Thursday, November 1, 2007

US Bishops on Politics

The USCCB is once again re-writing their statement on political life. In a media release, they gave contact information where you can ask for a draft of the document. I did so, and got a draft of the new document they are working on. Let me say that I am very pleased by it (note: the Bishops generally don't ask my advice or whether I am pleased - that is a joke).

Here is a sampling - warning, this will be long. Remember, that this is a draft. A well-done draft.
The Introduction
(with my emphasis added in italics - with my commentary in brackets[] )
As a nation, we share many blessings and strengths, including a tradition of religious freedom and political participation. However, as a people, we face serious challenges that are clearly political and also profoundly moral. [Because of the moral implications - the Bishops have the right to comment on these policies.]

We are a nation founded on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but the right to life itself is not fully protected, including for unborn children, the most vulnerable members of the American family. [here we have the beginning of an added emphasis on abortion, which is great] We are called to be peacemakers in a nation at war. We are a country pledged to pursue “liberty and justice for all,” but we are too often divided across lines of race, ethnicity, and economic inequality. We are a nation of immigrants, struggling to address the challenges of many new immigrants in our midst. We are a society built on the strength of our families, called to defend marriage and offer moral and economic supports for family life. We are a powerful nation in a violent world, confronting terror and trying to build a safer, more just, more peaceful world. We are an affluent society where too many live in poverty and lack health care and other necessities of life. We are part of a global community facing urgent threats to the environment that must sustain us. These challenges are at the heart of public life and at the center of the pursuit of the common good. [Why mix policy matters that are not of the same kind? Later they are even separated out into different categories. Why not here as well?]

For many years, we bishops of the United States have sought to share Catholic teaching on political life. We have done so in a series of statements issued every four years focused on “political responsibility” or “faithful citizenship.” In this document we continue that practice, maintaining continuity with what we have said in the past in light of new challenges facing our nation and world. This is not new teaching but affirms what our Conference and Church teaches. As Catholics, we are part of a community with a rich heritage that helps us consider the challenges in public life and contribute to greater justice and peace for all people. This statement highlights the role of the Church in the formation of conscience, and the corresponding moral responsibility of each Catholic to hear, receive, and act upon the Church’s teaching in the lifelong task of forming his or her own conscience. [AMEN! While we are obligated to follow our consciences, we are also obligated to properly form them in light of the Church's clear teachings] With this foundation, Catholics are better able to evaluate policy positions, party platforms, and candidates’ promises and actions in light of the Gospel and the moral and social teaching of the Church in order to help build a better world.

We seek to do this by addressing four questions: (1) Why does the Church teach about issues affecting public policy? (2) Who in the Church should participate in political life? (3) How does the Church help the Catholic faithful to speak about political and social questions? (4) What does the Church say about Catholic social teaching in the public square?

In this statement, 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. We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election. [This is achieved, for the most part, in my opinion]

During election years, there may be many handouts and voter guides that are produced and distributed. We encourage Catholics to seek those resources that are authorized by their own bishops, their state Catholic conferences, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This statement is intended to reflect and complement, not substitute for, the ongoing teaching of bishops in our own dioceses and states. In light of these reflections and those of local bishops, we encourage Catholics throughout the United States to be active in the political process, particularly in these challenging times.

[Nice introduction, my only change would be a clearer separation of issues that are more foundational from those that are not.]

Why Does the Church Teach About Issues Affecting Public Policy?
[This is a nice section on the history of the church's teaching for it's members and it's right to do so in a free republic such as the USA. This section ends with:]

The Catholic community brings important assets to the political dialogue about our nation’s future. We bring a consistent moral framework—drawn from basic human reason that is illuminated by Scripture and the teaching of the Church—for assessing issues, political platforms, and campaigns. We also bring broad experience in serving those in need—educating the young, caring for the sick, sheltering the homeless, helping women who face difficult pregnancies, feeding the hungry, welcoming immigrants and refugees, reaching out in global solidarity, and pursuing peace.

[True. Yet, the principles the Church teaches in these areas and the rights proclaimed in them cannot reduced to one political philosophy or set of values. In other words, no political party can claim to have the "right" policy in implementing the principles proclaimed by the Church. So, we should guard against proclaiming a political savior.]

Who in the Church Should Participate in Political Life?
[The next section speaks of the obligation to participate in politics. It also has a great section starting here:]

Unfortunately, politics in our country is too often a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype. The Church calls for a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable. The Catholic call to faithful citizenship affirms the importance of political participation and insists that public service is a worthy vocation. As Catholics, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths. [Wonderful wording. This is a call to be faithful in politics. Don't check your beliefs at the door if they really matter.] We are called to bring together our principles and our political choices, our values and our votes, to help build a better world. [AMEN!]

[Then to finish this section it talks about the Church's proper role. Not to replace the state, but rather as a religious and moral guide.]

How Does the Church Help the Catholic Faithful to Speak About Political and Social Questions?
[Now comes the meat of the document.]

A Well-Formed Conscience

The Church equips her members to address political and social questions by helping them to develop a well-formed conscience. Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church. 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. [I am very glad that they were unambiguous about this] 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 judgments about moral questions based on the values of our faith.

The Virtue of Prudence
[The best part of this section follows:]

The Church’s teaching is clear that a good end does not justify an immoral means. As we all seek to advance the common good—by defending the inviolable sanctity of human life from the moment of conception until natural death, by feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, by welcoming the immigrant and protecting the environment—it is important to recognize that not all possible courses of action are morally acceptable. We have a responsibility to discern carefully which public policies are morally sound. Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems, but we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means, so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity are defended. [Again, this is another nice section. We do have moral obligations and some policies are clearly wrong - the most obvious example is supporting abortion. But, also fetal stem cell research, euthanasia and other policies have to be avoided at all times, among others.]

Doing Good and Avoiding Evil
[Here is the best section of the document. I will put it up in full:]

Aided by the virtue of prudence in the exercise of well-formed consciences, Catholics are called to make practical judgments regarding good and evil choices in the political arena.

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. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned. A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion. [YEAH! They are clear and unambiguous - not every action is morally equivalent. We cannot lump all political policies into one bunch] In our nation, “abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 5). It is a mistake with grave moral consequences to treat the destruction of innocent human life merely as a matter of individual choice. A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed. [AMEN!]

Similarly, direct threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life, such as human cloning and destructive research on human embryos, are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as racism, torture, genocide, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified. [Again - Amen!]

Opposition to intrinsically evil acts that undercut the dignity of the human person should also open our eyes to the good we must do, that is, to our positive duty to contribute to the common good and to act in solidarity with those in need. As Pope John Paul II said, “the fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandment” (Veritatis Splendor, no. 52). Both opposing evil and doing good are essential.

The right to life implies and is linked to other human rights to the basic goods that every human person needs to live and thrive. All the life issues are connected, for erosion of respect for the life of any individual or group in society necessarily diminishes respect for all life. The moral imperative to respond to the needs of our neighbors—basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education, and meaningful work—is universally binding on our consciences. [Yes, but how we address these issues isn't as clear cut, because there are different ways to address them]. As Blessed Pope John XXIII taught, “[each of us] has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and, finally, the necessary social services” (Pacem in Terris, no. 11).

Two temptations in public life can distort the Church’s defense of human life and dignity:

The first is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. [again, it is clearly said that we must make proper distinctions]

The second is the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. Abortion, racism, 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—these are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate and decision, this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore Church teaching on these important issues. [another great point. Just because there are distinctions, we cannot then ignore the Church's teachings on other issues. Such as the clear teaching about applying the death penalty and that torture is always wrong.]

The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made a similar point:

It must be noted also that 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. (Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, no. 4)

Making Difficult Moral Choices
[No making nice in this paragraph:]

Decisions about political life are complex and require the exercise of a well-formed conscience aided by prudence. This exercise of conscience begins with opposing outright laws that violate human life or weaken its protection. Those who knowingly, willingly, and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil.

[It then talks of incremental laws as being a part of, but not the whole solution to such evil laws.

Next, the Bishops speak of their moral and religious authority. Nicely said:]

Prudential judgment is also needed in applying moral principles to specific policy choices in areas such as housing, health care, immigration, and others. This does not mean that all choices are equally valid, or that our guidance and that of other Church leaders is just another political opinion or policy preference among many others. Rather, we urge Catholics to listen carefully to the Church’s teachers when we apply Catholic social teaching to specific proposals and situations. The judgments and recommendations that we make as bishops on specific issues do not carry the same moral authority as statements of universal moral teachings. Nevertheless, the Church’s guidance on these matters is an essential resource for Catholics as they determine whether their own moral judgments are consistent with the Gospel and with Catholic teaching.

[Next, some more meat on how to vote as a Catholic and what should guide us:]

Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. If a Catholic were to vote for a candidate who supports a policy involving intrinsic evil, such as abortion, precisely because of that position, the Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil. [next comes a nice moral distinction] In some cases, if a Catholic who fully accepts fundamental principles such as the right to life were to vote for a candidate despite the candidate’s opposing position but because of other proportionate reasons, this vote would be considered “remote material cooperation” and can be permitted only if there are indeed proportionate reasons. [Note: not for any reason. For instance, one can vote for a candidate who is pro-abortion, when there are only two candidates and both are pro-abortion, but one cannot vote for either because they are pro-abortion] When they make these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that issues involving intrinsically evil acts have a particular claim on our consciences and our actions. [Again the proper distinctions is necessary - and forming our consciences is primary] These decisions should take into account specific social, economic, and political contexts and the candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue. In the end this is a decision to be made by each individual Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.

What Does the Church Say about Catholic Social Teaching in the Public Square?—Seven Key Themes

A consistent ethic of life should be the moral framework for principled Catholic engagement in political life. Rightly understood, this Catholic ethic of life neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues. [carefully worded] It anchors the Catholic commitment to defend human life, from conception until natural death, in the fundamental moral obligation to respect the dignity of every person as a child of God. It unites us as a “people of life and for life” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 6) pledged to build what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of life” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 77). This culture of life begins with the preeminent obligation to protect innocent life from direct attack and extends to defending life whenever it is threatened or diminished.

The Right to Life and the Dignity of the Human Person
[Notice a two-tiered approach used in this section:]

Human life is sacred. The dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. Direct attacks on innocent persons are never morally acceptable, at any stage or in any condition.[never means never] In our society, human life is especially under direct attack from abortion. Other direct threats to the sanctity of human life include euthanasia, human cloning, and the destruction of human embryos for research.

Catholic teaching about the dignity of life calls us to end the use of the death penalty, to oppose unjust war and torture, to prevent genocide and attacks against noncombatants, to oppose racism, and to overcome poverty and suffering. Nations are called to protect the right to life by seeking effective ways to combat evil and terror without resorting to armed conflicts except as a last resort, always seeking first to resolve disputes by peaceful means. We revere the lives of children in the womb, the lives of persons dying in war and from starvation, and indeed the lives of all human beings as children of God.

Call to Family, Community, and Participation

How we organize our society—in economics and politics, in law and policy—directly affects the common good and the capacity of individuals to develop their full potential. Every person and association has a right and a duty to participate actively in shaping society and to promote the well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.

The principle of subsidiarity reminds us that larger institutions in society should not overwhelm or interfere with smaller or local institutions, yet larger institutions have essential responsibilities when the more local institutions cannot adequately protect human dignity, meet human needs, and advance the common good. [subsidiarity is not talked about or explained well enough. It is an important and under-used principle]

Rights and Responsibilities
[nice section:]

Human dignity is respected and the common good is fostered only if human rights are protected and basic responsibilities are met. Every human being has a right to life, the fundamental right that makes all other rights possible, and a right to access to those things required for human decency—food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing, freedom of religion and family life. The right to exercise religious freedom publicly and privately by individuals and institutions along with freedom of conscience need to be constantly defended. In a fundamental way, the right to free expression of religious beliefs protects all other rights. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities—to one another, to our families, and to the larger society.

Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst.

[Challenging and a good reminder. We DO have a preferential option for the poor.]

Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers

The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.

[An un-moderated market helps nobody.]


We are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be. Loving our neighbor has global dimensions and requires us to eradicate racism and address the extreme poverty and disease plaguing so much of the world. Solidarity also includes the Scriptural call to welcome the stranger among us—including immigrants seeking work, a safe home, education for their children, and a decent life for their families. In light of the Gospel’s invitation to be peacemakers, our commitment to solidarity with our neighbors—at home and abroad—also demands that we promote peace and pursue justice in a world marred by terrible violence and conflict. Decisions on the use of force should be guided by traditional moral criteria and undertaken only as a last resort.

Caring for God’s Creation

We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of God’s creation. Care for the Earth is a duty of our faith and a sign of our concern for all people. We have a moral obligation to protect the planet on which we live—to respect God’s creation and to ensure a safe and hospitable environment for human beings, especially children at their most vulnerable stages of development. As stewards called by God to share the responsibility for the future of the Earth, we should work for a world in which people respect and protect all of creation and seek to live simply in harmony with it for the sake of future generations.

[This is a nicely worded way of saying the Church isn't political.]

These themes from Catholic social teaching provide a moral framework that does not easily fit the ideologies of “right” or “left,” or the platform of any party. They are not partisan or sectarian, but reflect fundamental ethical principles that are common to all people.

[Section II commentary coming soon.]

1 comment:

Fr. Andrew said...

In your section on Who in the Church should participate in political life, we find:

"When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths. [Wonderful wording. This is a call to be faithful in politics. Don't check your beliefs at the door if they really matter.]"

I can't help but be reminded of Cardinal Bertone (Papal Secretary of relations with States). When he was at the International KC conference in Nashville, he said in a press conference:

I don’t understand how a person in public office or one engaged in political activity can be obliged to renounce his Catholic identity because the party, be it in the U.S. or in other countries, imposes an ethical choice on the basis of the party’s program. This, according to me, does not respect freedom of conscience. It even seems to me to be an oppression of conscience. Where is the freedom of conscience that is so proclaimed and defended in America?

A beautiful response to claims of freedom of conscience.