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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Missouri bishop is being slammed for helping form Catholic consciences in the realm of civics.
In a Sept. 14 pastoral letter, Bp. James Johnston Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph told the faithful of his diocese that the right to life is the preeminent issue in the upcoming election and that government has a fundamental duty to protect society's most vulnerable, the preborn.
In his letter, Bp. Johnston states:
A Catholic voter would do well to weigh a candidate's position on each of these essential God-given rights that government has a duty to protect, beginning with the right to life. All persons of every race and nation are created in the image and likeness of God and therefore possess both dignity and a right to life from the first moment of conception.
Johnston elaborated on the message that was communicated to him during a recent meeting that he and his brother bishops had with the Pope:
As Pope Francis personally expressed to me and the other bishops of Region IX in our recent ad limina visit with him this past January, the right to life for the unborn child is the preeminent issue because it is fundamental; without this first right, the right to life, there can be no other rights.
The right to life, Johnston wrote, "echoes the U.S. bishops' teaching that 'abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all the others.'"
Quoting the U.S. bishops' Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship document, Johnston continued his point.
"The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family and because of the number of lives destroyed," he wrote.
In a piece for the Kansas City Star, self-identified Catholic William A. Jolley opined, "Johnston's not-so-subtle endorsement of Trump can have but one objective: To mislead area Catholics into believing that a vote for Trump is a moral imperative dictated by Catholic Church teaching and by the pope himself. The bishop is wrong on all counts."
Another example of pushback came from a member of Visitation Parish in Kansas City: Cynthia Spaeth said she was offended by the bishop's words.
"I think people should follow the spirit and the letter of the law, and he's not allowed to make endorsements and maintain his tax exemption. So just on that basis it was offensive," said Spaeth.
In a September interview with Church Militant, Trey Trainor, head of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), addressed the question of Church-State separation in relation to religious organizations.
Trainor clarified that there is no reason for bishops to use the Johnson Amendment as an excuse to stay silent on candidates or their views or to censor their priests to do so. He explained the "wall of separation" argument was put forth by then-presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson to Baptist ministers to calm their fears and pander for their votes. It is not in the Constitution.
"Especially with this executive order that President Trump signed, the churches can absolutely engage in that activity now," said Trainor, referring to the executive order that confirms freedom of speech for those in religious institutions and organizations.
"The bishops are using their nonprofit status as a shield to hide behind [to keep] from having to make a decision about who to support," Trainor noted. "They say we should have an informed conscience when we go to vote, but they never really take that next step and say, 'Here's who meets that criteria.'"
Moving from moral duty to rights, Trainor added, "I don't think a bishop has the right to tell a priest that they can't come out and speak [on politics]." He went on to explain the rights of Catholics — clergy and laity — to engage in political advocacy and how bishops are misusing their authority to censor the faithful.
Johnston is not the only cleric of late seeking to form consciences in the midst of widespread confusion. Father James Altman made waves with his online homilies and produced videos that have been going viral. "You cannot be Catholic and a Democrat, period," he courageously and unequivocally stated, elaborating on why a person's eternal soul may be in danger depending on how he votes. In an interview with Church Militant last week, Altman doubled down on his prior invectives, saying, "You can't be Catholic and vote Democrat."
Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas was unambiguous in his support for Altman and his message.
"As the bishop of Tyler, I endorse Fr. Altman's statement in this video. My shame is that it has taken me so long. Thank you Fr. Altman for your courage. If you love Jesus and His Church and this nation, please heed this message," Strickland tweeted back in September.
Other bishops have not been as clear, such as Bp. Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis. Bishop Rozanski uses the "abortion is the preeminent issue of our time" line while suggesting the other issues could weigh as much as the ongoing slaughter of millions of innocent children by surgical and chemical means.