It’s time for the U.S. bishops to revise their Catholic voting guide
Should the teaching of Pope Francis and the presidency of Donald Trump require the wholesale revision or replacement of Faithful Citizenship, the voting guide issued every four years by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? At its June 2018 meeting, the U.S.C.C.B voted by a tally of 144 to 41 not to revise or replace Faithful Citizenship. But as it stands, does the document reflect or respond to our contemporary reality? I offer here a case for the wholesale revision or replacement of Faithful Citizenship in order to better reflect the teaching of Pope Francis and to respond to the authoritarian populist nationalism of the president and his administration.
A key aspect of Faithful Citizenship is the theology of conscience. In fact, the document’s full title is Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility. The theology of conscience in the next iteration of Faithful Citizenship should be consistent with recent work by Pope Francis on conscience. Moreover, the theology of conscience in the document should be connected with the emphasis of Pope Francis on mission—an emphasis captured by the argument of the great American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, who said that the freedom of the church “stands or falls” with the freedom of the people. Lastly, the theology of conscience of the next iteration of Faithful Citizenship should be connected clearly to the concept of sensus fidelium, an ancient doctrine renewed by Pope Francis.
A theology of conscience at this time should be especially attuned to the virtues, vices, practices, norms, culture and structures that pertain to the endurance and renewal of the liberal democratic order in the United States.
But what are the signs of these deeply troubling political times to which such developments in the theology of conscience should respond?
Faithful Citizenship should focus in particular on the survival of the liberal democratic political order in itself. I have no illusions about the imperfections of such a political order. And I have hopes for its continuing reform—on the basis, among other things, of a far less individualistic, far more situated understanding of freedom. But essentially I agree with the argument recently made by the Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne: “If liberal democracy does not survive and thrive, every other problem we face becomes much more difficult.” The threat is global: the emergence of authoritarian and usually populist governments in the United States, Russia, China, Turkey, India, Egypt, Congo, Venezuela, Hungary, Poland and the Philippines (among other countries). Accordingly, I believe a theology of conscience at this time should be especially attuned to the virtues, vices, practices, norms, culture and structures—and related urgent issues—that pertain to the endurance and renewal of the liberal democratic order in the United States.
The first step is to align Faithful Citizenship with the theology of conscience of Pope Francis. The weight of the document falls on the side of constraining the conscience to vote in ways that the bishops consider consistent with the “whole truth in authentic love”—a consistency especially evident in the rejection of law and policy construed to support actions considered to be intrinsically evil. By putting things in this way, the bishops affirm that conscience derives its dignity from its correspondence with the truth, manifested especially in certain universal, negative commandments. These negative norms bear the objective weight here: The conscience of the Catholic voter plays a ratifying, functional role. One attains truth by accepting the universal, negative norm in all its apparent applicability, or one descends into subjectivism by deciding otherwise.
But Pope Francis has moved away from such a theology of conscience. To understand how, I think it can be helpful to re-imagine the meaning of the striking image offered years ago by the theologian Dr. Timothy O’Connell: that conscience kneels before the truth. Everyone agrees that this should be the case. But what can this phrase mean in a way that vindicates the potential for agency and truth and relationship of the conscience of the one kneeling? The work of the Australian theologians Thomas Ryan, SM and Dr. Daniel Fleming puts flesh on the bones of the kneeling conscience. Father Ryan draws on the work of Pope John Paul II and the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” to argue that we should think of the fundamental intuitions of conscience toward the true and the good less in terms of clear, discursive principles of practical reason and more in terms of moral intuitions arising from visceral encounters with others and with the concrete and natural world. Thus, for Father Ryan, our primary moral awareness is anchored in embodiment and relationship. Dr. Fleming, then, builds on Father Ryan’s thought to argue that conscience is best understood as kneeling first before our awareness of the call of responsibility toward concrete others—and only on that basis can one move toward the discernment of moral truth.
It is important, next, to connect conscience to mission, emphasized by Pope Francis as the very heart of his papacy. In turn, the concept of mission should be connected to religious freedom and to the sensus fidelium.
Faithful Citizenship is clear on the centrality of mission: “We are called to participate in public life in a manner consistent with the mission of our Lord,” the bishops say at the outset of the document. But there are two problems with the document’s conception of mission. First, the document adverts in its closing pages to grounding the right to religious freedom in human dignity. But more often and more prominently, the document bases the right to religious freedom in religion itself. In doing so, Faithful Citizenship shares in a mode of argument with moral theories that situate the right to religious freedom within a more fundamental set of basic goods toward which practical reason is oriented, one of the chief among these basic goods being religion itself. In this view, the right to religious freedom and its connection to human dignity is seen as necessary but functional, not so much an exigency flowing from human nature but more a means by which the truth of religion may be pursued. In a similar fashion, Faithful Citizenship renders religious freedom more as a right belonging to Catholics and less as a right belonging to human beings as such. Here religious freedom is for the sake of mission understood in the style of the “Benedict option,” a lonely witness to truth in a hostile, secular culture.
By more persuasively associating conscience with dignity and freedom, Faithful Citizenship could more clearly extend the rights of conscience to everyone within and outside the church.
But there is a better way for the next iteration of Faithful Citizenship to integrate the theology of conscience with the concepts of religious freedom and mission. First, conscience should be connected more specifically to human dignity as the ground of the right to religious freedom. This would conform more closely to the letter of the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom.” But doing so would also allow conscience to be connected more closely to the historical and relational sense of conscience in the theology of Pope Francis. By more persuasively associating conscience with dignity and freedom, the document would more clearly extend the rights of conscience to everyone within and outside the church. Also, by associating conscience with a more historical notion of dignity, conscience would be more clearly situated in a world of conflicting claims, difficult balancing acts and hard trade-offs.
By turning to human dignity, we can also conceive more broadly of the mission of the church toward which conscience is oriented. Here I note the observation by John Courtney Murray, S.,J., that the word dignity has a personal and political reference. On the one hand, it refers to the ground of the right to religious freedom and thus to the moral basis for limits on the power of the state. On the other hand, dignity is associated with “popular constitutionalism: that is, that the people, not the state, are the main agents of the ethical direction of society, including the definition of the proper constitutionally limited role of government.” On the basis of such assumptions, Father Murray argued for understanding the mission of the church in terms of the “conjoining of the church’s freedom to exercise its rightful concern for the common good with the people’s…freedoms [with such freedoms, Murray argued, understood especially as the “interrelated and interdependent individual democratic rights”].” He added: “The two freedoms are inseparable, in fact, they are identical. They stand or fall together.”
Faithful Citizenship should pair its appropriate reluctance to tell the Catholic laity how to vote with an outspoken, prophetic advocacy for the right to vote.
The next iteration of Faithful Citizenship should also connect the theology of conscience to mission understood in terms of the sensus fidelium. Pope Francis has recovered an emphasis on this ancient doctrine, understood as the “supernatural sense of faith of the entire people of God.” And he has made this emphasis theoretical and pastoral, discussing the doctrine in various texts and vivifying it through the open dialogue of deliberative synods. At the least, the recovery of the sensus fidelium calls into question the reliance on the more hierarchical, teaching-and-learning model of the church favored to date in Faithful Citizenship.
In his recent writing on conscience, the moral theologian James Keenan, S.J., has called for a deeper integration of the theology of conscience with the collective notion of the sensus fidelium. Moreover, he has argued, the prevailing post-World War II American view of conscience has centered almost entirely on individual freedom of conscience from imperious law or command. To be sure, the prophetic image of the uncompromising witness of conscience to the moral law in the face of coercive power has its time and place. But, Father Keenan argues, this lonely, heroic image of the American conscience has also often become a caricature, a reflexive rejectionism that represents the “arrested development of the American conscience.” We can see this rejectionism in such vices as a radical individualism that negates an appropriate sense of individuality, a blindered rejection of solidarity with the poor and with the natural world, and a rashness that reaches for the nearest gun instead of a courage that faces the racist American past erupting unredeemed into the present.
How might Faithful Citizenship integrate conscience and sensus fidelium in a way that responds to the “arrested development of the American conscience”? I would like to suggest the re-imagination of conscience and sensus fidelium in terms of the multifaceted imagery of being baptized into mission as priests, prophets and rulers. In a recent article, the theologian Father Anthony Ekpo argued for the recovery of the sensus fidelium precisely with regard to sharing in the three-fold office of Christ. By turning to the imagery of the three-fold office, he said, we can see conscience disposed to participate more fully in the grace of Christ’s prophetic, priestly and ruling mission.
With regard to the prophetic office, the document should draw on the insight of the whole people of God and especially the poor. Moreover, the document should pair its appropriate reluctance to tell the Catholic laity how to vote with an outspoken, prophetic advocacy for the right to vote (among many other matters of political practice about which to be prophetic). There is no justification whatsoever for the voter suppression tactics now being practiced throughout the United States. By taking such a stand, the document would signal that conscience is not only implicated in intra-ecclesial matters but also in the arbitrary denial by law of voting as an expression of the dignity of conscience on the part of each voter and as a right that is an inalienable freedom of the people.
In terms of priestly mission, I think especially of the mediating, sacrificial work needed in response to the greatest sign of our stunted American conscience: the way we have been misshapen by our history of slavery, lynching, police shootings, birtherism and more. Such a mission could involve in particular, as Father Keenan suggests, fostering an indispensable virtue of conscience: the humility of kneeling before the truth of this past and present. Thus it would be a humility ever ready to say with the Psalmist amid the apparent certitude of our conscience: “Cleanse me of my unknown faults.”
A new, dangerous moment is upon us. And we need a theology of conscience ready to respond to the authoritarian wolves baying at the gates of the state.
Finally, what of the ruling nature of conscience on mission to the freedom of the people? Here thinking of conscience in the sense of “rule” suggests that the next iteration of Faithful Citizenship should address what John Courtney Murray called the “constitutional consensus” by which we rule ourselves and become a people. In a recent speech, Bishop Robert McElroy described the consensus as “the glue which held America together, through common moral and spiritual values rather than ties of blood or nationalism.” But, Bishop McElroy added, the consensus has been shattered and “our national soul has truly been hollowed out.” What to do to restore this? Bishop McElroy argues that the renewal of the consensus should be founded on solidarity, understood as the recognition in light of grace that we are all debtors to the society of which we are a part. Accordingly, we should foster the formation of conscience in terms of the beliefs, norms, practices and institutions by which our democratic society of self-rule is able to exist at all. Here I think of civil dialogue and shared truth, the rejection of tribalism, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, the significance of scientific research and more.
In his book Catholicism and Citizenship, the theologian Dr. Massimo Faggioli argues that Francis’ papacy and the postmodern world offer the church an opportunity to re-imagine its relationship with politics and the state. In recent decades, conscience in Faithful Citizenship has been cast in an antimodern mode: focused on sex and fearing secularization with a wariness of state power rooted in the church’s bygone battles with the Soviet empire. But a new, dangerous moment is upon us. And we need a theology of conscience ready to respond to the authoritarian wolves baying at the gates of the state.