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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 2
Pentecost 2004

Following is an abbreviated version of the main page as published in Voices.
To go to UPDATED Main page click here:
Catholics and Political Responsibility

Catholics and Political Responsibility

In 2004, a presidential election year in the United States, an issue that surfaced early on is the responsibility of Catholic politicians, Catholic voters, and bishops to support Church teaching.

This is hardly a new issue, but it gained heightened attention this year after it emerged that the leading candidate for presidential nomination in the Democratic Party is a practicing Catholic who has a "perfect" pro-abortion voting record as senator from Massachusetts. But other prominent Catholic politicians -- governors, congressmen, etc. -- hold similar views.

The disagreement is not over what the Church teaches on life-issues -- that all human life is sacred, that the right to life is fundamental to all other human rights, and that abortion, the deliberate killing of unborn children -- the most vulnerable human beings -- is an abominable evil.

Rather, the conflict is centered on the obligation of every Catholic not only to recognize what the Church teaches, but to actively preserve, protect and defend her teachings, putting them into practice whenever possible. Some Catholic politicians maintain that there is a "wall of separation" between Church and State, and that a person's beliefs are private matters of "conscience" that do not (and should not) affect legislators' decisions -- not even on key moral issues.

In particular, the issue of whether Catholic politicians who are pro-abortion may be admitted to Communion has become a matter of controversy, even among some prominent Catholic leaders, not excluding bishops.

We have compiled important resources -- timely quotes from Church documents -- as an informative aid for Catholics in discerning the issues involved, and in forming a basis for decisions to support candidates for office who work for legislation consistent with fundamental moral law and with Catholic teaching.

The items appear in chronological order, beginning with the earliest.

Note: A special section on our web site also makes available links to the complete version of most documents that are quoted here, many on our web site.

Code of Canon Law - 1983

Recent press coverage of the problem of Catholic politicians who advocate abortion "rights" sometimes mention Church law. Some reporters have confused excommunication with not receiving Holy Communion at Mass. They are not the same. Excommunication is the exclusion from all Sacraments of the Church, whether this is incurred automatically or by formal juridical action. (Excommunication is usually lifted by a formal process.) However, not receiving Holy Communion at Mass -- whether voluntary or imposed by a bishop as a disciplinary penalty -- is not "excommunication".


From The Code of Canon Law

Book IV, Part I, The Sacraments, Title III, The Most Holy Eucharist, Chapter I, The Eucharistic Celebration, Article 2, Participation in the Most Holy Eucharist (Canons 912-923).

C. 915. Those who are excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.

C. 916. A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession unless a grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing; in this case the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible.

Abortion, like homicide, is a crime that incurs automatic excommunication, which does not require formal action by the Church. (Bk VI; Pt II - Penalties for Specific Offenses: Canons 1364-1399 - Title VI Offense Against Human Life and Freedom.)

C. 1398. A person who procures a successful abortion incurs an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication.


Pope John Paul II - Evangelium Vitae - The Gospel of Life

In this encyclical, dated March 25, 1995, Pope John Paul II gives a "pressing appeal addressed to each and every person, in the name of God: respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life!" This affirmation of the Gospel of Life, which is part of and inseparable from the entire Gospel of Christ, is fundamental to the Church's mission to the world, and part of the necessary witness of every Christian -- especially in our present culture, where the very meaning and value of human life is under grave threat: "Only in this direction will you find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness!" (EV 5)

The encyclical consists of four chapters, and begins by outlining the present grave situation where assaults against human life lead the pope to characterize society today as a "culture of death".

Selected quotes on freedom, democracy and political action:

19 ... Freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth. When freedom, out of a desire to emancipate itself from all forms of tradition and authority, shuts out even the most obvious evidence of an objective and universal truth, which is the foundation of personal and social life, then the person ends up by no longer taking as the sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed, his selfish interest and whim.

20. This view of freedom leads to a serious distortion of life in society. If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another.... In this way, any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining: even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.

This is what is happening also at the level of politics and government: the original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people -- even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the "right" ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism.... The appearance of the strictest respect for legality is maintained, at least when the laws permitting abortion and euthanasia are the result of a ballot in accordance with what are generally seen as the rules of democracy. Really, what we have here is only the tragic caricature of legality; the democratic ideal, which is only truly such when it acknowledges and safeguards the dignity of every human person, is betrayed in its very foundations: "How is it still possible to speak of the dignity of every human person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted? In the name of what justice is the most unjust of discriminations practiced: some individuals are held to be deserving of defense and others are denied that dignity?" When this happens, the process leading to the breakdown of a genuinely human co-existence and the disintegration of the State itself has already begun.

To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of true freedom: "Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin". (Jn 8:34)


Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life

Issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on November 24, 2002, the Solemnity of Christ the King, and expressly approved by Pope John Paul II, this is the most recent and concise statement on the subject from the Church's highest authority.

The Doctrinal Note summarizes Church teaching on issues of freedom of conscience, pluralism and political activity. It stresses that "that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals".

It states emphatically, "John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies 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 such laws or to vote for them".

The Doctrinal Note refers to existing Church teaching documents, notably the Second Vatican Council's Gaudium et Spes, and Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Evangelium Vitae - The Gospel of Life. (March 25, 1995)


Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments
Redemptionis Sacramentum

On April 23, 2004 this Instruction on the Liturgy was issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship (see related report on the WFF web pages on Catholics and Political Responsibility, Diocesan Bishops section).

Dated March 25, 2004, Redemptionis Sacramentum addresses abuses of the Liturgy in its 185 paragraphs. Two paragraphs in a section on Disposition for Communion referred to relevant existing laws and norms that apply to Catholic politicians. (the complete Instruction is on the Adoremus web site: ­ Church documents section.)


81. The Church's custom shows that it is necessary for each person to examine himself at depth, and that anyone who is conscious of grave sin should not celebrate or receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession, except for grave reason when the possibility of confession is lacking; in this case he will remember that he is bound by the obligation of making an act of perfect contrition, which includes the intention to confess as soon as possible". (Canon 915)

82. Moreover, "the Church has drawn up norms aimed at fostering the frequent and fruitful access of the faithful to the Eucharistic table and at determining the objective conditions under which Communion may not be given". (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 42)


United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics

This document was issued by the US bishops in 1998. Quotes from relevant paragraphs on responsibility of Catholic politicians follow. (The complete document is on the USCCB web site,

31. Catholics who are privileged to serve in public leadership positions have an obligation to place their faith at the heart of their public service, particularly on issues regarding the sanctity and dignity of human life. Thomas More, the former chancellor of England who preferred to give his life rather than betray his Catholic convictions, went to his execution with the words, "I die the king's good servant, but God's first". In the United States in the late 1990s, elected officials safely keep their heads. But some will face a political penalty for living their public office in accord with their pro-life convictions. To those who choose this path, we assure them that their course is just, they save lives through their witness, and God and history will not forget them. Moreover, the risk of witness should not be exaggerated, and the power of witness should not be underestimated. In an age of artifice, many voters are hungry for substance. They admire and support political figures who speak out sincerely for their moral convictions. For our part we commend Catholic and other public officials who, with courage and determination, use their positions of leadership to promote respect for all human life.

32. We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church teaching. No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life. Certainly there are times when it may be impossible to overturn or prevent passage of a law which allows or promotes a moral evil -- such as a law allowing the destruction of nascent human life. In such cases, an elected official, whose position in favor of life is known, could seek legitimately to limit the harm done by the law. However, no appeal to policy, procedure, majority will or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible. As is true of leaders in all walks of life, no political leader can evade accountability for his or her exercise of power. (Evangelium Vitae 73-4) Those who justify their inaction on the grounds that abortion is the law of the land need to recognize that there is a higher law, the law of God. No human law can validly contradict the Commandment: "Thou shalt not kill".

33. The Gospel of Life must be proclaimed, and human life defended, in all places and all times. The arena for moral responsibility includes not only the halls of government, but the voting booth as well. Laws that permit abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide are profoundly unjust, and we should work peacefully and tirelessly to oppose and change them. Because they are unjust they cannot bind citizens in conscience, be supported, acquiesced in, or recognized as valid. Our nation cannot countenance the continued existence in our society of such fundamental violations of human rights.

34. We encourage all citizens, particularly Catholics, to embrace their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but as an opportunity meaningfully to participate in building the culture of life. Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts. Every act of responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant individual power. We must exercise that power in ways that defend human life, especially those of God's children who are unborn, disabled or otherwise vulnerable. We get the public officials we deserve. Their virtue -- or lack thereof -- is a judgment not only on them, but on us. Because of this, we urge our fellow citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest.


Faithful Citizenship:
A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility

In September 2003, the USCCB Administrative Committee approved the "Faithful Citizenship" statement, to prepare Catholics for the 2004 elections. It now appears on the USCCB web site. The document is intended to inform voters on a wide range of issues -- from human life and family issues to war and relations with the United Nations -- listing various social policies endorsed by the committees of the US bishops' conference.

With the release of this statement, the USCCB also launched a web section with the statement and various other materials (including suggestions for homilies, liturgies, prayers) related to the political campaign. Link to this section of the USCCB web site:

On June 15, 2004, Monsignor William Fay, USCCB General Secretary, reported that copies of "Faithful Citizenship" were sent, along with a letter from Monsignor Fay, to leaders of both major political parties: to Bill Harris, convention chairman and CEO for the Republican National Committee, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs the platform drafting committee for the Democratic National Committee.


US bishops' Task Force on the implementation of the Holy See's "Doctrinal Note"

The US bishops' conference appointed a task force to implement the Vatican's Doctrinal Note. At their November 2003 meeting, a report from this task force was presented by Bishop John Ricard. (The task force chairman, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, of Washington, DC, said that because of his location in the nation's capital, he preferred not to present the report himself.) The other members of this task force, according to the November report, are Archbishop Charles Chaput; Bishop Joseph Galante; Bishop Thomas G. Wenski; Bishop Donald Trautman; and Bishop Bernard Harrington.

Bishop Ricard reported that the task force plans to consult with the Holy See and other bishops' conferences "to bring back a set of general guidelines to help shape the prudential judgments we will make". (Access the November 2003 Task Force statement on the WFF site.)

The bishops reportedly discussed these issues at their June meeting in Denver; however, at press time, no new statement of the USCCB had yet been released. Any recent developments will be on the WFF web site as they occur.

Several original task force members have made individual statements on the issue, Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop Chaput, Bishop Galante, and Bishop Wenski, and their statements are on the WFF site -- along with other bishops' statements.

The web section also features selected commentary and background documents, including President John F. Kennedy's noted Houston speech in which he announced that his Catholic beliefs would not affect his decisions concerning state issues.

I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me.
Whatever issue may come before me as President -- on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject -- I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.


USCCB Questions and Answers on the Doctrinal Note on Catholics' participation in political life

The US bishops' Committee on Doctrine issued a brief series of questions and answers on the Holy See's Doctrinal Note, from which the following are excerpts. (Complete document on USCCB web site.)

What about the separation of "church and state"?
The Note fully supports the rightful autonomy of the political or civil sphere from that of religion or the Church. It points out that the identification of religious law with civil law can stifle religious freedom and restrict or deny other inalienable rights. Also, the state does not have the right to interfere in specifically religious activities.

However this does not mean that there is an autonomy from morality. Christians and all citizens must defend, by legitimate means, moral truths concerning society including respect for human life and other rights of the person, justice and freedom.

The fact that some of these truths may also be taught by the Church does not lessen the political legitimacy or the rightful "autonomy" of the contribution of those citizens who are committed to them.

Some may have come to these truths through reasoned inquiry or from their being taught by the Christian faith or both. In whatever way a person has come to these fundamental moral truths, in a democratic society all proposals are freely discussed and examined. To disqualify Christians from political life for acting in accord with their consciences amounts to a form of intolerant secularism.

What are the responsibilities of the lay faithful in civil and political life?
This is an arena that is worthy and appropriate for the baptized faithful as they fulfill their mission in the Church to the world. Their legitimate autonomy to deal with many matters and issues which do not involve fundamental moral principles is fully respected. However, the well-informed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political policy or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and one cannot support one of these teachings to the neglect of the others or to omit support for one of them while supporting others. Christians should collaborate in the shaping of a culture that is informed by the true dignity of the human person and the common good. (Emphasis added.)


Catholics and Political Responsibility
Vatican Statements (Canon Law, Documents) & US Bishops' Conference Statements

****Diocesan Bishops' Statements

****Selected articles, commentary

NEW USCCB Statement: Catholics in Political Life
Click title to go to USCCB web site, or HERE for summary on this site.

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