Faithful Citizenship update

by Michael Sean Winters

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has decided to “re-propose” its document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” to American Catholics in advance of next year’s national elections, making no changes to the document itself, which passed overwhelmingly in 2007, adding only an “Introductory Note” to the text.

The decision not to change the core document was made by the Administrative Committee of the USCCB after consultation with the plenary meeting in June. It does not require confirmation by the plenary session of the USCCB next month, although bishops could ask for it to be placed on the agenda. The “Introductory Note” was signed by Archbishop Timothy Dolan, President of the USCCB, and all nine chairmen of relevant USCCB Committees, including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles.

In recent months, some conservative activists have called on the USCCB to change “Faithful Citizenship.” (More on that below.) But, the bishops rightly concluded that “Faithful Citizenship” is a teaching document and the Church’s teachings do not change. Nonetheless, it is stunning that three years into the presidency of Barack Obama, and despite some of the forebodings many bishops entertained at what the Obama presidency would entail, the bishops did not perceive a need to fundamentally re-appraise their stance. Indeed, this decision is of a piece with their decision not to support efforts to repeal Obama’s signature health care reform law, They may be ambivalent about that law, but they have been clear that they would like to see it fixed not repealed. The bishops are not climbing on board the Tea Party bandwagon anytime soon.

The most obvious feature of “Faithful Citizenship” is the great respect it shows for the intelligence and the autonomy of lay Catholics. The bishops note that they are not telling anyone how to vote: Their job as teachers is to help lay Catholics form their conscience. Conscience is not a pail into which you throw this or that teaching. Conscience is the voice of God speaking within the heart and mind of the believer. The Church’s bishops must help lay Catholics to hear that voice, but they cannot dictate this or that policy position in such a way as to eliminate the need for the individual believer to listen to their own conscience and reach their own conclusions. “All consciences are not the same,” as Judge John Noonan said in his glorious Laetare Address at Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement.

The bishops’ “Introductory note” contains this important passage: “[Faithful Citizenship] does not offer a voters guide, scorecard of issues, or direction on how to vote. It applies Catholic moral principles to a range of important issues and warns against misguided appeals to ‘conscience’ to ignore fundamental moral claims, to reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters, or to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological, or personal interests.” This is masterfully done. On the one hand, they affirm that the rights of conscience do not mean that any Catholic is free to believe whatever they want and invoke religious sanction for their stance. On the other hand, and I suspect this phrase will especially rankle those on the right, the bishops decry any effort to “reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters.”

The bishops highlight six “current and fundamental problems” in the American political landscape: abortion, infringements on religious liberty, the defense of traditional marriage, the economic crisis that has afflicted the poor and the vulnerable most especially, the need for comprehensive immigration reform, and war and military issues. Three from the right and three from the left and, more importantly, all six are drawn from the self-same Catholic commitment to human dignity.

Back in July, Deal Hudson and Matt Brown of Catholic Advocate wrote:

We’re told that no substantial edits are being made to the 2008 version of the document, so that we can expect the 2012 version to be roughly the same as its predecessor. If so, this is a problem and needs to be remedied. The 2008 version of “Faithful Citizenship” contains several passages (Sections 34-37) that are capable of overly broad interpretation. Groups like Catholics United and Catholic Democrats cherry-picked the following passage from Section 35 for prominent display on their web sites and in their printed materials. “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.” [emphasis added].

Of course, Hudson and Bowman want Catholics to think that you can only vote for pro-life candidates. Hudson and Bowman are sincere in their pro-life commitment. I do not know Bowman but I consider Hudson a friend and can, without fear of contradiction, assert that he is also a sincere Republican. But, he misunderstands the moral considerations with which a voter enters the voting booth. An election is never a referendum on abortion. A voter must consider the likelihood of a pro-life candidate being able to actually achieve anything for the pro-life cause. Seeing as the GOP has controlled the White House for 24 of the 38 years since Roe v. Wade, a voter might reasonably conclude that another four years will not achieve much. Indeed, the pro-life movement is still waiting for a sitting GOP president to bestir himself to walk the few hundred yards from his office to the annual Right-to-Life March, instead of calling in by phone, a practice that conflates the metaphor of “lip service” with the reality of GOP political use of the pro-life cause.

The bishops’ document and the new Introductory Note do not suggest that Catholics can, in good conscience, fail to consider a politician’s stance on abortion. But, no Catholic voter can also fail to consider a candidate’s position on immigration. And, the bishops, or at any rate most bishops, thankfully, do not engage in the shell game that Hudson et al., favor. They often say, “What other grave moral concern outweighs abortion?” The obvious answer is that there is none. But, in the voting booth, we are not comparing abortion with immigration, we are not weighing the moral weight of one issue against another. We are choosing candidates who may or may not have a reasonable position, and a reasonable path to affecting political change, on any given issue. Prudential judgment is required to assess the likelihood of a given candidate’s ability to enact his position. And, a politician must exercise prudential judgment in deciding what approach is most likely to achieve a desired moral outcome.

There is one other truly, and perpetually, stunning fact about Catholic involvement in political life, one that is too infrequently mentioned. When a Presbyterian or a Methodist runs for office, no ink is spilt analyzing how that candidate’s faith will affect his politics. But, when a Catholic runs for office, all hell breaks loose. This is a testimony to the vibrancy of the Catholic Church. Even the mainstream media, which so often ignores or misunderstands the Church, grasp the fact that Catholicism makes a difference in the lives of its members.

In “Faithful Citizenship” and in their new Introductory Note, the bishops recognize that our Catholic faith must not only make a difference in the lives of candidates, but in the lives of voters too. There is no cut-and-dried formula for getting from the empty tomb of Jesus Christ to the decision which lever to pull in the voting booth. Conscience must play a part. The bishops have done a great service not only to the Church but to the Republic in suggesting that each and every voter must seriously form their conscience and consult that conscience when they vote. And they have correctly measured their own role in the formation of that conscience. The bishops’ job is not to tell people how to vote. It is to tell them how to form their conscience. Kudos to Archbishop Dolan and the other nine committee chairmen who signed the Introductory Note for recognizing the gravity as well as the complexity of citizenship in our day.

Also see: One Quibble with Faithful Citizenship.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters