Teaching Our Faith

Faithful citizenship: An overview

With endless debates and 24-hour news, we witness how the 2012 presidential election is heating up. Sometimes we experience too much heat and not enough light in the midst of these contentious campaigns.

The bishops of the United States offer guidance that lights the way to a more thoughtful approach to issues and candidates. Since the mid-1980s the bishops have issued a document — updated in 2011 — entitled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility.” The themes of this document, which include the timely issue of religious liberty, will form the basis of these five teaching editorials offered here during the month of March, and I appreciate this opportunity to provide an overview of Faithful Citizenship.

The responsibility of Catholic adults to participate and vote in a responsible and informed manner emerges as the first message of Faithful Citizenship, and voting is described as both a privilege and a responsibility: “In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue and participation in political life is a moral obligation” (n. 13).

A second major message emphasizes that the Church is called to clearly enunciate moral principles and to help form consciences but does not exercise her role by being partisan or political in endorsing candidates. In n. 7  the document states:

“… we bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth.”

Conscience formation is critical. Too often conscience is defined as only feelings or personal opinions as opposed to informed reflection on the teachings of Christ and the Church. In n. 17, Faithful Citizenship states it well: “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 what is evil. Conscience always requires serious attempts to make sound moral judgments based on the truths of our faith.”

In providing detail to the moral imperatives of an informed conscience, the bishops present a hierarchy of importance. The direct taking of innocent life through acts such as abortion, euthanasia or civilian destruction in war is never permitted. In n. 22, we state: “There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called ‘intrinsically evil’ actions….”

Later, the explanation of this hierarchy focuses on other important issues that “are not optional concerns which can be dismissed….Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act” (n. 29).

In Faithful Citizenship, we bishops emphasize two extremes to avoid in negotiating the sometimes difficult application of these hierarchies of importance: The first is to say that every issue has equal importance, and the second is to say that only one issue can be considered.

In subsequent sections, the document outlines what Catholic teaching has to say about issues in the public square and presents an excellent summary of the seven key themes of Catholic social teaching and of the policy positions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on issues of human life, family life, social justice and global solidarity. Finally, the document challenges both candidates and voters to properly focus on what “protects or threatens human life and dignity” (n. 89).

Obviously, there is no substitute for careful reading and study opportunities. You can read the text here.

Forming one’s conscience is a lifelong task. It can be frustrating for the Catholic adult who wants simple answers or who wishes to forget the moral principles of the Catholic faith when it comes to civic involvement. Those who commit to the genuine and open study of this document on Faithful Citizenship, however, will be rewarded with a deeper faith as they exercise their duties as faithful citizens.

Most Reverend Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D
Archbishop of Louisville

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