Faithful Citizenship (October 2004)

On Tuesday, November 2nd, we Catholics will join our fellow citizens in exercising the right to vote. Voting is not only a right; it is a duty – for as Scriptures teach us, we are our brother’s keeper, and voting responsibly is one way to promote the common good of our brethren in society. The welfare of our communities depends on the people we entrust with public responsibilities. In Faithful Citizenship, the Bishops of the United States , while not endorsing any candidate or party, have tried to guide our people through the maze of complex moral questions that underline the public policy positions espoused by the different candidates and their party platforms. While some resent the bishops for this particular exercise of their teaching ministry, many Catholics of good will welcome our interventions. And not a few wish us to be even more directive. We all should appreciate help in making difficult decisions – for a Catholic, prayer and the seeking out of good counsel –in this case, Church teachings on our civic responsibility for the common good – are important elements that help one arrive at the best prudential decision.

Democracy has worked in our nation because commitment to the common good has usually prevailed over narrow self-interest. Our system of checks and balances built into our governing structures by our founding fathers reflected an understanding of the human person founded in our Judeo-Christian tradition. One could rightly argue that our American revolution succeeded precisely because it reflected the truth about the human person – and other revolutionary ideologies (in France , Russia , Cuba – just to name a few places) failed because they did not.

Yet, today many in America are confused about the truth of the human person. More than terrorism, the tendency to moral relativism in our culture is the greatest threat to authentic democracy today. As the Pope said at the U.N. in 1995:

“Detached from the truth about the human person, freedom deteriorates into license in the lives of individuals, and in political life it becomes the caprice of the most powerful and the arrogance of power. Far from being a limitation on freedom or a threat to it, reference to the truth about the human person – a truth universally knowable through the moral law written on the hearts of all – is, in fact, the guarantor of freedom’s future.”

Catholic social teachings – reasoned proposals about the nature of man and his dignity in society – are an important resource we can share with our contemporaries in this necessary dialog in the public market place of ideas that is our democratic political process. Catholic social teachings recognize that God is the source of those rights deemed inalienable and since they were not granted by men or by states they cannot be abrogated either by men or by states.

And whether as citizens or as elected officials, if we are to be faithful to the truth about the human person, we must oppose uncompromisingly policies and laws that undermine the common good precisely because they originate in a defective understanding of the human person. For this reason, the Church –clergy and laity – while agreeing to disagree on other matters of prudential judgment cannot but oppose the evils of abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem cell research, human cloning and so called same sex “marriage”. In these areas, there can be no other legitimate Catholic position.