The recent letter from the Catholic bishops of North Texas has raised considerable discussion over whether churches have a right to explicitly endorse or repudiate specific policies. Indeed, certain policies are so deeply identified with specific candidates that the endorsement or repudiation of a policy can seem to be an endorsement or repudiation of a candidate.
For instance, for some reason Barack Obama appears to be synonymous with legal abortion, even the right to infanticide, while John McCain is identified with an infant's right to life.
"By what right," demands the irate citizen, "do these Catholic bishops dare to tell Americans what policies or candidates are to be endorsed or repudiated? I am an American, and no one may tell me how to vote!"
Oddly enough, the Catholic Church does not necessarily disagree. According to the principle of subsidiarity, a higher power should not interfere in the functioning of a lower power if it is at all possible to avoid such interference.
A Catholic who has properly formed his conscience in the teachings of the Church, a Catholic who therefore knows how to live the moral life under every circumstance, has no need to be instructed by the Church in what is to be endorsed or repudiated. Such a Catholic already knows the right course of action, judges the situation rightly, acts on that judgement and everyone goes on about their business.
But what happens if the Catholic in question does not have a properly formed conscience? What if Catholics are influenced not by Christ, but by Chrysler, what if their Messiah is MTV and Oprah is their prophet, what if they pay more attention to the Dow then to the one Who died for them?
In that situation, the Catholic bishops have an obligation to properly form the consciences of the Christian faithful. They have to re-teach them the basic tenets, the bedrock principles, by which a Catholic is to judge how to act in the public sphere.
If Catholics fail to follow that instruction, the bishops have a duty to tell the Catholics precisely who to vote for and the Catholic has a duty to follow that instruction.
"But that's illegal!" shout the even more irate citizens, "That's against the Constitution!"
Actually, it is not. The Constitution gives no one the right to regulate this kind of instruction. In fact, the Constitution specifically says it has no power to regulate religion at all. That is why the state cannot tax religious institutions - the state has no power to regulate religion. The Constitution may be the supreme law of the nation, but it recognizes religion, religious belief and religious instruction as being in some sense extra-national and beyond its proper authority.
Consequently, the Constitution implicitly recognizes that every citizen who belongs to a church belongs to an authority which the Constitution does not and expressly cannot speak to. Just as Europeans have a right to express their opinion about who should be the next president and instruct each other and America in why one choice is superior to another - without being subject to US taxation or regulation - so do members of religious institutions have the same right with the same freedom from regulation or taxation and for exactly the same reasons.
Lyndon Baines Johnson managed to pass a law in 1954 which pretends otherwise. That law is not constitutional, and insofar as it impedes the Constitutionally-recognized power, the divinely ordained power, of the church to regulate its own affairs and its own instructions, no one has a duty to obey it.