Political Responsibility: Reflections on an Election Year
A Statement of the Administrative Board of the United States Catholic
February 12, 1976
1. This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of
our republic with its remarkable system of representative democracy. It is
also a year that will test the workings of this democracy. A national
election is a time for decisions regarding the future of our nation and the
selection of our representatives and political leaders. As pastors and
teachers, we address this Statement on political responsibility to all
Americans in hopes that the upcoming elections will provide an opportunity
for thoughtful and lively debate on the issues and challenges that face our
country as well as decisions on the candidates who seek to lead us.
I. Public Responsibility and the Electoral Process
2. We call this year a test of our democratic institutions because
increasing numbers of our fellow citizens regard our political institutions and
electoral processes with indifference and even distrust. Two years ago, only
thirty-six percent of those eligible voted in the national congressional
elections; in contrast, forty-six percent voted in 1962. In 1972, only half of
the eligible citizens exercised their right to vote, down from a peak of
sixty-three percent in 1960. This trend and the alienation, disenchantment, and
indifference it represents must be reversed if our government is to truly
reflect the "consent of the governed."
3. Abuses of power and a lack of governmental accountability have
contributed to declining public confidence, despite significant efforts to
uncover and redress these problems. Equally important, government has
sometimes failed to deal effectively with critical issues which affect the
daily lives of its citizens. As a result, many persons caught in the web of
poverty and injustice have little confidence in the responsiveness of our
political institutions. This discouragement and feeling of powerlessness are
not limited to the poor who feel these most intensely, but affect many
social groups, most alarmingly the young and the elderly. This leads to a
loss of human resources, talent, and idealism which could be harnessed in
the work of social and national progress.(1)
4. However, we believe that the abandonment of political participation
is neither an effective nor a responsible approach to the solution of these
problems. We need a committed, informed, and involved citizenry to
revitalize our political life, to require accountability from our political
leaders and governmental institutions, and to achieve the common good. We
echo the words of Pope Paul VI who declared: "The Christian has the duty to
take part in the organization and life of political society."(2)
Accordingly, we would urge all citizens to register to vote, to become
informed on the relevant issues, to become involved in the party or campaign
of their choice, to vote freely according to their conscience, in a word, to
participate fully in this critical arena of politics where national
decisions are made.
5. Certain methods used in political campaigns sometimes have
intensified this disaffection. We call on those seeking public office to
concentrate on demonstrating their personal integrity, their specific view
on issues, and their experience in public service. We urge a positive
presentation of their programs and leadership abilities. In this way, they
can contribute to a campaign based on vital issues, personal competence, and
real choices which will help to restore confidence in our electoral process.
II. The Church and the Political Order
6. It is appropriate in this context to offer our own reflections on the
role of the Church in the political order. Christians believe that Jesus'
commandment to love one's neighbor should extend beyond individual relationships
to infuse and transform all human relations from the family to the entire human
community. Jesus came to "bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to
captives, new sight to the blind and to set the downtrodden free" (Lk 4:18). He
called us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and afflicted,
and to comfort the victims of injustice (Mt 25). His example and words require
individual acts of charity and concern from each of us. Yet they also require
understanding and action upon the broader dimensions of poverty, hunger, and
injustice which necessarily involve the institutions and structures of economy,
society, and politics.
7. The Church, the People of God, is itself an expression of this
love, and is required by the Gospel and its long tradition to promote
justice and defend human rights and human dignity.(3) The 1971 Synod of
Bishops declared that action on behalf of justice is a "constitutive
dimension" of the Church's ministry and that, "the Church has the right,
indeed the duty, to proclaim justice on the social, national, and
international level, and to denounce instances of injustice, when the
fundamental rights of man and his very salvation demand it."(4) This view of
the Church's ministry and mission requires it to relate positively to the
political order, since social injustice and the denial of human rights can
often be remedied only through governmental action. In today's world,
concern for social justice and human development necessarily require persons
and organizations to participate in the political process in accordance with
their own responsibilities and roles.
8. The Church's responsibility in the area of human rights includes
two complementary pastoral actions: the affirmation and promotion of human
rights and the denunciation and condemnation of violations of these rights.
In addition, it is the Church's role to call attention to the moral and
religious dimensions of secular issues, to keep alive the values of the
Gospel as a norm for social and political life, and to point out the demands
of the Christian faith for a just transformation of society.(5) Such a
ministry on the part of every Christian and the Church inevitably involves
political consequences and touches upon public affairs.
9. Christian social teaching demands that citizens and public
officials alike give serious consideration in all matters to the common
good, to the welfare of society as a whole, which must be protected and
promoted if individual rights are to be encouraged and upheld.
10. In order to be credible and faithful to the Gospel and to our
tradition, the Church's concern for human rights and social justice should
be comprehensive and consistent. It must be formulated with competence and
an awareness of the complexity of issues. It should also be developed in
dialogue with other concerned persons and respectful of the rights of
11. The Church's role in the political order includes the following:
(a) education regarding the teachings of the Church and the responsibilities
of the faithful;
(b) analysis of issues for their social and moral dimensions;
(c) measuring public policy against Gospel values;
(d) participating with other concerned parties in debate over public policy;
(e) speaking out with courage, skill, and concern on public issues involving
human rights, social justice, and the life of the Church in society.
12. Unfortunately, our efforts in this area are sometimes
misunderstood. The Church's participation in public affairs is not a threat
to the political process or to genuine pluralism, but an affirmation of
their importance. The Church recognizes the legitimate autonomy of
government and the right of all, including the Church itself, to be heard in
the formulation of public policy. As Vatican II declared:
By preaching the truth of the Gospel and shedding light on all areas of human
activity through her teaching and the example of the faithful, she [the Church]
shows respect for the political freedom and responsibility of citizens and
fosters these values. She also has the right to pass moral judgments, even on
matters touching the political order, whenever basic personal rights or the
salvation of souls make such judgments necessary.(7)
13. A proper understanding of the role of the Church will not confuse
its mission with that of government, but rather see its ministry as
advocating the critical values of human rights and social justice.
14. It is the role of Christian communities to analyze the situation
in their own country, to reflect upon the meaning of the Gospel, and to draw
norms of judgment and plans of action from the teaching of the Church and
their own experience.(8) In carrying out this pastoral activity in the
social arena, we are confronted with complexity. As the 1971 Synod of
Bishops pointed out: "It does not belong to the Church, insofar as she is a
religious and hierarchical community, to offer concrete solutions in the
social, economic, and political spheres for justice in the world"(9)
(emphasis added). At the same time, it is essential to recall the words of
Pope John XXIII:
. . . it must not be forgotten that the Church has the right and duty not
only to safeguard the principles of ethics and religion, but also to intervene
authoritatively with her children in the temporal sphere when there is a
question of judging the application of these principles to concrete cases.(10)
15. The application of Gospel values to real situations is an
essential work of the Christian community. Christians believe the Gospel is
the measure of human realities. However, specific political proposals do not
in themselves constitute the Gospel. Christians and Christian organizations
must certainly participate in public debate over alternative policies and
legislative proposals, yet it is critical that the nature of their
participation not be misunderstood.
16. We specifically do not seek the formation of a religious voting
bloc; nor do we wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by
endorsing candidates. We urge citizens to avoid choosing candidates simply
on the personal basis of self-interest. Rather, we hope that voters will
examine the positions of candidates on the full range of issues as well as
the person's integrity, philosophy, and performance. We seek to promote a
greater understanding of the important link between faith and politics and
to express our belief that our nation is enriched when its citizens and
social groups approach public affairs from positions grounded in moral
conviction and religious belief. Our view is expressed very well by Pope
Paul VI when he said:
While recognizing the autonomy of the reality of politics, Christians who are
invited to take up political activity should try to make their choices
consistent with the Gospel and, in the framework of a legitimate plurality, to
give both personal and collective witness to the seriousness of their faith by
effective and disinterested service of men. (11)
17. The Church's responsibility in this area falls on all its members.
As citizens we are all called to become informed, active, and responsible
participants in the political process. The hierarchy has a responsibility as
teachers and pastors to educate the faithful, support efforts to gain
greater peace and justice, and provide guidance and even leadership on
occasion where human rights are in jeopardy. The laity has major
responsibility for the renewal of the temporal order. Drawing on their own
experience and exercising their distinctive roles within the Christian
community, bishops, clergy, religious, and laity should join together in
common witness and effective action to bring about Pope John's vision of a
well ordered society based on truth, justice, charity, and freedom.(12)
18. As religious leaders and pastors, our intention is to reflect our
concern that politics--the forum for the achievement of the common
good—receive its rightful importance and attention. For, as Pope Paul VI
said, "politics are a demanding manner—but not the only one—of living the
Christian commitment to the service of others.''(13)
19. Without reference to political candidates, parties, or platforms, we
wish to offer a listing of some issues which we believe are central to the
national debate this year. These brief summaries are not intended to indicate in
any depth the details of our positions in these matters. We wish to refer the
reader to fuller discussions of our point of view in the documents listed in the
summary which appears below. We wish to point out that these issues are not the
concerns of Catholics alone; in every case we have joined with others to
advocate these concerns. They represent a broad range of topics on which the
bishops of the United States have already expressed themselves and are recalled
here in alphabetical order to emphasize their relevance in a period of national
debate and decision.
20. The right to life is a basic human right which should have the
protection of law. Abortion is the deliberate destruction of an unborn human
being and therefore violates this right. We reject the 1973 Supreme Court
decisions on abortion which refuse appropriate legal protection to the unborn
child. We support the passage of a constitutional amendment to restore the basic
constitutional protection of the right to life for the unborn child
(Documentation on the Right to Life and Abortion, 1974;
Pastoral Plan on
Pro-life Activities, 1975).
B. The Economy
21. Our national economic life must reflect broad values of social
justice and human rights. Current levels of unemployment are unacceptable and
their tremendous human costs are intolerable. We support an effective national
commitment to genuine full employment. Our strong support of this human right to
meaningful employment is based not only on the income it provides, but also on
the sense of worth and creativity a useful job provides for the individual. We
also call for a decent income policy for those who cannot work and adequate
assistance to those in need. Efforts to eliminate or curtail needed services and
help in these difficult economic times must be strongly opposed (The Economy:
Human Dimensions, 1975).
22. All persons of whatever race, condition, or age, by virtue of their
dignity as human beings, have an inalienable right to education.
23. We advocate:
(1) Sufficient public and private funding to make an adequate education
available for all citizens and residents of the United States of America and to
provide assistance for education in our nation's program of foreign aid.
(2) Governmental and voluntary action to reduce inequalities of educational
opportunity by improving the opportunities available to economically
(3) Orderly compliance with legal requirements for racially integrated
(4) Voluntary efforts to increase racial and ethnic integration in public and
(5) Equitable tax support for the education of pupils in public and nonpublic
schools to implement parental freedom in the education of their children (To
Teach as Jesus Did, Nov. 1972).
D. Food Policy
24. The "right to eat" is directly linked with the right to life. This
right to eat is denied to countless numbers of people in the world. We support a
national policy in which:
(a) U.S. world food aid seriously combats hunger and malnutrition on a global
basis, separates food aid from other considerations, gives priority to the
poorest nations, and joins in a global grain reserve.
(b) U.S. domestic food programs meet the needs of hungry and malnourished
people here in America, provide strong support for food stamps to assist the
needy, the unemployed, the elderly, and the working poor, and strive to improve
and to extend child nutrition programs.
(c) U.S. agricultural policy promotes full production and an adequate and
just return for farmers (Food Policy and The Church: Specific Proposals, 1975).
25. Decent housing is a basic human right. A greater commitment of will
and resources is required to meet our national housing goal of a decent home for
every American family. Housing policy must better meet the needs of low- and
middle-income families, the elderly, rural areas, and minorities. It should also
promote reinvestment in central cities and equal housing opportunity.
Preservation of existing housing stock and a renewed concern for neighborhoods
are required (The Right to a Decent Home, 1975).
F. Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy
26. Human dignity requires the defense and promotion of human rights.
Many regimes, including communist countries and some U.S. allies, violate or
deny their citizens' human and civil rights, as well as religious liberty.
Internationally, the pervasive presence of American power creates a
responsibility to use that power in the service of human rights. In the face of
regimes which use torture or detain political prisoners without legal recourse,
we support a policy which gives greater weight to the protection of human rights
in the conduct of U.S. affairs (Resolution on the 25th Anniversary of the U.N.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1973).
G. Mass Media
27. We are concerned that the communications media be truly responsive to
the public interest. We strongly oppose government control over television
programming policy, but we deplore unilateral decision making by networks. We
urge that broadcasters, government, private business, and representatives of the
viewing public seek effective ways to ensure accountability in the formulation
and implementation of broadcast policy. We recommend exploring ways to reduce
the commercial orientation of the broadcasting industry to better serve the
public (Statement on the Family Viewing Policy, 1975).
H. Military Expenditures
28. The arms race continues to threaten humanity with universal
destruction. It is especially destructive because it violates the rights of the
world's poor who are thereby deprived of essential needs, and it creates the
illusion of protecting human life and fostering peace. We support a policy of
arms limitation as a necessary step to general disarmament which is a
prerequisite to international peace and justice (U.S. Bishops on the Arms Race,
29. This is not an exclusive listing of issues of concern to us. We
are also concerned about issues involving the civil and political rights of
racial and ethnic groups, women, the elderly, and working families. We
support measures to provide health care for all of our citizens and the
reform of our criminal justice system. We are concerned about protection of
the land and the environment as well as the monumental question of peace in
30. In summary, we believe the Church has a proper role and
responsibility in public affairs flowing from its Gospel mandate and its concern
for the human person and his or her rights. We hope these reflections will
contribute to a renewed sense of political vitality in our land, both in terms
of citizen participation in the electoral process and the integrity and
accountability of those who hold and seek public office.
31. We pray that Christians will follow the call of Jesus to provide
the "leaven" for society (Mt 13:34; Lk 13:20), and heed the appeal of the
Second Vatican Council:
To enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity
and caring above all for the common good. . . to be witnesses to Christ in all
things in the midst of human society.(14)
(1) Joint Economic Committee Hearings, October 20, 1975; New York Times,
February 1, 1976; Wall Street Journal, February 2, 1976.
(2) A Call to Action, Pope Paul VI, 24, 1971.
(3) Human Rights and Reconciliation, Synod of Bishops, 1974.
(4) Justice In The World, Synod of Bishops, 1971.
(5) Justice In The World, ibid.
(6) A Call To Action, op. cit., 4, 50. The Church In The
Modern World, Second Vatican Council, 43, 1965.
(7) The Church In The Modern World, op. cit., 76.
(8) A Call To Action, op. cit.
(9) Justice In The World, op. cit.
(10) Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII, 160, 1963.
(11) A Call To Action, op. cit., 46.
(12) Pacem In Terris, Pope John XXIII, 35, 1963.
(13) A Call To Action, op. cit.
(14) The Church In The Modern World, op. cit., 43.