Listers, the USCCB has released Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholics Bishops of the United States.1 Before we begin, there are a few points of note. The first being the principle questions have either been reworded or added in order to gain the maximum amount of clarity and substance from the document. We would also like to stress this document comes from the USCCB and not the Holy See. In gist, the American bishops have taken the Sacred Doctrine of Church and pastorally applied it to the particular political issues facing the United States.
In this context, there are certain distinctions which must be acknowledged. For instance, the Sacred Doctrine of the Catholic Church is binding upon all Catholics; however, the pastoral application of that doctrine is sometimes binding and is sometimes allowed to differ according to various political views. Abortion is an intrinsic evil, and as such there is only one acceptable application: it must be outlawed in all circumstances. In clarification by contrast, alleviating poverty, gun control, globalization, etc., can all be outlined by doctrinal principles, but can have varying legitimate political applications.
1. Why Does the Church Teach About Issues Affecting Public Policy?
The Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith.
The general argument the bishops submit is that Christ has revealed to the Holy Catholic Church “the dignity of the human person and about the sacredness of every human life;” which, helps Catholics “see more clearly the same truths that also come to us through the gift of human reason.” Coupling together our Catholic knowledge of human dignity and Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor, Catholics have an obligation to help form society according to the principles.2
The bishop’s approach is very akin to St. Augustine’s argument in City of God, where he exhorts Catholics to participate in political/social life in order that they may love their neighbors to the fullest extent. Also like the saint, the USCCB speaks very little of nature, natural law, or man as a political animal. It is a lamentable omission, and one SPL will address in a later post.
2. Who in the Church Should Participate in Political Life?
In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation. This obligation is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person…. As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life.
3. Is the Church’s Call to Political Action the Same as Other Calls to Political Action?
Unfortunately, politics in our country often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype. The Church calls for a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable. The Catholic call to faithful citizenship affirms the importance of political participation and insists that public service is a worthy vocation.
As Catholics, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest groups.
4. Is the Catholic Church Trying to Replace the State or Vie for State Power?
As Pope Benedict XVI states in Deus Caritas Est:
The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.
5. What Is a Well-Formed Conscience and What Is Its Role in Political Action?
The Church equips its members to address political and social questions by helping them to develop a well-formed conscience. Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church.
Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning evil.
Catholics must also understand that if they fail to form their conscience they can make erroneous judgments.
A note on virtue theory and a well-formed conscience.3
6. What Is the Role of the Virtue of Prudence?
The Church fosters well-formed consciences not only be teaching moral truth but also by encouraging its members to develop the virtue of prudence. Prudence enables us “to discern out true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (CCC, no. 1806).
Exercising this virtue often requires the courage to act in defense of moral principles when making decisions about how to build a society of justice and peace.
The Church’s teachings is clear that a good end does not justify an immoral means.
A note on the Virtue of Prudence.4
7. How Should We View the Church and Political Parties?
As the Holy Father also taught in Deus Caritas Est, “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful” (no. 29). This duty is more critical than ever in today’s political environment, where Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised , sensing that no party and too few candidates full share the Church’s comprehensive commitment to he life and dignity of every human being from conception to natural death.
Clearly not every Catholic can be actively involved on each of these concerns [i.e., all the particular issues of Catholic Social Teaching] but we need to support one another as our community of faith defends human life and dignity wherever it is threatened. We are not factions, but one family of faith fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ.
8. Are Catholics Single-Issue-Voters?
The short answer is no; however, there are certainly complications when dealing with intrinsic evils. These will be addressed.
The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:
A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility toward the common good. (Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics IN Political Life, no. 4)
9. How Ought Morally Responsible Political Decisions Be Made?
The following is arguably one of the most succinct paragraphs in the USCCB document:
Decisions about political life are complex and require the exercise of a well-formed conscience aided by prudence. This exercise of conscience beings with out right oppositions to laws and other policies that violate human life or weaken its protection. Those who knowingly, willingly, and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil.
10. What If a “Morally Flawed Law” Already Exists – Can Catholics Support a Political “Partial Good?”
In this situation, the process of framing legislation to protect life is subject to prudential judgment and “the art of the possible.” At times this process mary restore justice only partially or gradually. For example, Pope John Paul II taught that when a government official who fully opposes abortion cannot succeed in completely overturning a pro-abortion law, he or she may work to improve protection for unborn human life, “limiting the harm done by such a law” and lessening its negative impact as much as possible (Evangelium Vitae, no. 73).
11. What If a Catholic Votes for a Candidate/Law that Furthers an Intrinsic Evil?
A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if they voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would by guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other importnat moral issues involving human life and dignity.
12. What If There Are Multiple “Grave Moral Issues” at Hand?
There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grace reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grace moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.
13. What If All the Candidates Represent at Least One Intrinsic Evil?
The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.
14. In Summary, What Is Key to Making a Practical Catholic Political Choice?
In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral obligation oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions.
In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.
15. Do Catholic Politicians Have Any Special Duty?
In Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 83, Pope Benedict XVI states the follow:
Worship pleasing to God can never be a purely private matter, without consequences for our relationships with others: it demands a public witness to our faith. Evidently, this is true for all the baptized, yet it is especially incumbent upon those who, bu virtue of their social or political position, must make decisions regarding fundamental values, such as respect for human life, its defense form conception to natural death, the family built upon marriage between a man and a woman, the freedom to educate one’s children and the promotion of the common good in all its forms.
The USCCB comments:
The Holy Father, in a particular way, called on Catholic politicians and legislators to recognize their grace responsibility in society to support laws shaped by these fundamental human values, and urged them to oppose laws and policies that violate life and dignity at any stage from conception to natural death.
- Faithful Citizenship: Full Text [↩]
- The philosophy underneath these statements is that human society is a natural institution and men are the political animals that inhabit it. The State – as an act of nature – should be ran according to natural truths, and the Church is ran according to God’s revealed truth. However, Scripture does at times comment on truths of nature, and thus the Church has finds man’s natural wisdom is perfected. Technically, we oppose issues such as abortion and homosexuality because they are contrary to nature. It is this mindset that is the Catholic Church’s canon on deciding what Scriptures are applicable to human society. The Church and State must remain separate. Catholicism is not a political religion – like Islam, e.g., Sharia Law. [↩]
- Moreover, it should be noted that a major participant is forming a well-ordered conscience is virtue. Virtues are “good habits” that literally habituate us toward “the Good.” These virtues – i.e., charity, faith, hope, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude – are not relative actions rooted in the subjective opinion, but are ordered actions according to objective principles. In this light, it is easy to see why simply “feeling strongly” about an issue does not qualify as having a “well-ordered conscience.” Habits form us consciences, and they can undergo a mal-formation. [↩]
- Furthering our SPL commentary, let us note that the Virtue of Prudence is both an intellectual and moral virtue – it is the “elective habit” by which we choose good. [↩]
- In gist, our commitment to Christ, to his Church, and to her children, our fellow Catholics, must come before the political party lines that have evolved in our own country. The doctrine of the Church is timeless and without borders. [↩]