Faithful Citizenship

October 06, 2016

By Archbishop William E. Lori

The November election is right around the corner and, as happens every election season, I’ve heard from quite a few people asking that the church intervene in the political process and, in effect, tell Catholics for whom they must vote. These emails and letters co-exist with others which say that the church should stay out of politics.

There remain a lot of questions and confusion in the minds of many about the church’s role in the political and cultural life of our country.

Throughout our American tradition, religion and religious values exerted quite an influence on policy and even political rhetoric.

The IRS permits churches and religious groups to speak about issues but not to support candidates or parties. Nonetheless, the freedom of religion includes the freedom to bring one’s convictions as citizen and believer into the public square – including those that cut against the grain.

During his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI well described the role of the church in public life saying, “(The) political task is not the immediate competence of the Church. Respect for a healthy secularity – including a pluralism of opinions – is essential in the authentic Christian tradition. … The Church is the advocate of justice and of the poor precisely because she does not identify with politicians, nor with partisan interests. Only by remaining independent can she teach the great criteria and inalienable values, guide consciences, and offer a life choice that goes beyond the political sphere. To form consciences, to be the advocate of justice and truth, to educate in individual and political virtues: this is the fundamental vocation of the Church in this area.”

Helping Catholics here in the United States form their consciences prior to voting was the goal of the U.S. Bishops when they first drafted Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The document does not just present a smorgasbord of issues confronting voters but rather takes time to explain the natural law tradition, which is foundational to our democracy. Through the natural law, reason arrives at some fundamental human good that should be preserved and fostered for the common good. Chief among them is human dignity, human life, the institution of the family, and the equity of the social order.

Conscience is seen as the faculty of practical judgment that enables us to take in the principles of natural law and to make judgments about the morality of the decisions confronting us in the concrete circumstances of our day. The conscience, formed by prayer, study of church teaching, and fortified by prudence and courage, is able to analyze, amid a haze of practical circumstances, a given political choice in relationship to God’s law, to weigh alternatives, and then to choose the best course of action.

In making these choices, right reason recognizes that some things are so morally flawed that nothing can make them right nor is there ever a good reason for choosing them. They cannot be reconciled with love of God and neighbor and these things we call intrinsic evils. At the top of the list is the taking of innocent human life. The right to life is not granted by the state but by God in whose image the human person is created, as the Declaration of Independence recognizes. If the right to life is the most fundamental, the exercise of all other rights depends on that right. And once the rights of a class of persons are denied, the rights of all become threatened.

The common good is not identifiable with any party platform or ideology. Catholics should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. Nor is the common good what the majority of people want. It is rather “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and easily.” Its bedrock is respect for human dignity; then the social well-being of the group, including provision for what is needed for a truly human life, such as food, clothing, health care, education, family life, etc., then the peace and security needed for a just order. The common good has the good of all people and of the whole person at heart.

In opting for the common good, intrinsic evils may not be chosen. Among these evils, the taking of totally defenseless lives has a great claim on our conscience. What evil rises to that level? And what policies are likely to be pursued in a next administration? We need to ask ourselves and appropriately form our consciences prior to making the important choices before us.

Read more commentary from Archbishop Lori here.