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Participation in the political process, our bishops remind us, “is a moral obligation.” Since 1975, the U.S. bishops, through their conference, have issued a reflection on the political process in advance of each presidential election. The latest document, “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility,” was issued in September 2003.
Catholics come from many different social, ethnic and ideological backgrounds and can hold different opinions as to which candidate best reflects their values at the time they cast their votes. It is not the intent of the bishops, according to the document, to “instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates.”
However, that statement does not mean that the consciences of Catholics should be neutral with respect to political ideologies. On the contrary, it calls for Catholics to “examine the position of candidates on the full range of issues, as well as on their personal integrity, philosophy and performance” and “to act on our faith in political life.”
In this election year, some are trying to use religion to their own political advantage, for example asking Church leaders to condemn or praise certain candidates, or candidates themselves touting their religious identity.
Catholics should see through all those distortions of the political process and focus on what each candidate has to offer — both in terms of the social teachings of the Church and of the moral values that should be promoted in our society.
The fact that candidates may be members of a particular religious denomination or church should not influence the decision of Catholic voters; what the candidates’ visions are of America, human life, family, social justice and solidarity should.
A hot topic these days is Catholic politicians who consistently vote opposing the moral teachings of the Church on issues such as abortion or marriage. Pressure is building on Church leaders to condemn them. The fact is, the bishops have already said, most recently in the above document, that “Catholics in politics must reflect the moral values of our faith with clear and consistent priority for the life and dignity of the human person. This is the fundamental moral measure of their service.”
What to do with those Catholic politicians who obstinately disregard their faith in their public life is an issue of a legitimate debate among the bishops. A few have decided to act on their authority as ordinaries and enacted penalties in their own dioceses. Others have sent strong warnings to those politicians asking them to refrain from seeking Holy Communion.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is looking into the matter. At the request of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick — in whose diocese many of those politicians reside several months out of the year — last November the conference created a task force on the issue. They plan to issue a set of guidelines on how bishops are to handle politicians whose actions in public life are not in accord with Church teaching.
As November approaches, Catholics should carefully consider all the attributes of the candidates. As the bishops’ document states, “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good. Decisions about candidates and choices about public policies require clear commitment to moral principles, careful discernment and prudential judgments based on the values of our faith.”
What to do in November? It’s up to you ... and your “well-formed Christian conscience.”