relating to politics, whenever the fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls requires it” (n. 76).
This is very different from what a handful of U.S. Catholic bishops did in last year’s presidential campaign, in direct opposition to the oft-stated policy of their brother bishops in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The U.S. bishops’ most recent statement on the matter was issued on October 13, 2003, in view of the coming national election: “As bishops, we seek to form the consciences of our people. We do not wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates. We hope that voters will examine the position of candidates on the full range of issues as well as on their personal integrity, philosophy and performance” (“Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility,” Origins, Oct. 23, 2003, p. 325).
Pope Benedict XVI and his brother bishops in Italy have not contravened this wise policy.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.