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In the aftermath of both the 2020 presidential election and on the occasion of the June 2021 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, we hope the U.S.C.C.B. takes time to consider now, looking ahead to 2024, a more morally nuanced revision of their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (“Faithful Citizenship”). The singling out of abortion as the “pre-eminent” moral election issue for Catholic voters and how this was understood and promoted in a partisan way by an alarming number of bishops and priests is quite simply out of line with contemporary Catholic social ethics.

“Faithful Citizenship,” we suggest, is seriously in need of revision along the lines of contemporary Catholic moral principles and of the political reality of what it means to be a faithful Catholic citizen in a pluralistic nation. Its focus should be, in the words of Pope Francis, to truly “form consciences, not to replace them” (“Amoris Laetitia,” No. 37). Any revision should include elimination of the language of pre-eminence.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Pope Francis’ ethical program is precisely the restoration of traditional Catholic teaching on the authority and inviolability of a well-formed conscience. Already in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Church’s foundational theologian, taught that “anyone upon whom the ecclesiastical authorities, in ignorance of the true facts, imposes a demand that offends against his clear conscience, should perish in excommunication rather than violate his conscience.”

Seven hundred years later, the Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on Religious Freedom” went further and asserted the inviolability of a well-formed conscience. “In all his activity,” it taught, “a man [or woman] is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God for whom he was created. It follows that he is not to be forced to act contrary to his conscience” (No. 2). To repeat, the church is “called to form consciences, not to replace them,” and in “Faithful Citizenship” the U.S.C.C.B. asserts that it has “the primary responsibility to hand on the Church’s moral and social teaching” (No. 15) with the goal of equipping “its members to address political and social questions by helping them to develop a well-formed conscience” (No. 17).

There is tension, not to say contradiction, between the claim of forming consciences and the claim that abortion is the pre-eminent ethical issue.

The Problem With the Language of ‘Pre-eminence’

There is tension, however, not to say contradiction, between the claim of forming consciences and the claim that abortion is the pre-eminent ethical issue. Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego claims, and we agree, that the language of pre-eminence is a political, not a doctrinal, assertion. Some bishops, however, interpreted and sought to apply it as doctrinal, thus interfering with well-formed consciences on how to exercise faithful citizenship in a pluralistic country.

A well-formed Catholic conscience in 21st-century America requires not only reading U.S.C.C.B. documents but also understanding Catholic social teaching and what it demands for human dignity, the common good and the solidarity of all peoples, especially of the country’s and the world’s poor. The language of pre-eminence and its application also contradict several principles in “Faithful Citizenship.” When they discussed “Faithful Citizenship” at their November 2019 meeting, the bishops hotly debated whether or not to add to an introductory letter explaining “Faithful Citizenship” a paragraph from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate.” There Francis teaches that Catholics are to mount a “firm and passionate” defense of the “innocent unborn,” but “equally sacred [as the innocent unborn]…are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection” (No. 101). The U.S. bishops voted 143 to 69 (67.5 percent to 32.5 percent) not to include this teaching in their letter, and they neglected to publicly acknowledge their disagreement on the language of the pre-eminence of abortion.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger articulated a foundational Catholic moral principle that distinguishes between formal/sinful cooperation and material/not-sinful cooperation in evil.

Guiding Catholic Voters

Though “Faithful Citizenship” teaches that Catholics should not be “single-issue voters” (No. 42) and promotes the consideration and evaluation of a candidate in terms of his or her character and integrity (No. 37), the language of pre-eminence risks trumping these principles. During his tenure as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, articulated a foundational Catholic moral principle to guide Catholic voters, a principle that “Faithful Citizenship” even includes. This principle distinguishes between formal/sinful cooperation and material/not-sinful cooperation in evil.

“When a Catholic,” Cardinal Ratzinger asserted, “does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered material [non-sinful] cooperation, which can be permitted for proportionate reasons.” This means that Catholics who oppose abortion may conscientiously vote in a pluralist society for a pro-choice candidate, like Mr. Biden, if they have proportionate, serious and well-thought-out reasons for doing so. In addition, if a politician such as Mr. Biden may legitimately and morally hold personal anti-abortion views but pro-choice policy views, and he may do so for proportionate reasons (e.g., a study in the Lancet indicates that the anti-abortion Mexico City Policy actually increases abortions), then any discussion of banning that politician from communion is in complete disregard of the church’s common teaching.

Proportionate and serious reasons could include a candidate’s stance on the moral issues listed above by Pope Francis, to which we could add today the pressing issues of climate change, racism and state-sponsored political repression. The language of the pre-eminence of the moral issue of abortion creates a serious tension with Cardinal Ratzinger’s genuinely Catholic principle and subverts any effort to create well-formed consciences.

Catholics who oppose abortion may conscientiously vote in a pluralist society for a pro-choice candidate if they have proportionate, serious and well-thought-out reasons for doing so.

Possible Revisions

We offer now several suggestions to the bishops in their effort to revise “Faithful Citizenship” for 2024. First and foremost, they should remove the language of pre-eminence. That language has no doctrinal standing and, if applied to the single issue of abortion, serves only to drive a wedge further between already polarized Catholics and to give a permanent advantage to the Republican Party. If it is extended to embrace a number of issues, like abortion, climate change and poverty, it would not provide sufficient guidance to Catholic citizens, because no political candidate or party fully addresses all those issues in accordance with Catholic teaching. It would be better to eliminate pre-eminence altogether and highlight moral principles that Catholics can use to inform their consciences and responsibly discern their votes.

Second, rather than focusing on the prohibition of individual acts like abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage, the bishops should offer clear examples of moral principles like human dignity, the common good and solidarity that would genuinely help Catholics to discern their votes conscientiously. There is a tendency in U.S.C.C.B. documents to reduce discussions of institutional policy to declarations about individual acts, like abortion, racism and discrimination. Absolute norms prescribing or prohibiting individual moral acts are, however, distinct from the ethical principles that guide institutional policy. “Faithful Citizenship” is specifically addressing issues of institutional policy in a pluralist society and how individuals are to function in that complex context; it is not meant to address specific moral acts. Besides, much of contemporary Catholic moral theology is moving away from a focus on individual acts to focus on relations and their moral implications.

“Faithful Citizenship” should emphasize Catholic teaching on the authority and inviolability of a well-formed conscience.

Third, and intimately related to the preceding suggestion, a revised “Faithful Citizenship” should clearly indicate that there is and will continue to be disagreement among the nation’s bishops on how to interpret and apply the principles it presents. For the first time ever in a magisterial document, Pope Francis in “Amoris Laetitia” cited Thomas Aquinas on the relationship between general principles and particular actions: “Although there is necessity in the general princi­ples, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects…. In mat­ters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles…. The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail” (No. 304).

The devil is always in the details. Aquinas applied this axiom to individual moral acts. How much more does it apply to individual citizens acting within a pluralist and complex society in which there are competing visions of human dignity and the common good? The U.S. bishops could exercise genuine moral leadership by incorporating Aquinas’s principle into its reflections on civic responsibility.

Fourth, “Faithful Citizenship” should emphasize Catholic teaching on the authority and inviolability of a well-formed conscience. Language that raises concerns that President Biden’s anti-abortion but pro-choice stance will cause confusion among the faithful on what the Catholic Church teaches on abortion itself causes confusion and is condescending. We do not know of a single Catholic voter who does not know what the church teaches on abortion and sexual ethical issues; we do know many Catholics who disagree with those teachings based on well-formed consciences. Stock phrases like “will cause confusion” and “leading the faithful astray” are anachronistic and antithetical to respect for the authority and inviolability of conscience. We hope the U.S.C.C.B. will use the time it has before the 2024 election to form consciences, rather than to replace them, and thus genuinely facilitate faithful and responsible citizenship.

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