Last week the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its quadrennial statement on political responsibility, Faithful Citizenship. These statements, published since 1976 one year in advance of the presidential elections (to avoid even the appearance of partisanship), have provided guidelines for conscientious voters and an overview of the public issues on which the bishops offer moral guidance. The statements also recognize that there is room for legitimate disagreement over specific applications of moral principles.
This year’s statement is a call to Catholics to commit themselves to a politics of the common good—a refreshing idea in a culture of interest group politics and partisan maneuvering. As they did in last year’s statement on poverty, the bishops capture the Catholic social vision with the biblical image of “the table,” an image of inclusion for those who are denied access to the banquet of life: the unborn, the poor at home and abroad, the victims of terrorism and war and those persecuted for their religious beliefs or conscientious convictions. Tellingly, the bishops acknowledge that the politics of the common good often makes Catholics “feel politically homeless, sensing that no political party and too few candidates share a consistent concern for human life and dignity.”
Neither political party adequately meets the public moral challenges of our day. Any position of prominence in the Democratic Party seems to require groveling before the pro-choice banner; and the New Democrats, while providing some needed reforms, have supplied little support for workers and for the poor at home and abroad. The Republican Party, while voting in Congress to eliminate partial birth abortion, united behind a pro-choice celebrity candidate in California in order to win the governorship. The embrace of the death penalty and enthusiasm for war-making on the part of many Republicans hardly qualifies their party as a champion of human life. Some would reject anything but the most minimalist role of government in seeking the common good.
How might Catholics overcome their unease with today’s political alignments? One way would be for more committed Catholics to enter politics to work for justice. Another would be for justice and peace and pro-life groups to become visible and vocal participants in candidates’ meetings, party hearings and legislators’ visits to their home districts. Still another would be to increase participation among Catholics in that problematic but vital element of political life, the funding of candidates. Finally, as ward politics gives way to infotainment, Catholics in the media, who are so prominent among our nation’s talking heads, should look for ways to promote the common good rather than to hype politics as bloodsport. Being champions of the Catholic vision in public life would be a much needed service to both church and state.
One option the bishops seem to reject is single-issue politics. A Catholic moral framework, they observe, “does not easily fit the ideologies of ‘right’ or ‘left,’ nor the platform of any party.” They cite the recent Vatican declaration on public life. “A political commitment to an isolated single aspect of the church’s social doctrine,” it says, “does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good.” “The central question” of this election season, the bishops write, should be “How can ‘we’, all of us, especially the weak and the vulnerable, be better off in the years ahead?”
Besides challenging Catholics to participate in the political process this election season, Faithful Citizenship offers a short list of the leading themes of Catholic social teaching, a review of issues on which the bishops believe Catholics ought to be engaged and a bibliography of relevant statements by the bishops’ conference. The text, available from the U.S.C.C.B. publications office in both full and brochure formats, should be made available in church vestibules and parish libraries, and parish religious educators should make it a topic for adult education. The statement also is available on the U.S.C.C.B. Web site. If citizens and candidates debated the bishops’ document, political discourse in our country would reach a much higher level.
Pastors and preachers must make their congregations aware of Faithful Citizenship. They are the first line in educating the Catholic public about church teaching. Parishioners want to know what their church is saying about public issues. Too often people are ignorant of what the bishops are saying simply because no one has called attention to the issues from the pulpit. Pastors should not fear that speaking about Catholics’ electoral responsibilities will provoke unneeded controversy. The reasoned Catholic approach to politics, with its consistent moral vision of the common good rooted in the Gospel, does not threaten anyone’s religious or political freedom. Instead, it aims to uphold justice and dignity for all.