The election statement produced by New Zealand’s Catholic bishops last month aimed to share ideas about what questions and policies should shape an appropriate vision for this country.

The statement has had a variety of responses. In some quarters it has been criticised for being insufficiently directive and for not using strong enough language.

Others have praised its honesty and sensitivity.

Bishop Patrick Dunn said in a statement that the bishops are not giving preference to or offering opinions on political parties. “We are, however, candid on what we see as non-negotiables for our country.”

But there are people who think that one non-negotiable should dominate all others — and they mainly refer to the issue of abortion. This is despite the New Zealand bishops listing “pro-life policies” as the first on their list of issues to be considered.

The statement usually made in connection with such a protest is that “Catholics cannot in good conscience vote for a candidate who promotes abortion”.

However, the advice generally given to Catholics in terms of electoral choices has a few more nuances than this blunt summary.

In the US bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”, updated in 2015, it is stated [#34] that “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favours a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behaviour, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil.”

The key phrase here is “if the voter’s intention is to support that position”. That is where the nuance comes in.

The US bishops’ document continued [#35]: “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.”

Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, summarised the position in 2004: “When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/ or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

These proportionate reasons must be truly grave.

So while the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many, it must also be said that the right to life implies and is linked to other human rights.

These rights include access to the basic goods that every human person needs to live and thrive.

The US bishops’ statement noted that “all the life issues are connected, for erosion of respect for the life of any individual or group in society necessarily diminishes respect for all life. The moral imperative to respond to the needs of our neighbours’ basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education, and meaningful work is universally binding on our consciences and may be legitimately fulfilled by a variety of means. Catholics must seek the best ways to respond to these needs”.

The US bishops warn against the misuse of necessary moral distinctions on issues like abortion as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity.

“Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, pornography, redefining civil marriage, compromising religious liberty, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed.”

That is one reason why the New Zealand bishops’ election statement touched on the issues listed therein — issues like affordable housing, prison population, mental health and more.