The Bishops’ Challenge

CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec
CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

The new “Faithful Citizenship” document from the bishops will be useless and do nothing to change Catholics’ minds and hearts. The new “Faithful Citizenship” document from the bishops will help Catholic voters look at the issues they face in a new, more Catholic way.

Those are the two possibilities the bishops set before the Church in America with their new document on voting, according to Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali.

He described exactly the reaction many Catholics will have — and are already having — to the document:

“If a person says, ‘I’ve already made up my mind, and so I read the document only with the intention of seeing if this agrees with me or not, and as soon as there is the slightest difference between my opinion and the document, then I discard it’ — this mental approach, this spiritual approach, will never work.”

Then he described the reaction Catholics should have — and can still have, if they decide to:

“We have to read it with the docility of faith and the understanding that none of us knows everything, and therefore the Church offers us this as a help.”

Cardinal Rigali pointed out that political partisanship can make us too proud to grow closer to the Church’s teaching.

“People have to realize that their consciences need to be formed,” Cardinal Rigali said. “And being Christian is so much more basic to us than automatically following a Democratic or a Republican agenda.”

In this, the cardinal — and “Faithful Citizenship” itself — echoes Pope Benedict XVI.

Near the beginning, the document quotes the Holy Father’s summation of the Church’s role in politics. Here’s the extensive quote from the 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) that the bishops include:

“The Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest … The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.”

The document then does the work the Pope has asked. It describes what a well-formed conscience looks like:

“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.”

The document follows Pope Benedict’s lead in singling out abortion and euthanasia as “intrinsically evil” matters that “must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned” by Catholics.

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2004: “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.” He contrasted those matters with the death penalty and just-war decisions.

The document expands on that principle: “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.”

It goes on to name other evils that Catholics should beware of: “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.”

Racism and genocide most of us will have no problem with. But Many Catholics have been inclined to take a more lenient attitude toward acts that target noncombatants in war (such as the dropping of the atomic bomb) and acts of torture (such as water-boarding).

The bishops propose a three-step process for forming our consciences on questions that challenge us. It would be good to apply them to whatever Church teachings challenge our accustomed way of thinking.

1. Genuinely desire to embrace the truth.

2. Examine the facts — dispassionately.

3. Prayerfully reflect on issues in the light of Church teaching.

God’s greatest gift to each of us is our faith. Church teaching allows us to form our consciences in accordance with that faith. But it only works if we allow it to.