'Faithful Citizenship,' what next?

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

After much effort and debate, the U.S. bishops approved a new introduction and an amended version of "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," the document issued every four years before a presidential election. The introduction and revision, which were the work of 10 committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, were presented to the bishops at their fall meeting in Baltimore.

The introduction was approved on Nov. 17 by a vote of 217-16, with two abstentions, while the document itself was approved 210-21, with five abstentions. A two-thirds vote was necessary for passage.

The overwhelming vote disguises the fact that many bishops were not happy with the documents, but they realized that there was no way that a new document could be produced in a timely way before the election. They felt the documents were better than nothing, and they did not want the conference embarrassed by having the documents fail to be approved.

As Tom Roberts reports, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego correctly argued that trying to update the 2007 version of Faithful Citizenship did not work because "we are not living in 2007." It "does not take into account the fact that Pope Francis … rapidly transformed the prioritization of Catholic social teaching and its elements -- not the truth of them, not the substance, but the prioritization of them. [He] has radically transformed that in articulating the claims that fall upon the citizens as believers and disciples of Jesus Christ."

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston responded that his committee did what the bishops asked them to do at their spring meeting, namely write a new introduction and make revisions to the 2007 document.

After the documents passed, I asked Cardinal DiNardo, based on his experience, what he would recommend the bishops do next time, for the 2019 version.

He noted that "everything has a lifecycle," including documents of the conference. He is very happy with the document that was approved this year, but "after this one we may say, 'OK, we have to try something different after 15 years.'"

The first such document on political responsibility was issued in 1976 by the administrative board of the bishops’ conference, which covered eight issues in 3,400 words: abortion, the economy, education, food policy, housing, human rights and U.S. foreign policy, mass media, and military expenditures.

The documents grew as time went on. By 1992 there were 17 issues and 8,700 words. Both the growing length and the desire to stress the role of conscience were reasons the bishops moved to the approach of "Faithful Citizenship."

Just as "Faithful Citizenship" was a reworking of an earlier approach, this approach may have reached its finale, said DiNardo.

"A number of us would say, 'that is a real good possibility,'" reports DiNardo. He said that he would be really receptive to considering the possibility of doing something new.

What that new approach would be is uncertain to DiNardo.

"My thought is," explained DiNardo, "if that is going to happen, some decision should be made about it next year, after the elections are over. You may need two and a half years to put something together."

He agreed with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn who explained, "If you do things from scratch, the bishops are not going to want a finished document, they are going to want drafts that they can comment on along the way." That will take a lot of time.

What should the USCCB do next time? I put that question to a number of theologians and got a variety of views.

"How about, a more inductive document that spotlights a wide range of ways Catholics across the country are living out their faith as citizens?" asked Christine Hinze of Fordham University. "It could still underscore principles of Catholic social teaching, but take an inductive, locally spotlighted approach."

It could embrace "a spectrum of illustrations, including people in public service, grassroots community organizing groups, maybe even parish groups, and individual leaders/contributors; and including a spectrum of ways of being faithfully Catholic," she said. This might "be attractive and helpful to people as they ponder and pray over their own civic and political participation as Catholics, including, but not limited to, voting."

"I like what Chris says," said David Decosse of Santa Clara University. "I don't think the problem is the document per se so much as the theology of conscience that has governed the document for the last years. John Paul’s and Benedict's theology of conscience -- which is the one reflected in the current document -- is not the same as Pope Francis', which favors the more inductive approach Chris refers to here."

Angela Senander of the University of St. Thomas agreed. "Prior to 2007, the U.S. bishops' 'Faithful Citizenship' documents seemed to reflect Gaudium et Spes more in terms of both method and teaching on conscience, and it would be good to return to that."

Tobias Winright of St. Louis University also agreed and suggested changing the title to "Faithful Disciples." Daniel Finn of the College of St. Benedict and St. Johns University suggested "Citizens yet Disciples," although he thought it "may be too edgy for the USCCB."

MT Davila of Andover Newton Theological School played the devil’s advocate and argued that "There is a significant element within U.S. Catholicism that wants the specificity of previous 'Faithful Citizenship' documents."

"We (the larger U.S. church) are addicted to the kind of black/white, moral/immoral explanations handed to us around election time," she said. "It is painfully confusing for these Catholics to be invited to consider alternatives within a range of values, rather than be told the specific moral judgment of different political platforms. They fear that such vision of conscience will lead the masses astray, and therefore be guilty of scandal."

David Cloutier of Mount St. Mary’s University believes that the fundamental format of "Faithful Citizenship" -- a list of principles plus issues -- has two problems.

"One, the practical result is interminable haggling over strategies of prioritization that are too easily seen as skewing in one or another partisan direction," he said. "Two, the format misses the more fundamental problem of the current political situation for Catholics, which is that both parties have moved in such a way over the past few decades that they are more difficult to square with the overall vision of Catholic social teaching."

"In 1980," he continued, "one could imagine a Catholic in either party whose approaches to a range of issues might fall reasonably within the overall parameters, whereas in 2015, it is quite difficult to do so. There has been a rigidification on a variety of issues that genuinely makes pro-life Democrats or pro-environment Republicans ruled out of each party’s mainstream. Candor about this by the bishops might at least embolden those in either party who want to combat this rigidification."

Cloutier would like to see the bishops "follow Francis’s lead in his address to Congress and say that these changes on both sides reflect a growing libertarianism and a partisanship that focuses on winning, both at the expense of working together for some shared notion of the common good." Such a statement, he thinks "would not be very useful for partisanship on either side, but it could actually be an intervention that would address the existing problems in 2015."

Eli McCarthy of Georgetown University focused his comments on the treatment of violence and peace in "Faithful Citizenship." "For instance, paragraph 23 says that dignity is violated when noncombatants are targeted," he pointed out. "Yet, both Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict have said that all violence destroys human dignity. So, why do the Bishops limit the violation of dignity only to the targeting of noncombatants?"

He would also like to see fleshed out the section on the promotion of peace with more specific peacemaking practices, such as nonviolence resistance. "And why," he asks, "are soldiers honored for their commitment and sacrifice but not peacemakers, who also risk their lives with many groups in combat zones."

Admittedly, these responses reflect only a small group of academics, but I hope that their comments might stimulate others to think creatively. David O’Brien of Holy Cross College hopes that academic institutions might hold discussions of public Catholicism and 40-year experience of episcopal conference documents on political responsibility. This could provide the bishops with some options for moving forward. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org.]


Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Thomas Reese's column, Faith and Justice, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

Latest News


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