Comparing Hillary Clinton with Donald Trump, "both have astonishing flaws," and "neither is clearly better than the other," writes Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, in a column on the CatholicPhilly.com website.
In an area expected to vote for Democrats in November as it has in recent presidential elections, the spiritual leader for the region's Catholics sees a moral (or immoral) equivalence between the two leading candidates for president. His comments, posted Friday, stressed that his views are personal "from a brother in the faith, not as teachings from an archbishop."
Calling himself a "happily" registered independent, Chaput said it was not enough to vote for someone because he or she attends your church: He challenged the self-described Catholicity of Vice President Biden and vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, who, Chaput wrote, "seem to ignore or publicly invent the context of their Catholic faith as they go along."
The church in its catechism teaches that abortion is "gravely opposed to the moral law" and that civil law should protect humans "from the moment of conception." Individual Catholic bishops have criticized Biden and Kaine for joining fellow Democrats in supporting abortion.
Next, noting that both Trump and Clinton are wealthy, Chaput questions how the "average American" can trust people whose lives are spent so far from "where most Americans live, work, and raise families."
Unlike his criticism of Catholics Biden and Kaine, Chaput cited the views of "a lot of people" - not his own - as the foundations for criticizing the presidential hopefuls.
"A lot of people," Chaput wrote, see Trump as "an eccentric businessman of defective ethics whose bombast and buffoonery make him inconceivable as president."
And "a lot of people" think that Clinton "should be under political indictment" and that she has escaped prosecution because of her prominence.
So how should Catholics choose?
Especially when facing "deeply flawed" candidates, Chaput says that "people who submit their lives to Jesus Christ, to Scripture, and to the guidance of the community of belief we know as the Church" ought to "pray before we vote" - not just "mumbling a Hail Mary" but praying "deeply" and weighing moral stands.
It's "blasphemous," Chaput adds, to assume God backs Republicans, or Democrats, or "any political party." Yet God "is always concerned with good and evil, and the choices we make between the two."
No single issue, he wrote, "stands in isolation." But not all are equally important, either. The "right to life undergirds all other rights" and can't be set aside in favor of other rights "without prostituting the whole idea of human dignity."
Since the "right to life" is often invoked by abortion opponents, the wording may better fit Republicans, whose 2016 platform does not call for an end to abortion but does support bans on public funding, parental consent, and other restrictive measures opposed by Democrats.
In 1999, Trump advertised himself as "pro-choice" before reversing his position and seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Chaput did not raise the issue of candidates changing political or moral positions to appeal to voters.
While writing negatively about both Clinton and her running mate, Chaput was silent on Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a social conservative and former Catholic who now attends Grace Evangelical Church in Indianapolis.
The archbishop blamed news media and social media for muddying the issues: "God created us with good brains. It follows that he will hold us accountable to think . . . before we act politically." The social-media "mobcracy" and the "relentless catechism of consumption on our TVs," he warned, threaten to reduce voters to "opinionated and distracted cattle."
Will he change any votes? Chaput's letter had raised more than 400 Facebook "likes" the day after it went up, noted his spokesman, Kenneth A. Gavin. Commenter Linda M. Estock Patton, of Phoenixville, wished Chaput had been more emphatic: "With all due respect archbishop, if you list everything that each candidate stands for, and then compare it to Catholic teaching, it will be very clear who to vote for," she wrote. "It would be better to be more specific than so general."
Thomas Muldoon, a retired PepsiCo Inc. executive in suburban New York and self-described liberal Catholic, wrote on Twitter that Chaput had "flaws" of his own, adding, "Too bad we can't elect our bishops."
In an interview, Muldoon said his long correspondence with Chaput showed that the Philadelphia prelate was among the nation's most "right-wing" bishops and that many Catholics see Kaine, Biden, and Clinton as closer to many Catholic social teachings.
Some Catholics noted Chaput's words in the context of the long and fraught history of Christian engagement with "Caesar," or secular governments.
Father Patrick Sieber, a Franciscan priest based in Kensington, said Chaput was taking up the old question of what Christians owe Caesar. "There is an attitude that it doesn't matter who is king or queen, because the Church is in its own realm, and it's tough enough being Christian without worrying who is sitting on the throne," Sieber said in an interview.
"When we all worked in factories, many Catholics used to be Democrats. When they moved to the suburbs, they found Republicans were more supportive of some of their issues," he added. But as a guide to choosing sides, "the Church lost moral authority when it couldn't protect the kids."
Sieber felt it was significant that Chaput implied in the letter that people could in good conscience avoid voting for either candidate. "Some of the politicians probably think that's the real mortal sin."
In his letter, Chaput concluded that he was still personally undecided between the major candidates, a third-party protest vote, or none of the above.
So he's planning to reread the late, secular Czech leader Vaclav Havel's essays, Politics and Conscience and The Power of the Powerless, along with recent works by Christian writers and the 1998 American Catholic bishops' guidelines on public issues, Living the Gospel of Life, before pulling the lever.