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Sign of Faith -- Bread of Life: A Statement by Alexander J. Brunett, Archbishop of Seattle on Catholic Participation in Political life
Summer 2004

Upon ordination as bishop, I took for my Episcopal motto Signum Fidei – Panis Vitae. I adopted these words (sign of faith – bread of life) from John’s Gospel to characterize and guide my ministry because they summarize for me the centrality and powerful reality of the Eucharist in our Catholic faith experience. As we approach the 2004 elections, the bread of life we share at the altar stands at the center of a growing controversy over a host of church teachings, primarily those on the sanctity of life and the application of this teaching in the public square.

The public debate currently unfolding in our state and nation has moral dimensions that require direct comment, even though some inside and outside our faith community suggest that church leaders should not involve themselves in political debates.

The Separation of Church & State

The Catholic Church in America recognizes the constitutional separation of church and state. Moreover, the Second Vatican Council has clearly taught that "[G]overnment is to see to it that the equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common welfare, is never violated for religious reasons"(Dignitatis Humanae, Chapter 6). As far back as the 14th Century, the poet Dante recognized that the church and state have distinct roles: church leaders are to teach the principles of justice, and government leaders are to make particular laws that embody justice. We fully recognize that many in our culture do not share our beliefs and that they make choices while participating in the democratic processes that are not in accord with our apostolic tradition and moral principles. We also recognize that all citizens are entitled to the full and free expression of their views in the public square. Within our form of government, we therefore accept the inevitability that our values will at times be in conflict with others and that these competing values are a natural outgrowth of democracy exercised by citizens in a secular society.

In this context, we, too, bring our principles into the public square, and we expect them to receive a fair hearing without summarily being rejected simply because they emanate from the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the apostolic tradition.

Moral principles, political actions and the Catholic faith life

Even as we acknowledge and support the separation of roles between church and state, we recognize a clear connection between moral principles and political decisions. Whether Catholics enter the public square as voters or public officials, they will make political decisions that necessarily entail moral principles. In some instances, individuals using these principles may in good conscience reach different political alternatives. However, Catholic politicians who suggest that they can disassociate their political actions in principle from their Catholic faith are laboring under a dangerous moral delusion incompatible with the requirements of a solid Catholic faith life.

In the light of faith, Catholics believe that Baptism transforms us and penetrates every facet of our lives. Catholic politicians who claim they can separate their faith and moral principles from their political agendas either reject the conversion process implicit in Baptism or consign that faith to the realm of personal "feelings" acknowledged only on specified occasions. They are often identified as cultural Catholics. This view distorts the Catholic notion of faith, which is understood as an intrinsic gift from God in Christ. We receive this gift through Baptism, and it creates for us an entirely new identity as the sons and daughters of God with a clear vision of life and a moral compass.

With respect to the specific issue of abortion, let me be especially clear. Catholics, including Catholic politicians, cannot on one hand profess to be in communion with the Catholic Church and on the other hand support abortions. It is one thing to enter into political discussion about abortion issues; it is another to support and campaign for abortion actively. In such cases, a clear contradiction exists between the active professing and living of one’s faith and one’s political agenda and actions.

Catholic politicians who unambiguously reject Catholic moral values, even if giving them lip service, are adopting a morally untenable position and are choosing a path that leads away from the Church and inhibits their ability to gather honestly with the Catholic faith community to celebrate the Eucharist, the sign of unity and communion with the Lord and His Church. While upholding the civil law as their office requires, Catholic politicians have an obligation to promote positively the sacredness and dignity of human life within the limits of their authority. This means, for example, that they must work to reduce and eliminate the perceived need for abortions and to uphold the dignity of the human person, especially those who are poor or marginalized.

Eucharistic celebration: the source and sign of Catholic unity

Fundamental misunderstandings about the relationship between faith and political responsibility have led to confusion on both sides of the current debate.

For example, Catholic Church teaching on the sanctity and dignity of all life has led some within our faith community to suggest that those who vocally and publicly assume pro-choice positions on abortion should be expelled from the Catholic community and the Eucharist. That would have the result of denying Eucharistic participation without formal, canonical due process. This due process requires dialogue and an opportunity for the accused to explain why they feel they can publicly and politically support a position that is patently contrary to the moral principles of our Catholic faith. Those who persist in such public opposition indicate that they are personally denying their communion with the Church. In integrity, they should voluntarily withdraw from Eucharistic sharing without the need for formal action by the Church. With that understanding, however, Ministers of the Eucharist should not take it upon themselves to deny Holy Communion to anyone who presents themselves.

It is important to understand the taking of Communion within the entire context of the celebration of Eucharist. For Catholics, the Eucharist actualizes the central event of salvation – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a community, we gather together to appropriate that event in our lives and commit ourselves to live in communion with the Lord and share in the apostolic ministry and moral principles of the Church. The Catholic community exists around the altar and manifests there a tangible sign of unity in a transforming encounter with Jesus. By virtue of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, we gather not as individuals but as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. This transformative encounter is the central expression of our unity as children of God and the wellspring from which we draw the strength to witness our faith in the world. Because it is the source of our communion with God and each other, the Eucharist must never become an instrument of division.

Our kinship and intimacy with God are proclaimed in the Eucharistic celebration, an act of communion that sends us forth in mission. To prepare themselves for a worthy celebration of this sacrament, Catholics are required to examine their conscience thoroughly before presenting themselves for Communion. It is the role of the bishop and his priests to help every believer form a mature and compelling conscience. This is not accomplished by mandate or fiat, but by preaching and teaching, as Paul says: "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15).

The need for dialogue to form a Catholic conscience

The bishop can never forsake his responsibility to tend to the spiritual wellbeing of those entrusted to his pastoral care. In a special way, he must minister to Catholics in political life where ethical or moral questions are raised in public debate. Further, a bishop cannot remain passive or silent when questions regarding personal salvation are raised.

This dialogue must be ongoing and is of utmost seriousness for all who present themselves for Communion. Conscience is not merely a feeling. It is formed by the process of reflection on the Scriptures and willing acceptance of the apostolic tradition. With a properly formed conscience, we may present ourselves humbly to take part in the transforming experience of Eucharist and thereby gain the courage and strength to apply the principles of faith in our daily lives.

We should be inspired by the example of Christ himself. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, from which I draw my Episcopal motto, "The sign of faith…the bread of life," we see how Christ used both teaching and dialogue. He states clearly what the scriptures mean when He identifies Himself as "the bread of life" and engages His listeners in dialogue. This dialogue brings them to a point of crisis.

As Cardinal Walter Kasper said in remarks to a Christian unity workshop in 2002, "...the term crisis is not to be understood one-sidedly in the negative sense of a breakdown or collapse of what has been built up... Here the term crisis is meant in the original sense of the Greek term, meaning a situation where things are hanging in the balance, where they are on a knife edge; indeed, this state can either be positive or negative. Both are possible… A crisis situation therefore presents itself as a challenge and a time for decision." Christ leaves the decision with his listeners. Some decided not to accept it. They said: "This saying is hard, who can accept it?" (Jn 6:60). They parted ways with him as ‘bread of life’ and "…as a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life" (Jn 6:66). Christ then turns to the Apostles and asks if they also wish to leave. Their response is clear and emphatic: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (Jn 6:68).

I believe this is the same approach we must follow. Dialogue and conversation are a part of the process. In the end, however, those who know clearly the teaching of Christ are brought to a "crisis," a time of decision. In our world today, Catholic politicians are faced with that same crisis, that same time of decision. They must clearly decide whether they are going to be followers of Christ or separate themselves from Him. It is not a choice of political correctness or party agendas; it is a fundamental option by which they decide if they will share in the "bread of life."

Responsible citizenship and Catholic involvement in the political process

Church teaching consequently summons all Catholics to provide a public witness of their discipleship in Jesus Christ. For Catholics, this witness includes a commitment to the dignity of all human life and a particular care for the poor and vulnerable. We as Catholics must apply these values when choosing the people and policies that will guide our state and nation. We recognize that those who represent us at the local, state and national levels often do not support positions that emanate from our faith values. Despite this difficulty, we are nonetheless obliged to engage in public debate and exercise our right to vote. In light of these complexities and challenges, Catholic politicians and voters must remain in dialogue with their bishop, receive guidance for the proper formation of their conscience and determine whether there is consistency between their political lives and the teachings of the Catholic Church rooted in Eucharistic communion with Christ and each other.

In a recent document, the U.S. bishops urged all Catholics, irrespective of political ideology or partisan affiliation, to bring their beliefs into the public square in order to "…defend life, advance justice, pursue peace, and find a place at the table for all God’s children" (Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Responsible Citizenship). This exhortation by the bishops clearly calls every Catholic to participate in the political process as faithful citizens who share Christ’s concern for all people.

I encourage Catholics in Western Washington to participate fully in the political process in order to provide a living witness to our values in the public arena. As I do so, I remind you that the Catholic Church does not align itself with political parties or endorse candidates. Our attention is properly focused on the universal moral principles that unite all Catholics, not the issues that divide partisan factions. I encourage all Catholic citizens to take certain steps to ensure that basic moral principles influence public policy formation.

First and foremost among these steps is the celebration of the Eucharist in order to experience the ongoing conversion necessary to proclaim boldly our values in public life. Guided by the saving action of Jesus in the Eucharist, I ask Catholic women and men to follow the Lord’s example by putting the dignity of all human life, the needs of the poor and vulnerable and the pursuit of the common good ahead of private, personal gain, political partisanship or the narrowly defined goals of any special interest group. Furthermore, I call on all Catholic people to consider the teachings of our Church in their totality, to analyze public policy issues for their full social and moral dimension, and to measure all public policy and political candidate choices against Gospel values.

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