Faithful Citizenship: Living in a way worthy of the Gospel
Most Reverend Joseph A. Galante, D.D., J.C.D.
Bishop of the Diocese of Camden, NJ
Message posted on the Diocesan website
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:
The Gospel consoles us, but also challenges us. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (Jn 14:6) He also said, “Come, follow me” (Mt 19:21).
If we are to be Jesus’ disciples, we must in faith accept who Jesus says He is: God’s own Son. Yet, this belief has ramifications. We who really accept and believe that Jesus is who He says He is are compelled to follow Him, whatever the cost.
The Gospel, then, calls us to join our belief with action. Jesus tells us in Matthew’s Gospel, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt. 7:21). Here we have the necessity of belief, yet Jesus tells us that this belief is something more than inwardly focused intellectual assent. It involves discerning and doing God’s will.
Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is that we must love God with all our heart, soul and mind. Then, He adds, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39). What does loving our neighbor entail? Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). The “least of these” Jesus has in mind are the hungry, thirsty, naked, the stranger, the imprisoned, the sick, the weakest and most vulnerable in our society.
If we ever had any doubt, this passage confronts us with the reality that the Gospel is not just about Jesus and “me.” Rather, the essence of the Gospel always is Jesus and “we,” we His people. In some circles the term “social gospel” has become popular as a way to draw attention to those areas of social justice that require our Christian witness. Yet, really, there is only one Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, and it is “social” by its very nature in that Jesus saves us as a people and we are a people who are relational by virtue of baptism.
There is a simplicity to Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as we love God and ourselves. Note, however, that in this simple formula, Jesus does not provide us with a checklist of minimum requirements for discipleship. He leaves no room for complacency or indifference. Rather, if we are to call ourselves His followers, we must give over our entire life to discipleship and identity with Jesus. As Catholics, then, we are called not to be minimalists, but disciples in totality, in and out of season.
No dichotomy between belief and action
Likewise, there is no dichotomy between our Catholic belief and our responsibility as citizens. Our belief cannot be compartmentalized, reserved only for Sunday worship, private prayer, or times when we are in the presence of like-minded Catholics. If we are serious about our faith, and if we are to be people of integrity, it must infuse our lives every day and at every moment, even when it is inconvenient, uncomfortable or unpopular. If we are true to our faith, we cannot retreat or hide behind the formula, “I am personally for this or against this, but I will not impose my view on others.” This argument is as lacking in courage and integrity as it is specious. Surely, our responsibility as Catholics who are citizens is to act on our belief, to bring our belief into the public square, charitably to give voice to the core principles that guide us, and to exercise our vote in accord with a properly formed conscience. Catholic officials and lawmakers, of course, have special obligations in this regard.
The Church in the public square
Some question whether the Church even has the right to speak out on issues of public concern, as if this somehow violates a cherished constitutional principle. Yet, the Constitution requires that government be neutral toward religion, not that religion be kept from the public square. Our convictions regarding human life and dignity do not lose their right to be heard because they may happen to come from people of religious belief. As such, the Church has a responsibility to participate in the political process and to give voice to its core convictions in the public square. In doing so, “our nation’s tradition of pluralism is enhanced, not threatened.” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship)
The Church, of course, does not seek to impose its worship, theology or religious traditions on the public. Rather, the Church speaks out on certain political issues because these issues have a moral dimension and rest on foundational moral principles, especially the right to life, the dignity of persons, and the need to serve the common good. These principles are not important because the Church says so. Rather, the Church places such importance on these principles because they are fundamentally true. This truth can be known and grasped by all people, regardless of religious belief.
Likewise, the Church does not endorse candidates or political parties because the moral principles that guide the Catholic faith community transcend party politics, political allegiances and the ebb and flow of election cycles. Further, no one political party or candidate embodies completely in their platforms and positions the breadth of Church teaching.
Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship
As we work to bring our core beliefs into the public square, attention must be paid to the role of conscience. As Catholics, we believe that each person has the right and freedom to act in accord with his or her own informed conscience. The Second Vatican Council’s Gaudiem et Spes says, “Conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and one’s neighbor” (16).
The Church teaches the primacy of conscience, but also emphasizes that one’s conscience must be properly formed in light of the Gospel and Church teaching. In other words, conscience is not simply a feeling, a preference, or a matter of doing what one thinks is right. It has an objective dimension, since it rests on truth, truth that remains valid and unchanging. Gaudiem et Spes states, “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey…For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God” (16). Because conscience can be clouded by sin, confusion or ignorance, it can be mistaken. For this reason, we must work continuously to form our conscience by becoming informed about issues and entering ever more deeply into prayer, Scripture and Church teaching, guided by the Holy Spirit.
Promoting Human Dignity
Because we are created by God in His image, human life has intrinsic worth and dignity. This is true for all persons: those not yet born, the newborn, the elderly and infirm, the terminally ill, and every stage in between. This reality cannot be altered by executive order, legislative action or the ruling of a court.
As Catholics, we consider every neighbor as another self and do what is necessary to ensure that every person’s God-given dignity is being served through the programs, policies and laws of our nation. We work to protect human life from conception to natural death. We work to change the conditions that undermine human dignity, including racism, prejudice, and every form of discrimination. We work to address poverty, economic injustice, substandard wages and poor working conditions. We work to ensure access to affordable, quality health care. We work to provide access to affordable housing, quality schools and choice in education. We work to welcome the newcomer, the immigrant, the stranger, and the marginalized. We work to achieve sound economic, agricultural and energy policies that will serve the common good.
As we serve the common good, the Church teaches that there must be a preferential option for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Does this mean that we give preference to the poor and the “least of these” over others as we work to pursue the common good? Yes, it does. Pope Benedict XVI declared in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est.” (22)
Human solidarity and the common good
Given the fact that we are a relational people, created in God’s image and redeemed by Jesus, we also commit ourselves to solidarity with our sisters and brothers here in this country and in every part of the world. As the Catechism notes, “Do not live entirely isolated, retreated into yourselves, as if you were already justified, but gather instead to seek the common good.” (CCC, 1905). So, while strong national security and a wise foreign policy are essential to protect and promote the vital interests of this country and its people, we do not seek only our own advantage, but justice for all people and the protection of their God-given rights, including religious freedom.
We also work for peace and rely on diplomacy and non-violent means to resolve conflicts. Only under the most limited of circumstances can we consent to war, and we reject torture as inhumane and incompatible with the rights and dignity of the human person. We support efforts to address hunger, disease and violence, not only in this country, but also around the world. We also commit ourselves to policies that will give evidence of our concern for the environment and the goodness of God’s creation.
The need to strengthen marriage and families
We also have a responsibility to support and strengthen marriage that in essence is always between one man and one woman. Marriage is the foundation of the family. The family, in turn, is the basic unit of society. Marriage as the union of one man and one woman has its roots not only in human tradition and history, but also in natural law, which transcends all man-made law. Because we believe marriage was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose, we likewise must oppose efforts that attempt to equate marriage with other arrangements. We must also support efforts to strengthen and assist families and children.
Considering the range of moral issues
Catholics are not single-issue voters. As noted above, we concern ourselves with a wide range of issues that have a bearing on human life and dignity at every stage of life, from conception to natural death. When considering the range of issues, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has said in its “Doctrinal Note on the Participation of Catholics in Political Life” that Catholic citizens are free “to choose among the various political opinions that are compatible with faith and the natural moral law.” (3) However, the Congregation goes on to state that lawmaking bodies and citizens have a “grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote some laws or to vote for them.” The Congregation emphasizes, “When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility.” (4)
Some issues admit of exception. For example, as much as we abhor war and work for peace, the Church teaches that there may be circumstances under which defensive war may be necessary and just to protect innocent human life. While the Church has raised serious moral concerns about preemptive or preventive use of force, there may be divergent opinions on whether a particular military action meets just war criteria. Similarly, while there are virtually no instances in modern society under which the death penalty may be considered morally acceptable, the Church teaches that there may be circumstances — however rare and unlikely — under which it may be justified.
Some issues may have more than one morally acceptable approach or solution. For example, while we are all obligated to alleviate poverty and ensure that people live in dignity in affordable housing with adequate wages and good schools, we can disagree as to how best specifically to accomplish these ends.
Some issues do not admit of exception
Some issues, however, do not admit of exception, are never permissible, can never be supported, and must always be opposed. Abortion, which involves the direct taking of an innocent human life; euthanasia, the direct termination of the life of a person with disabilities or who is sick or dying; and embryonic stem cell research, where human embryos are destroyed in order to extract their cells for therapeutic purposes, are all gravely wrong and must be given special priority and weight. This is so because they rest on foundational moral principles that can never be compromised, namely, the dignity of innocent human life and the right to life.
So, while the Church concerns itself with a broad range of issues that have serious moral implications, it also recognizes that not all issues carry equal moral weight. Certain issues have unique status and must weigh more heavily on the Catholic conscience. As Catholics, then, we do not weigh a wide range of issues against abortion and euthanasia and consider whether they cumulatively outweigh the intrinsic evil of taking an innocent life, since this intrinsic evil never can be justified. As Pope John Paul II said, “The common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.” (Christifideles Laici, 38). Simply put, our concern for the dignity of the human person already born is rendered moot if we do not place first concern on the right of that person to be born.
Certainly, efforts to reduce the root causes of abortion by providing economic supports and assistance for low-income women and families and access to quality childcare for working mothers must be encouraged. Yet to say, “I will address those factors that might have the benefit of reducing abortion, but will not oppose the very laws that permit it,” is not only unpersuasive, it also is an illogical and unsustainable position. Substitute the word racism or slavery for abortion in the above sentence to see how the argument crumbles under the weight of incoherence.
Similarly, our protection of the unborn loses credibility if we do not care for the rights and needs of the person already born. Thus, we have a clear obligation to oppose unjust laws regarding the unborn, while also working to promote the dignity of those already born. We commit ourselves to alleviate the conditions that might discourage a woman from carrying a pregnancy to term, while pledging our support to those who may feel anxious or troubled by a pregnancy.
Act in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ
In this year of the Jubilee of St. Paul, we recall his words to the Philippian faith community. He said, “Conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Phil 1:27) This is our challenge today and every day of our lives. We pray that we will have the courage of our convictions, that we will not hesitate or falter as we seek the common good and promote the dignity of human life.
Pope John Paul II once said, “Our prophetic witness is an urgent and essential service not just to the Catholic community, but to the whole human family.” As disciples of Jesus who strive daily to love God and our neighbor, we commit ourselves to the Gospel and all it entails, for our good and the good of all.
May God continue to guide you and bless you.
Most Reverend Joseph A. Galante, D.D., J.C.D. Bishop of Camden