Our Moral Responsibility as Catholic Citizens, The Anchor, September 19, 2008

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
September 19, 2008

The bishops of the United States are taking a much more public role in forming the consciences of the faithful with regard to the social and personal moral stakes involved in the upcoming presidential elections. This is making some uneasy.

There are many, including some Catholics, who would prefer the bishops to remain mute on all political issues out of a mistaken notion of the separation of church and state or a false understanding of the obligations with respect to the Church’s non-profit status in the federal the tax code.

There are others, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who prefer the bishops to speak out with moral force only on certain issues they support. They recognize, correctly, that the Church plays an indispensable prophetic role not merely in describing the true principles for moral action but also in providing the deepest motivation for putting those principles into action. They object strenuously, however, to the Church’s calling to them to conversion on any issue with which they disagree with Church teaching.

Finally there are others who, while not objecting to the Church’s duty to proclaim the moral truth in any area, resist when the Church reminds them that God expects more of them than to give private notional assent to moral truths but to act on them in the public arena.

All three groups have been uncomfortable with the level of outspokenness among bishops over the past few months. The bishops have realized that many Catholics, including some leading Catholic politicians, are deeply confused not only about elemental questions of biology or of Church teaching on particular issues, but on what it means to be a morally faithful Catholic with respect to those issues. In fulfillment of their duty to teach, sanctify and shepherd, the bishops are now routinely speaking up to help correct ill-informed consciences and give all Catholics and people of good will the proper principles that need to be applied in the judgment of conscience.

On September 8, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas and Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, released a joint pastoral letter entitled “Our Moral Responsibility as Catholics” for those in their respective dioceses. Like good Midwestern farmers, they seek to plant the good seed of true moral principles in the soil of the consciences of their faithful, as well as to kill many of the weeds flowing from false principles. Their insights will also be relevant to Catholics in the Diocese of Fall River who seek to be well-informed and well-formed voters. We present their insights in question and answer format.

Why does not the Church endorse politicians or parties? Is it just because we don’t want to lose our non-profit tax status?  “For generations it has been the determination of Catholic Bishops not to endorse political candidates or parties. This approach was initiated by Archbishop John Carroll — the very first Catholic Bishop serving in the United States. It was long before there was an Internal Revenue Service Code, and had nothing to do with a desire to preserve tax-exempt status. Rather the Church in the United States realized early on that it must not tether the credibility of the Church to the uncertain future actions or statements of a particular politician or party.”

Should Catholics be single-issue voters? “Every Catholic should be concerned about a wide range of issues. … Catholics should care about public policies that promote a just and lasting peace in the world, protect our nation from terrorism and other security threats, welcome and uphold the rights of immigrants, enable health care to be accessible and affordable, manifest a special concern for the poor by attending to their immediate needs and assisting them to gain economic independence, protect the rights of parents to be the primary educators of their children, create business and employment opportunities making it possible for individuals to be able to provide for their own material needs and the needs of their families, reform the criminal justice system by providing better for the needs of the victims of crimes, protecting the innocent, administering justice fairly, striving to rehabilitate inmates, and eliminating the death penalty, and foster a proper stewardship of the earth that God has entrusted to our care. This is by no means an exhaustive list.”

They add, however, that there is no one “Catholic way” to respond to these particular issues. “How these issues are best addressed and what particular candidates are best equipped to address them requires prudential judgments. …In the end, Catholics in good conscience can disagree in their judgments about many aspects of the best policies and the most effective candidates.”

But are there some issues that are so important that all Catholics are called to prioritize them in their votes and actions? Yes. “There are some issues that always involve doing evil, such as legalized abortion, the promotion of same-sex unions and ‘marriages,’ repression of religious liberty, as well as public policies permitting euthanasia, racial discrimination or destructive human embryonic stem cell research. A properly formed conscience must give such issues priority even over other matters with important moral dimensions. To vote for a candidate who supports these intrinsic evils because he or she supports these evils is to participate in a grave moral evil. It can never be justified.”

What is the moral way to decide between candidates? “Even if we understand the moral dimensions of the full array of social issues and have correctly prioritized those involving intrinsic evils, we still must make prudential judgments in the selection of candidates. In an ideal situation, we may have a choice between two candidates who both oppose public policies that involve intrinsic evils. In such a case, we need to study their approach on all the other issues that involve the promotion of the dignity of the human person and prayerfully choose the best individual. In another circumstance, we may be confronted with a voting choice between two candidates who support abortion, though one may favor some limitations on it, or he or she may oppose public funding for abortion. In such cases, the appropriate judgment would be to select the candidate whose policies regarding this grave evil will do less harm. We have a responsibility to limit evil if it is not possible at the moment to eradicate it completely.”

Could a Catholic in good conscience vote for a candidate who supports legalized abortion when there is a choice of another candidate who does not support abortion or any other intrinsically evil policy? Could a voter’s preference for the candidate’s positions on the pursuit of peace, economic policies benefiting the poor, support for universal health care, a more just immigration policy, etc. overcome a candidate’s support for legalized abortion? No. “In such a case, the Catholic voter must ask and answer the question: What could possibly be a proportionate reason for the more than 45 million children killed by abortion in the past 35 years? Personally, we cannot conceive of such a proportionate reason.”

What does the Church need from Catholics today? “We need committed Catholics in both major political parties to insist upon respect for the values they share with so many other people of faith and good will regarding the protection of the sanctity of human life, the upholding of the institution of marriage between a man and a woman as the foundation of family life, as well as the protection of religious liberty and conscience rights. It is particularly disturbing to witness the spectacle of Catholics in public life vocally upset with the Church for teaching what it has always taught on these moral issues for 2,000 years, but silent in objecting to the embrace, by either political party, of the cultural trends of the past few decades that are totally inconsistent with our nation’s history of defending the weakest and most vulnerable.”

The bishops are doing their job. Now it’s time for Catholic faithful to do ours.