Morals and politics

  • November 23, 2007
Meeting in Baltimore last month, the U.S. Catholic bishops overwhelmingly approved a new guide intended to inform Catholic political opinion. The circumstances surrounding this document are urgent: “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility From the Catholic Bishops of the United States” is directed at American Catholics trying to live out their faith in the contentious presidential campaigns now under way and who are looking for ways to express themselves responsibly in next year’s presidential and congressional elections.

But while centred on the United States, the bishops’ pronouncement is relevant to troubling issues faced by Catholic voters in every Western democracy, including Canada.

The bishops observe that “Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised, sensing that no party and too few candidates fully share the church’s comprehensive commitment to the dignity of the human person. 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.”

In an obvious reference to the extreme polarization that has overtaken American politics during the administration of George W. Bush, the document rejects politics based on “powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites and media hype” and calls instead for “a different kind of political engagement.” This engagement must be “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 vulnerable,” it says.

“Forming Consciences” is not an instruction on where to throw one’s political weight. “This document is a summary of Catholic teaching; it is not a voter guide,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said. DiMarzio added that the document distinguishes between “intrinsic evils like abortion and racism that can never be supported and the related, but different, moral obligation to serve ‛the least of these,’ seek justice and pursue peace.”

Speaking to an especially vexing choice that now confronts Americans — how to vote when a candidate is pro-abortion rights, but otherwise in line with the church’s teachings on social justice and international peace — the document states that “a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. . . . Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral interests, not to advance narrow interests, or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil.”

While warning against “a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity,” the bishops state that it is wrong to use “these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity.” These threats include the lack of adequate health care, the deep-rooted poison of racism, the pursuit of unjust war and the persistence of the death penalty. Though “principled debate” is possible about such concerns, “this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore church teaching on these important issues.”

The document is silent on that other vexing issue for American Catholics — whether bishops should give Communion to politicians who openly and flagrantly support policies contradicting church teaching, such as being pro-choice. The bishops say this issue has been dealt with by previous documents.

“Forming Consciences” is, in every sense, a document that is right on time. A vast number of Americans have become sickened by the unpopular, hugely expensive war in Iraq. They are appalled by Bush’s ostentatious vetoes of Congressional bills intended to lessen the afflictions of the poor. They are troubled now, as at no time since the 1960s, by the dire poverty of millions, the astounding wealth accumulated by the powerful, and more. Those who are worried by these injustices face enormous obstacles to change. These include lavishly funded lobbies and interest groups, and the large population — including many Christians — who are still besotted with Republican fiscal and social policies that have done so much to further impoverish the poor.

Though studiously non-partisan, “Forming Consciences” lends aid and direct encouragement to U.S. Catholics engaged in the struggle for fundamental, progressive improvements in American society, and to Catholics who have been tempted to despair by the current choice of presidential candidates. American Catholics can make a difference to the future of American democracy, the document insists. And they must, in God’s name.

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