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Published October 23 2012

Fargo state senator Mathern criticizes bishop's letter to priests as too political

FARGO – North Dakota Sen. Tim Mathern is taking the state’s top Catholic official to task over a letter sent to priests statewide that Mathern says crosses the line into partisan political speech.

The church said in a statement that Mathern’s claims are “premature and unfounded.” It also said it could not comment on the letter before it is released to the public this weekend.

The letter, which the Fargo Democrat said was sent to him by a variety of sources within the church and is meant to be read in all Catholic parishes statewide this weekend, urges churchgoers to vote for candidates who represent Catholic values.

Mathern said it was written by Bismarck Bishop David Kagan, who is currently overseeing all Catholic churches in North Dakota.

The letter makes specific reference to abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research and same-sex marriage as key issues “that are never acceptable and should not be made so by law.”

It does not name any candidates, but says “the positions of the two political parties and the positions of their candidates are well known.”

Churches and other tax-exempt organizations are barred by law from advocating for or against specific candidates. Mathern said one line in the letter – “Please do not vote for the candidate who is most likable” – is dangerously close to political advertisements attacking U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp as likable but wrong on the issues.

“The ads that come up from the Republican campaigns sound like the letter,” Mathern said.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, said the letter “merely shares Catholic doctrine on political responsibility” and “does not mention any candidates or tell parishioners how to vote.”

Dodson said the letter does not violate any laws, and called for a halt to discussion on the matter until after the letter is released by the church.

Mathern said he tried to speak to Kagan privately about the letter after he received copies of it last week, but was rebuffed.

A practicing Catholic, Mathern said some church leaders have eschewed broader Catholic social teachings in recent years in favor of a narrower, more partisan focus on a handful of issues.

“There has been an alignment for many of these people with one political party,” he said.

The Catholic Church has been embroiled in a handful of other political issues recently. Earlier this year, the bishop of the diocese in Crookston, Minn., which includes Moorhead, wrote a letter decrying a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate that requires most employers cover contraceptives in their health care plans.

And Catholic parishes and groups nationwide have contributed more than half of the $1.2 million raised by the Minnesota group pushing for the passage of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in that state, according to a recent report from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Mathern said using the pulpit to push for certain positions is an abuse of the church’s position, especially since the congregation can’t engage in dialogue or discuss the issue during a sermon.

“People are coming to hear the gospel,” he said. “They should not be put in a position like this on Sunday morning.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502