With Election Day just a month away, many people are turning their attention to the presidential contest, congressional races and local voting, as well as ballot initiatives. For many Catholics, it may be difficult to make choices when it seems that no candidate has a perfect record or positions in line with Gospel teachings. This week, the Register recommends several books that might help Catholic voters vote conscientiously.


RENDER UNTO CAESAR:

Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life

By Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

Doubleday, 2008

272 pages, $21.95

To order: doubleday.com (800) 726-0600


Catholics: Take Your Place


by JUDY ROBERTS

Into the murky waters of faith and American politics, Archbishop Charles Chaput speaks a clarifying word with a timely and much-needed new book.

Denver’s archbishop decided to write Render Unto Caesar, in part, because he was asked by a politician friend to put down his thoughts about Catholics in public service. Ironically, what he considers the best tool for understanding the political vocation of American Catholics has already been written: the U.S. bishops’ 1998 pastoral statement “Living the Gospel of Life.”

Sadly, however, the archbishop realized that few Catholics seem to know about the document, so he decided to write the book in hopes that it will lead more people to read and act on the pastoral statement. His book makes an excellent companion volume to “Living the Gospel of Life”; it combines many of the points made with analysis, history and Church teaching.

Render Unto Caesar also serves as an antidote to the confusion that has marked Catholic voting habits and the stances of Catholic politicians in recent years, particularly when it comes to social issues. Archbishop Chaput defines and places Catholic social teaching in its proper context — and leaves no doubt as to the foundational importance of right-to-life issues.

The archbishop clearly believes American Catholics, by virtue of both their citizenship and baptism, have a responsibility to contribute to the nation’s public life. “Asking Catholics to keep their faith out of public affairs,” he writes, “amounts to telling them to be barren; to behave as if they were neutered. Nothing could be more alien to the meaning of baptism.”

Over the last decade, he notes, he has grown tired of those who think the Church should be silent on urgent public issues, even as the Church and other religious communities directly and effectively address such problems as homelessness, poverty and immigration. Worse, he says, are Catholics who remain silent out of a misguided sense of manners.

Without endorsing any party or candidate (he says no preferred American “Catholic” party exists and that neither major party fully represents a Catholic way of thinking about social issues), he urges Catholics to rediscover what being Catholic means and to take their places in public life. “We have obligations as believers. We have duties as citizens,” he writes. “We need to honor both, or we honor neither.”

He laments the example of President John F. Kennedy, who managed to compartmentalize his faith and keep it separate from his public service when he told voters he believed in an America “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope.”

“His words stripped the public square of religious influence and attacked the principle of pluralism and free speech,” Archbishop Chaput writes. “Church and state are rightly separate. Both religion and politics, however, address the question of how to live in the world. They always influence each other, and should.”

Amid his support for a strong Catholic presence in the nation’s political life, the archbishop also includes some words of caution about the place of politics in the lives of today’s Catholics. He reminds them that the most powerful “political” actions they can take are to love Christ, believe in the Church and live its teachings in all their public and private choices, decisions and actions.

And he warns against placing too much hope in the political realm: “When people have messianic expectations of the state, when they ask politics to deliver more than it can, the story ends badly.”


KNOWING RIGHT FROM WRONG:

A Christian Guide to Conscience

by Thomas D. Williams, LC

FaithWords, 2008

224 pages, $19.99

To order: hachettebookgroupusa.com


What to Take Into the Booth


by JUDY ROBERTS


As the 2008 presidential election approaches, Catholics can expect to hear anew the admonition to “follow your conscience” when going to the voting booth.

But is conscience what many would have us think — a fail-safe inner compass? Legionary Father Thomas Williams, Vatican correspondent for “CBS Evening News” and author of Spiritual Progress, answers that question and more in Knowing Right From Wrong, a thorough treatment of conscience’s role in the Christian life.

Conscience, he writes, has been glorified in our day as “the single undisputable reference point for good and evil.” Maxims like “You follow your conscience, I’ll follow mine” pervade our culture.

The problem with these statements, Father Williams says, is that they ascribe to conscience a function other than its own, robbing it of its real power, which is to judge, not create, good and evil. Conscience, he maintains, cannot make a bad action good simply by saying it is so, any more than declaring rat poison safe will keep it from harming someone who consumes it.

In the accessible style that marks his writing and television appearances and demonstrates his understanding of the culture, Father Williams tackles this subject with precision and clarity, providing relevant examples that tie the topic into news-making events.

For example, he begins the book with a headline, “Conscience vs. Duty in Guantanamo,” and ends with chapters on conscientious objection and such modern moral issues as the legalized killing of terminally ill patients and aborting babies with serious genetic defects.

In between, he explains that conscience doesn’t come “factory-ready,” but requires formation because of the effects of original sin, which compromise humanity’s vision of the natural moral law written on the human heart.

Father Williams outlines a conscience-formation plan that calls for growing in the love of God and education in and application of moral principles, all of which is achieved by studying Scripture, natural law and Church teaching, prayer, frequent examination of conscience, and regular spiritual direction.

Application is essential, he notes, because a conscience can be corroded by repeated bad choices. Similarly, even a well-formed conscience must be checked periodically to make sure it is functioning properly (the book includes a helpful guide for this, as well).

In cases where a properly developed conscience encounters gray areas, Father Williams advises seeking guidance from the Church. “Many issues that are not explicitly described in the Bible — such as contraception, abortion, in vitro fertilization and euthanasia — have been considered by the Church, which under the guidance of the Holy Spirit offers sure teaching for forming our consciences,” he writes.

Where no clear moral norm is provided, he adds, “We need to turn to the best consensus of theologians and holy persons. We can receive helpful guidance for applying moral norms from people who sincerely love the Lord, are docile to the Church’s teaching, and devote themselves to the study of ethics and morality.”

In talking about the role of the Church in conscience formation, Father Williams uses expressions like “the teaching Church” and “the Christian community,” rather than the Catholic Church, in an apparent effort to be inclusive of a general audience. Some readers may take issue with this; however, his status as a priest would seem to dispel any confusion about the references.

Christians of all degrees of conscience — well-formed, badly formed and in formation — will find much to consider in this book, as well as practical support for growth in an important area.

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.


ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS

The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States

By Deal Hudson

Simon & Schuster, 2008

384 pages, $26.00

To order: simonsays.com

(800) 651-1531


Religion and Politics Do Mix


by CHARLIE SPIERING


Mention the “Religious Right” and some political observers will declare their demise, or cite their diminished role in political elections. Author Deal Hudson engages such cynics to inform them that not only is the Religious Right still relevant, but a permanent force in modern American politics.

Onward Christian Soldiers summarizes the lengthy history of the results and aftereffects of mixing religion and politics, investigating the rise of what is known as the Religious Right and its burst of organized activism in the last 30 years.

The book explores the remarkable transition of religious voters, from the evangelical Jimmy Carter, who was supposedly one of their own, to Republican Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood movie star-turned politician. Hudson notes that the switch was not accidental, but rather through the sincere efforts of citizens who demanded that the Republican Party take strong positions on social issues. The Republican Party, he notes, has since enjoyed widespread support, thanks to the strong positions advocated by President George W. Bush, resulting in his re-election over the nominally Catholic Sen. John Kerry.

Hudson is suited to the task. As the editor of Crisis, he led the “Catholic Voter Project” polling effort in 1998, which led to his unlikely recruitment by Karl Rove for Bush’s presidential campaign.

In spite of his Republican affiliation, Hudson warns politicians of both parties to be aware of religious voters, noting that, “religious conservatives inevitably will recognize candidates overselling their religiosity.”

The book fails, however, in an effective linear timeline, which can leave readers disoriented. It reads like a collection of issue-oriented essays and magazine articles, rather than a cohesive look at his subject matter. As a well-connected author, Hudson does not offer judgment of his brethren in political activism, although he lightly reasons with some of their assertions.

Hudson frankly admits the heated battle of partisan politics can get ugly, but affirms the role that religious laypeople should play, warning, “The moment you do anything under the banner of an administration or a political party you cannot pretend to be personally nonpartisan any longer.” He also encourages cynics to take heart, noting that, “Once the glamour of campaigning gives way to the responsibility of public service, I believe it can soften even the hardest hearts.”

Charlie Spiering writes

from Washington, D.C.