Catholic concerns on the 2016 ballot

There were over 160 ballot measures in 35 states this election. Catholic bishops spoke out on many of those that related to Catholic teaching on the value of human life, but were largely ignored.

In three states, a majority of voters supported the death penalty, Colorado passed a measure to legalize assisted suicide, and four states favored legalizing recreational marijuana while one voted against it. Voters in four states mostly followed Catholic recommendations to support minimum wage increases and gun control measures, although bishops did not come out as a body on those particular issues.

Assisted suicide

Colorado was the only state with a measure on the ballot to legalize assisted suicide. About two-thirds of votes favored allowing for individuals who meet certain specification to receive medical aid in dying. Colorado is now the sixth state with a “right to die” law, joining Oregon, Washington, California, Montana and Vermont.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of the Archdiocese of Denver had urged Catholics to defeat the bill, saying it advocates a “throwaway culture” and called it “doctor-prescribed death.”

The decision to legalize assisted suicide is a great travesty of compassion and choice for the sick, the poor, the elderly and our most vulnerable residents, said Jenny Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference.

Regardless of the motive, she said that killing is never a private matter and always has wider implications. “As Catholics, we believe that all life is precious, and God, as life’s author, has sovereignty over it,” Kraska said in a post-election statement. Even without religious faith, she said the logic behind the law is troubling.

“Proposition 106 has legalized the ability of a doctor to write prescriptions for the sole purpose of killing another human being and the ability of insurance companies to refuse treatment of patients they consider terminal,” she said. “The only effect Proposition 106 will have on our State will be to deepen the divides along lines of race, ethnicity and income in our society and entrench us deeper into a culture that offers a false compassion by marginalizing the most vulnerable.” Instead, Kraska said that the Catholic mission is to help people live with dignity. “Unfortunately, a grave error, that will alter the lives of generations of Coloradoans, has become law.”

Death penalty

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have already banned the death penalty, according to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, but voters in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma voted to keep it in their states, despite Catholic bishops’ appeal against it.

In a statement, Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty, said that despite those results, she thanks those who worked against it is hopeful “the country will continue to move away from the death penalty and towards a greater respect for life.”

Clifton said the measures gave Catholics the chance to “prayerfully reflect on the dignity and worth of all life during this Jubilee Year of Mercy and to continue moving away from violence as the answer in our criminal justice system.”

The death penalty in Nebraska was repealed earlier this year by legislature, but 61.2 percent of voters elected to reinstate it. The ban had replaced the death penalty with life without parole.

Nebraska’s three bishops, led by Archbishop George J. Lucas of Omaha, expressed disappointment in a joint post-election statement. “We will continue to call for the repeal of the death penalty when it is not absolutely necessary to protect the public safety,” they said.

By a vote of 66 percent, Oklahoma became the first state to provide constitutional protection for capital punishment, declaring it cannot be deemed cruel and unusual punishment by state courts. Oklahoma has the highest number of executions per capita in the U.S. — 112 from 1976 to February 11, 2015.

Before the elections, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City pleaded with citizens to reject capital punishment calling it “morally obsolete” and incapable of honoring or restoring the memory of the lost loved one. “The death penalty only further erodes our respect for the sanctity of life. It coarsens our culture and diminishes our humanity,” he said.

California criminal justice

In California, Proposition 62 would have ended capital punishment and reduced death sentences to life in prison without parole. It went down to defeat, receiving only 46 percent of the vote despite a plea from Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles. “In this culture of death, I believe that mercy alone can be the only credible witness to the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person,” he had written in the archdiocese’s newsweekly.

The contrary Proposition 66, which passed with nearly 51 percent of the vote, will eliminate some of the appeals processes and may expedite executions. The bishops were disappointed with both outcomes, Steve Pehanich, director of communication and advocacy for the California Catholic Conference told Our Sunday Visitor.

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“The wording on Proposition 66 was confusing — even lawyers weren’t sure what it meant — but it was put on the ballot to confuse people regarding the death penalty and it accomplished its task,” he said. “Those safeguards in the appeal process are in place to protect people that could be innocent.”

On a brighter note, Pehanich said the passage of Proposition 57, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act, will expand opportunities for juvenile justice and rehabilitation for adults. “The Church’s approach to justice is that we believe in redemption,” Pehanich said. “We understand the need for prisons but we want to stop the revolving door so that when prisoners get out, they can become productive members of society.” He noted that victims and prisoners alike are of concern to the Church. “At Mass on Sunday, in one pew you are going to have a victim of crime and in another is someone with a family member incarcerated. Restorative justice ministers to both.”


Maine, California, Nevada, and Massachusetts voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana, but Arizona rejected that. Recreational marijuana was already legal in Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. Bishops in California, Massachusetts and Arizona spoke out against the initiatives.

A man tends to marijuana plants in August in Humboldt County, Calif. Voters in four states legalized recreational marijuana. CNS

The Catholic bishops of Massachusetts had joined the governor and many other elected officials, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics, in opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana in their state. The bishops’ statement prior to elections cited a report from the National Institute of Drug Abuse about marijuana stating, “Its widespread use and abuse, particularly by young people under the age of 18, is steadily increasing while scientific evidence clearly links its long-term damaging effects on brain development.”

The bishops pointed out that a comprehensive report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area shows that, since the legalization of marijuana, traffic deaths have increased by 48 percent and, 21 percent of those individuals killed tested positive for marijuana. They added that in the last three years, marijuana-related hospitalizations in Colorado have doubled and high school dropout rates have spiked.

The bishops explained that the Catholic Church teaches, “the use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense.”

Three states — Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota — approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Voters in Montana essentially re-legalized it, expanding an existing medical marijuana law that had been gutted by the state legislature. Opinions among bishops have been mixed on legalizing marijuana to relieve medical conditions and the effects of treatments. Some have publicly supported it as compassionate to alleviate suffering while others expressed concern that in the pursuit to care for the sick, individuals and society as a whole might ultimately be exposed to greater harm.

Guns and minimum wage

Some individual bishops and Catholic representatives spoke out in favor of gun control and increases in the minimum wage. Gun control measures in California, Nevada and Washington passed while a measure in Maine failed.

Measures to increase the minimum wage passed in four states. Catholic Charities USA and other Catholic leaders have been advocates for raising the minimum wage to reduce poverty. Maine, Arizona and Colorado voted to increase the minimum wage to at least $12 an hour by 2020, and voters in the state of Washington agreed to increase it to $13.50 an hour by 2020.

Overall, most voters went against recommendations of Catholic leaders, but Pehanich said it’s still very important to explain and promote the Catholic position. “We promote the Gospel message, and that has always been countercultural,” he said. One of the most important roles of a bishop, he said, is to teach about the Catholic faith, morality and ethics. “Then, people must make their own judgment about how that applies in areas of public policy.”

Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.