There’s no shortage of people proclaiming the Nov. 6 contest between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney one of the most important elections ever for the country.

Add Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino to the list.

“I don’t have any doubt this is the most important election in my life, and that so much of what is good and true in human nature is at stake,” Morlino, 65, told me during a recent interview.

Portions of the 40-minute interview appeared in last week’s State Journal in an article about Congressman Paul Ryan’s approach to Catholic social teaching. Morlino also detailed why he thinks the election is so critical — issues of religious liberty, abortion and same-sex marriage are at stake — and how he thinks Catholic voters should evaluate candidates.

First, a Catholic voter must determine whether a candidate “in some way promotes that which is intrinsically evil,” Morlino said. He defined intrinsically evil as “that which cannot be justified under any circumstances.” Examples include “abortion, same-sex marriage and the limitation of the human freedom of religion,” he said.

A Catholic “may not vote” for a candidate who promotes something intrinsically evil, Morlino said. If both candidates promote something intrinsically evil, the Catholic voter must determine which candidate is promoting the lesser evil, he said.

A candidate’s position on how best to aid the poor is not a matter of intrinsic evil, but rather one of prudential judgment, about which Catholics of goodwill can disagree, he said.

Morlino rejected the principle of proportionality, or the idea that one thing a candidate pledges to do, such as aid the poor, is so beneficial that it could justify another of the candidate’s positions that goes against church teaching, such as being in favor of abortion rights.

Catholics “cannot take this election seriously enough,” he said.

“The votes of Catholics in November will be recorded here in Wisconsin and at the national level, but they will also be recorded in eternity, because God has a plan for our world and our society, and for people to hasten the opposite of what his plan is, (that) is something that is going to have to be accounted for.”

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For a different perspective, I turned to Stephen Schneck, director of policy research and Catholic studies at The Catholic University of America and national co-chairman of Catholics for Obama.

The moral calculation in such situations is complicated, Schneck said. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has stated that Catholics may never work to advance an intrinsic evil, he said. Examples include abortion, racism, torture and many others, he said.

But Catholics must use their best judgment about what policies and candidates move the country most quickly toward a desired goal, he said. On abortion, for example, Schneck said he would like to see it outlawed. Yet, when Republicans have controlled both the presidency and Congress, they have not been able to overturn Roe v Wade, he said. So the issue for Schneck becomes a practical one: which candidate’s positions will most quickly reduce the number of abortions?

Romney proposes major cuts to Medicaid, which pays for about one-third of all pregnancies in this country, Schneck said. If lower-income women can’t afford to follow through with their pregnancies, more will seek abortions, he said.

“As a good Catholic, I cannot support policies that likely would cause the abortion rate in this country to skyrocket,” he said.

The most important thing to bear in mind is that, for Catholics, politics is always an exercise of morality, Schneck said.

“For us, economic issues are moral issues, environmental issues are moral issues, defense issues are moral issues,” he said. “Morality does not end with what is or is not intrinsic evil. We utterly must prioritize opposing abortion in our decision. But we are also morally required to preference the needs of the poor, work for peace, strengthen marriage, and so on.”

Religion-related story ideas? Contact Doug Erickson at derickson@madison.com.