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Political responsibility among Catholics

Archbishop John Vlazny
Archbishop of Portland in Oregon

Column published in the Catholic Sentinel
October 2008

Soon the national political conventions will be taking place and the nominees for president and vice-president will have an opportunity to win over the nation. The Democrats will be gathering in Denver from Aug. 25 through 28. The Republicans will meet in Minneapolis-St. Paul from Sept. 1 through 4. Much attention will be given to the candidates. Not as much attention, unfortunately, will be given to the policies they and the political parties which support them espouse.

Catholics, like all other people of faith, don’t set aside their religious beliefs and values at the time of an election. In fact, our values and principles should be the basis for our vote on Nov. 4. It seems clear that no single candidate embraces all the social teachings of our Catholic community. Nor are all those teachings of equal value. Just as political leaders must act according to their consciences, so must we in casting our votes. That is why we American bishops issued a document last November about the importance of forming consciences for faithful citizenship.

Sometimes there are Catholics who, for example, decide to support a pro-choice candidate. In other words, they have decided that, even though they firmly believe that human life must be respected from conception to natural death, other factors compel them to select a candidate who does not agree on this critical issue. If they make such a choice, they accept a serious responsibility. They must make sure that the candidate understands that their support does not mean that they agree with or accept the candidate’s pro-choice position. The voter really needs to work hard and try to convince that candidate to change his or her thinking about this matter, before the election and, if elected, during his or her tenure of office. I wish them well, because this is one issue some candidates seem to be unable to embrace without losing many of their supporters whose values, sad to say, disregard human dignity in some situations.

The very core of all Catholic moral and social teaching is respect for the dignity of everyone. Ours is a rich heritage of social teaching which forms the basis of what it means to be a faithful citizen as a Catholic. This heritage was given particular emphasis in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, which states “Society itself may enjoy the benefits of justice and peace, which result from (people’s) faithfulness to God and his holy will.” Catholic people working for justice need to understand that their minds and hearts are to be educated and formed so that they both know and practice the whole faith.

In his first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that the church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.” We clergy and the laity have complementary roles in public life. As your bishop, I have a serious responsibility to hand on the church’s moral and social teaching. I am assisted by our priests, deacons, religious and lay leaders in trying to help you understand the moral principles that help to form our consciences correctly. Furthermore, teachers of the faith should provide some guidance on the moral dimensions of certain public decisions and also encourage our lay Catholics to carry out their responsibilities in political life. But church leaders must in every way refrain from endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote.

A well-formed conscience is our goal in carrying out political responsibility wisely and well. Conscience is not something that helps us justify doing whatever we want nor is it a mere “feeling” about what should be done. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs, “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.”

The virtue of prudence is also important as we try to “discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1806). It is quite clear that a good end does not justify an immoral means. Even though we are concerned about many important social issues of the day, including the sanctity of human life, marriage, poverty, migration policies and the environment, not all possible courses of action to address these problems are morally acceptable. The weak and vulnerable must always be protected and human rights and dignity defended.

Why is there such concern about human life issues? Too many solutions proposed involve what we would call “intrinsically evil” actions. To treat the destruction of innocent human life merely as a matter of individual choice is a grave mistake. Consequently, any legal system that would violate the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is necessarily flawed. All direct threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life must be opposed. This would include genocide, torture, racism and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war.

Sometimes morally flawed laws already exist. As a result, the process of framing legislation to protect life must at times be subject to prudential judgment and what we commonly refer to as “the art of the possible.” In this way, justice is restored only partially and gradually. As a result, sometimes incremental improvements in the law will be acceptable as steps towards the full restoration of justice. But we must never abandon our efforts to seek full protection for all human life from the moment of conception until natural death.

The on-going war and terrorism in Iraq and across the Middle East are also matters of urgent concern. Here again prudential judgment will be needed in applying moral principles to specific policy choices in this regard. The same is true in our discussions about housing, health care, immigration and other such issues. Here the judgments and recommendations of the bishops will not carry the same moral authority as do statements of universal moral teachings, such as those affecting human life. But the guidance of the church should be an important resource for Catholics as they determine how they will vote.

When all is said and done, participation in political life is an essential duty for every Catholic. But it must be based on fundamental moral principles. The involvement of the church in the political process is not partisan. We do not champion a particular candidate or party as a church. Our cause is the defense of human life and dignity and the protection of the weak and vulnerable.

I encourage all of you to take a look at the document Faithful Citizenship issued by the American bishops back in November of 2007. We bishops hope that it will help you focus more on moral principles than on polls, on the needs of the weak rather than the benefits for the strong and, finally, on the pursuit of the common good more than on the demands of narrow interests. Then we shall be indeed acting in the best tradition of our nation.

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