In his column in the Oct. 2 edition of the Catholic Times newspaper, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki allowed that voters "may also legitimately conclude in conscience that they cannot vote for either (Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump)" in an election year that is "unprecedented and most challenging."
The column, which to date has only appeared in the print version of the Catholic Times, came on the heels of a new national survey that shows Clinton holding a six-percentage-point lead over Trump among likely Catholic voters. The survey and the bishop's column both came out prior to Friday's news about lewd comments Trump made about women in 2005.
The survey, designed by Belden Russonello Strategies, also indicates that American Catholics don't take their cues from church hierarchy, with majorities of likely voters supporting legal abortion and a requirement that health insurers include coverage for birth control and abortion.
Pope Francis also weighed in earlier this month, advising the American faithful to "study the proposals well, pray and choose in conscience." The pope made the remarks on an airplane ride home from Azerbaijan.
Paprocki's column assailed Democrats' "aggressive pro-abortion stance and activist agenda expanding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights" and restrictive religious liberty, though Republicans, he added, "have not fared very well in these same areas."
Additionally, Democrats, who "articulate strong concern for the poor," have made little progress on the war on poverty, Paprocki wrote.
In a column prior to the 2012 presidential election, Paprocki warned that voting for a candidate from either party who promotes actions or behaviors that are "intrinsically evil and gravely sinful,” like abortion and same-sex marriage, makes that voter "morally complicit," placing his or her soul "in serious jeopardy."
Paprocki didn't specifically mention in the letter the consideration of third-party candidates, nor did he mention Clinton or Trump by name. (Through the diocese's spokeswoman, Paprocki declined to be interviewed for this article.)
At least one Catholic priest from the diocese, the Rev. Daren Zehnle, a parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Springfield, has publicly endorsed the American Solidarity Party, a Christian Democratic party that promotes "the common good and the material and spiritual welfare of all people, thereby raising consciousness of the Christian worldview," according to its website.
The American Solidarity Party's presidential candidate is Mike Maturen.
Zehnle, who is also chief master of ceremonies for Paprocki, said on his Facebook page, which has a public setting, that he didn't have to choose "between one of two corrupt and despicable characters" for president.
Paprocki clarified that clerics are within their right to express personal opinions, given certain constraints, on social media like Facebook.
According to the U.S. Catholic Bishops' document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," which Paprocki quoted in his column, "participation in political life is a moral obligation." "The Catechism of the Catholic Church" states that "As far as possible, citizens should take an active part in public life."
David Bertaina, an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois Springfield and a commentator on Catholic issues, said last week that Catholic social tradition teaches the faithful to uphold the common good.
"It means participating in political life," Bertaina said. "The teaching tradition has been consistent."
With an informed conscience, said Bertaina, a Catholic voter might be choosing between "the lesser of two evils" or opting out of voting for president altogether.
"Anecdotally, I know Catholic friends who are pro-Clinton and I know Catholic friends who are pro-Trump," he said. "I know groups of friends who were split (over the candidates) over the debates."
The problem facing Catholic voters, he added, is the failure by both political parties "to live up to what the platform really says" and sowing voter confusion.
While Bertaina allowed that the "Benedict Option" proposed by Paprocki in his column is "counter-cultural," a critic of that approach said that Paprocki is misinterpreting what it is about.
"It is inaccurate to say that the 'Benedict Option' advocates that we 'opt out of participation in political life,'" said Gregory Forster, a writer and visiting assistant professor of faith and culture at Trinity International University, in an email interview.
"Publicly recognized advocates of the 'Benedict Option,' most notably Rod Dreher (a writer and editor for The American Conservative journal), have worked hard to affirm that they are not saying this, that they support continued political activity as long as it's in the right way.
"The 'Benedict Option' is primarily a refusal to work for the good of the existing social order, on the theory that the existing social order is too corrupt for us to work for its good with a clear conscience."
Forster said that voters should have more choices than simply "opting out," choices he doesn't see Paprocki presenting.
"Voting for alternatives to the two major parties is a form of participation in political life, registering by our vote that we find the candidates nominated by the two major parties unacceptable," said Forster.
"There is a long and important tradition of this in American political history, from the four-party split in 1860 (that paved the way to Abraham Lincoln's election) to Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. One can cast such a vote out of a sense of responsibility for the good of the existing social order rather than out of a sense of non-responsibility for it."