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Catholics and Political Responsibility

ORAL REPORT to the USCCB June 2006 Meeting

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick
June 15, 2006

My Brother Bishops

Though it sometimes seems like forever, it was just a few years ago when I submitted a varium asking the Conference to help us address the frustrating reality of some Catholics in political life who consistently seem to reject fundamental Catholic principles in their public actions. Who knew then how much attention -- and indeed, tension -- would soon surround this topic. It is important to remember that this is not about one election or one campaign. It is about how we as bishops faithfully fulfill our responsibilities as moral teachers, as caring pastors and as leaders of the Catholic community within a democratic and pluralistic nation.

Our primary task was expressed well in our Holy Father's encyclical Deus Caritas Est. In his letter, Pope Benedict insists, "The Church cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice" (#28), and he goes on to declare:

It is not the Church's -- responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life  and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly... (#28).

Our Holy Father calls lay men and women to bring their faith, their experience and their particular competence to the pressing moral issues of our time. I quote again:

As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life... The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competences and fulfilling their own responsibility (#29).

This Task Force has been trying to address these related responsibilities. We all recognize we have much work to do. Too many Catholics -- in and out of political life -- do not know or do not understand what the Church teaches and why. Some may know our policy positions, but not the moral principles or teaching that lead to these public commitments. Sadly, some Catholic legislators may know our teaching, but choose party over faith and political advantage over Catholic teaching, thereby pursuing public policies divorced from fundamental moral principles.

In the face ofthese real challenges, we believe our earlier Task Force report and our common statement on Catholics in Political Life, overwhelmingly adopted in Denver, taken together with the Doctrinal Note and the statements, Living the Gospel of Life and Faithful Citizenship, offer the best framework for the future. Bishops around the country are using and building on these statements. I want here to emphasize that the Task Force, in all our activities and at every meeting, has insisted that there is no substitute for the local bishop's pastoral judgment and his vital relationships with Catholic public officials in his own diocese. As we expressed in Denver, bishops can come to different prudential and pastoral judgments in this area. Our modest task has been to offer assistance and tools to help bishops carry out our duties, reflecting our unity in our teaching and respecting diversity in pastoral practice in a spirit of genuine collegiality.

We have been blessed to have a very active and diverse Task Force made up of the bishop chairmen of all of the policy committees and the Doctrine Committee. Our work has been greatly enriched by the participation of Cardinal George, Archbishop Chaput and Archbishop Wuerl. In this our final report, I want to share briefly what we have done and offer some thoughts on the work which remains. The Task Force has been involved in many areas. Let me mention a few very quickly:

First, we surveyed the bishops on what your policies and practices in this area were and how the task force could be helpful.

Second, we consulted with leading moral theologians and canonists on what the Church teaches and how Canon Law can guide us.

Third, we met with representatives of our State Catholic Conferences and Catholic leaders retired from politics to draw on their experience, wisdom and advice.

Fourth, we contacted other Episcopal Conferences and asked how they deal with similar challenges in their countries.

Fifth, and perhaps most significantly, we have been in regular contact with the Holy See seeking their advice and guidance. The Holy See has been both sympathetic and supportive of our efforts. After the meeting in Denver, you will recall that then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote us and said that our efforts were "very much in harmony" with their principles.

I should add that as recommended by the Task Force, the Committee on Doctrine, with assistance from the Committee on Pastoral Practices, is working on the specific matter of Church teaching on the proper disposition to receive Holy Communion, not only for politicians, but for all of us.

Most recently, our Task Force has sought to address the other commitments we made in Denver:

First, we committed to help the bishops teach about Catholics and political life: 

Because there is often misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what the Church teaches in these areas, the Task Force has developed and our Conference has published, with the approval of the Holy See, the first comprehensive book of "Readings on Catholics and Political Life". It is being distributed to every Catholic Representative and Senator on Capitol Hill and many bishops are using it as a basis for formation and dialogue at the local level. You will be pleased to know that many Episcopal Conferences of other nations have asked for copies.

Secondly, we also committed to help the bishops promote dialogue and maintain communication:

In order to promote principled dialogue and offer some models, the Task Force has met separately with several Democratic and Republican Catholic members of the House and a significant number of Catholic Republican and Democratic Senators at their request. These meetings were candid and respectful exchanges on how Catholic faith and teaching should shape the actions of Catholics in public office. Several of these meetings greatly benefited from the participation of local bishops of the legislators participating who chose to attend.

As Chairman, I have also had the responsibility to respond to other requests to meet.  In each case I listened respectfully to their concerns and used the occasion to remind them of the duty of Catholic political leaders to stand up unequivocally for human life and the dignity of the human person and to work for greater justice and peace. Based on these efforts and drawing on the experiences of many bishops who have been in dialogue with their own Catholic political leaders, we will be offering to the bishops some questions for consideration and some suggestions for your own continuing dialogue at the diocesan and state levels.

In addition, we have heard repeatedly that many Catholic members of Congress are seeking more explicitly Catholic gatherings on Capitol Hill. Therefore, the Task Force recommended that the USCCB host periodic education/formation sessions on Catholic teaching. For example, an initial session is being held next Tuesday for members of Congress on the Holy Father's new encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Already almost 40 Catholic members of the House and Senate have said they plan to attend. 

Another commitment of the-Task Force was to help bishops carry out the policy of not giving awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for actions which fundamentally contradict Catholic teaching.

In order to advance this effort, the Task Force and the Domestic Policy Committee hosted a consultation with leaders of Catholic health care and Catholic Charities. The Task Force and the Education Committee also held a consultation with a number of presidents of Catholic colleges and universities. We have asked our Committee on Bishops and Presidents to continue this discussion within Catholic higher education. Central to both discussions was the need for clear, timely and regular communication and consultation with the local bishop. We will attempt to offer to bishops some questions for consideration and some possible clarifications in this area as well.

No Task Force or Washington activity can take the place of vital, principled, candid and respectful relationships between a bishop and Catholic public officials who serve and live in his diocese. I commend many of you, dear brothers, who are reaching out to inform and dialogue, to educate and guide and I hope all of us will follow their example. One crucial and perhaps obvious point in this dialogue with Catholic political leaders is that we are not just another constituent or community leader, we are their pastors and teachers. Our concern is not politics, nor just particular policies, but their faith and even their salvation. These dialogues are not about  winning votes, but saving souls.

Dear brothers, an essential element in all of this is the need to continue to find opportunities to discuss how we as bishops can work together better to teach about public life in ways that reinforce our common efforts. We are in this together. Every bishop has to respond to the call of his own conscience and circumstances. This is a time for respect for our common duties and different pastoral judgments as bishops, but most of all for building our unity as a body of bishops, recognizing how our individual actions affect other bishops and our entire community of faith. Please God, we are all fully committed to proclaiming the Gospel of Life and the call to Faithful Citizenship.

This current Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians comes to an end after this report and our last meeting this evening. But, I don't want Archbishop Pilarczyk to get too excited. Our outgoing Task Force has urged the Administrative Committee (and they have agreed) to give our President the authority, as events warrant, to form an ad hoc task force composed of the policy committee chairs, the chair of the Doctrine Committee, and appropriate bishop consulters. This group could continue to serve as a useful link between the Conference and Catholic legislators at the national level. It could also provide assistance to the Conference in responding to new issues regarding Catholics in political life. For example, it could playa useful role in the process for developing and strengthening our statement on Faithful Citizenship.

At the end of this session, with the President's permission, I would like to offer some very brief concluding reflections, so it's best in stop here and provide an opportunity for bishops to ask questions or make comments. I first ask if members of the Task Force have any additions or corrections and I ask their assistance in responding to questions.


Cardinal Theodore McCarrick

June 15,2006

These days, as I am experiencing a lot of "last times" and as I prepare to welcome my successor as Archbishop of Washington (and may I add that the appointment of Archbishop Wuerl is truly a wonderful gift from God and our Holy Father).... I realize that this will probably be the last time I address the body of bishops as responsible for a Conference entity. In the almost 30 years that I have been a member of the House, this present role has been more challenging than most because it covers new ground when the stakes are high and the answers are not easy. May I end my remarks by sharing a concern and a hope.

My concern is the fear that the intense polarization and bitter battles of partisan politics may be seeping into broader ecclesial life of our Catholic people and maybe even of our Conference. We are called to teach the truth, to correct errors and to call one another to greater faithfulness. However, there should be no place in the Body of Christ for the brutality of partisan politics, the impugning of motives, or turning differences in pastoral judgment into fundamental disagreements on principle. Civility and mutual respect which we must witness are not signs of weakness or lack of commitment, but solid virtues which reflect confidence and faith.

We don't fit the partisan categories. We are not chaplains to factions, but rather builders of genuine unity reflecting the truth of our faith and the diversity of our community. People can divide up the work, but they shouldn't divide the Church. We should heed the words of our Holy Father who so powerfully reminds us that "God is Love" and we are must be the signs and agents of His love.

And finally, a hope. We need more, not fewer Catholics in political life, more "faithful citizens" fundamentally committed to the defense of human life and working to apply the Church's option for the poor, our teaching on family, our principles on war and peace and our call to welcome the stranger. My hope is that all the discussion and the attention and tension surrounding this topic will lead our community of faith to be more united and more engaged, more effective and more consistent in our defense of human life and dignity, more fully the "leaven... the salt of the earth... and the light of the world" which the Lord calls us to be in these crucial days for our Church and our nation.

God bless you, my dear brothers. Thank you very much.

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