SÃO PAULO, Brazil – As candidates make their final efforts for support for the May 19 general elections in the Dominican Republic, the Church suddenly appeared as an influence for voters.

Earlier this week, the Bishops’ Conference’s Pastoral Ministry for Life released a list of candidates it’s endorsing for Congress.

Father Manuel Ruiz, a long-time pro-life activist in the Caribbean nation, is the mastermind behind the initiative, which has been criticized by the press.

“We think that the people needed our guidance. Candidates say beautiful words during their campaigns, but we wanted to show to the people what they have done in the past and what were their commitments,” Ruiz told Crux.

The commission followed the candidate’s lives for months, paying attention to their statements, the ideas they have been expressing, and their actions in Congress, in the cases of lawmakers seeking re-election. The group focused on the stances of politicians regarding the so-called gender theory, abortion, and euthanasia.

“For one year, we looked at them on the internet, we followed their steps, and we heard what they had to say,” the priest explained.

The list includes 130 candidates from several parties, on the left-wing and on the right-wing, and with different ideologies. Ruiz said that “regardless of who will win, the important thing is to have pro-life incumbents.”

“In some districts, we almost couldn’t find a candidate to indicate, so we chose the lesser evil – and then we will accompany that person after the elections,” he added.

The list was sent to every parish in the country. The idea is that the pastor prints it and shows it to parishioners, so they can know the suggestions.

“If the other candidates are sure about their [pro-abortion] policies, they should send their platforms to us, and we will gladly send them to the parishes as well. But they prefer to keep their ideas about such issues in secret,” Ruiz said.

Abortion is completely forbidden in the Dominican Republic. Over the past years, politicians and activists tried to advance bills concerning the introduction of more flexible legislation.

Their idea was to allow abortion under three circumstances: If pregnancy poses risks for the mother’s health, if the unborn child has a condition that makes his or her life inviable out of the womb, or if pregnancy was the result of rape.

Nobody has been able to introduce the three circumstances for legal abortion in the Dominican legislation, but some of the current candidates defend the proposal, and the subject has been creating division among voters.

“The debate on the three circumstances for legal abortion interrupted the process of approval of a new penal code. The current one is from the 19th century and is obsolete. So, that’s a central issue for the country,” sociologist Alejandro Abreu told Crux.

He said that surveys have shown that most Dominicans reject the decriminalization of abortion, but a small majority favors that it may be legal in some cases.

That’s why Ruiz thinks that this is a moment in which the Church must openly declare its views and support the right candidates.

“Of course, many argue that the Church must be prudent and keep out of politics. But Latin America has been giving worrisome signs and we should roll up our sleeves,” the priest said.

Over the past years, a number of Latin American countries legalized abortion, like Colombia and Argentina, and euthanasia, like Ecuador. Ruiz said that the region is dominated by left-wing governments that have closed the doors to the Church and adopted policies imported from developed nations, “which financed abortion and euthanasia all over the world.”

Ruiz said that the Pastoral Ministry for Life is not only concerned about subjects like abortion and gender ideology, but also “defends the survival of everybody and is against policies that increase poverty, for instance.”

“Catholics must balance all those things. Some politicians only favor developed nations, trade agreements that harm Latin America, mining projects that devastate our countries. A pastoral for life cannot preach the gospel for dead people,” he said.

Abreu claimed that “the Church stance expressed through Father Ruiz comes from a traditionalist Catholicism.”

“The Church is not breaking any rule by declaring its preferences in the election. But assuming a belligerent attitude impacts the work of mediation that the Catholic hierarchy should carry out. One can’t rule from the extremes,” Abreu said.

In his opinion, “every time the Church directly intervened in electoral politics, things didn’t end up well.”

“The Church in Latin America has historically taken sides with conservatives. But with Liberation Theology, it also sided with the left-wing in some moments. One way or the other, it always went wrong,” he added.

Abreu said that themes like abortion and gender theory have been creating deep divisions and irrational stances on both sides, and the Church should intervene by mediating the debate, instead of taking one side.

“Mentioning specific candidates is something unprecedented for the Church in the Dominican Republic,” he said.

Most Dominicans will probably not guide themselves by the Church’s electoral list, Abreu added, but it may impact one of the major races, the one for the next national district’s senator.

The two front-runners are Guillermo Moreno and Omar Fernandez, a young politician whose father, former President Leonel Fernandez, is trying to get a new presidential tenure.

Moreno has declared on a number of occasions that he’s not pro-abortion but that he favors the introduction of the three circumstances. Fernandez is pro-life and received the Church’s support.

“Moreno is now eight or seven points ahead, according to polls. If the margin between them diminishes, the Church’s endorsement to Fernandez may be determinant for the final result,” Abreu said.

Ruiz said he’s not worried about the criticism he has been suffering from the press and nongovernmental organizations. He said most priests and bishops support him.

“We caused a revulsion. Many people thought the Church was in the ICU, but they now see that it has a presence in the nation that no other institution has,” he said.

The Gospel must dictate the norms of life in society, Ruiz claimed.

“With that effort, we were able to draw the people’s attention to what the Church has to say,” the priest said.