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Advertisement stirs debate among Catholics prior to election

| Thursday, May 10, 2012, 12:32 a.m.

More than three dozen priests, nuns and lay people from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg joined hundreds of others in opposing a narrow interpretation of the issues facing Catholic voters.

Their views would appear to be at odds with the diocese's position explained last month by Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt.

"To characterize a whole content of our faith in a single issue is inappropriate and unjust," said a paid advertisement in The Pittsburgh Catholic, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. The ad was sponsored by Pax Christi, an international Catholic peace movement.

Similar versions of the group's statement have been published in the secular press. The U.S. Catholic Magazine is running the statement in its October 2004 issue, Pax Christi said.

In a statement, the diocese said Brandt indicated in his pastoral letter to the 188,000 Catholics in the diocese that "the abortion issue is the foundation" on which all pro-life and social justice issues stand or fall.

"There are many issues on which the church has spoken out, but the abortion issue is fundamental to all other life and social justice issues," Angela Burrows, executive director of infomedia services, said in a statement late yesterday afternoon.

The Catholic Accent, the newspaper of the Greensburg diocese, would not run the Pax Christi ad, Burrows said.

"We normally don't run political ads, and we also decided to not run special interest ads," she said.

The Accent this week ran a statement called "Catholic Conscience and Public Policy" from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. It was the official statement of the bishops of Pennsylvania, Burrows said.

In an election year where both parties are wooing religious voters, about a dozen Catholic bishops across the country have issued statements on abortion to church members. Brandt released his pastoral letter on abortion in September.

Brandt, who was ordained and installed in March, said because "abortion is about life itself, it has priority of place among all the issues related to life."

Westmoreland County Commissioner Tom Balya, who is a member of Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, the bishop's home parish, signed the Pax Christi statement.

"Republican Catholic bishops in America are being selective about what they want voters to focus on. Polls show that 75 percent of Catholics don't vote that issue first," he said.

Balya, a Democrat, questioned how Catholics can be directed to be pro-life and oppose abortion but not oppose a war the pope has called unjust and unnecessary.

"There are no caveats for the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill,'" said Balya, who met with Brandt after the release of the pastoral letter to discuss the issue.

The Rev. Michael J. Begolly, pastor at Blessed Sacrament, also signed the Pax Christi statement. He did not return calls seeking comment.

The Rev. Bernard Survil, chaplain at Clelian Heights School for Exceptional Children, near Greensburg, said some have suggested that Catholics must base their votes on a few issues.

"Members of our parishes are more broad-minded than that, and they deserve better than to be intimidated into such a limited vision of Catholic political responsibility," he said.

The Pax Christi statement said a candidate for office must understand that "the church stands against any policy or course of action which diminishes life, dignity or the rights of the human person: abortion, capital punishment, war, scandalous poverty, denial of health care, mistreatment of immigrants and racism."

The group said the statement is not meant to be viewed as supporting any candidate.

Cynthia Walter, a biology professor at St. Vincent College, said issues that are much bigger than "personal or diocesan" drew her to become politically active for the first time.

"The bishop's letter, this letter, are all ways we communicate with each other about the common good," she said. "We have to remember what all is encompassed in the common good."

Sister of Charity Dorothy Jacko, associate professor of religion and theology at Seton Hill University, said she signed the Pax Christi statement because she saw it as an expansion of the position set forth by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Brandt wrote in the pastoral letter that public officials who support abortion should refrain from receiving communion and also voluntarily refrain from presenting themselves as candidates for public positions in church life, including being a godparent at baptism or a sponsor at confirmation.

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