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Catholics and Political Responsibility

USCCB Report:Task Force on the "Doctrinal Note...
on the Participation of Catholics in Political Life"
presented by Bishop John H. Ricard, SSJ

Monday, November 10, 2003

Mr. President, My brother bishops,

My assigned task this morning is to report on the initial work of a Task Force of our Conference addressing relations of Catholic bishops and Catholic politicians in light of the Doctrinal Note from the Holy See on "Catholics in Public Life."

This Task Force is a result of a varium offered by Cardinal McCarrick. In September, our Administrative Committee voted to refer this matter to a task force made up of the chairmen of the major public policy committees and the Doctrine Committee of our Conference. The task force has been established and met by conference call on October 27. The Task Force includes Cardinal McCarrick, Domestic Policy Committee; Archbishop Chaput, Pro-Life Activities; Bishop Galante, Communications; Bishop Wenski, Migration; Bishop Trautman, Doctrine Committee and myself from the International Policy. Bishop Harrington from Education was unable to participate in this first session.

In our first meeting, we decided to ask for this limited time to discuss this important matter in open session. We also seek your help and advice and will consult with the Holy See and other episcopal conferences on how this guidance of the Universal Church can best be applied. We reached an initial consensus that the best way forward may be to develop, based on the policies and advice of the bishops and the efforts of other conferences, a set of guidelines to assist bishops in this challenging matter. We also agreed that such guidelines should probably be linked to a prefatory statement which would outline the foundations of Catholic teaching on faith and political responsibility.

These guidelines could help us carry forward together our demanding and interrelated responsibilities as moral teachers, caring pastors and religious leaders. It was felt the guidelines needed to be carefully developed, drawn from the best of existing policies and practices, making necessary distinctions and permitting bishops to exercise their own prudential judgments on how best to apply them. Among the distinctions discussed were the difference between honors for politicians and appropriate dialogue and advocacy of our positions with political leaders. We also need to distinguish between respect for the office and approval of the officeholder. Of course we need to distinguish between fundamental moral principles and prudential judgments on the application of those principles, between essential substance and tactics. The important role of the laity was highlighted as was the need to not limit our concern to one issue no matter how fundamental that issue is.

The Doctrinal Note teaches us many things. Two of the most important are: First, and I quote "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." And second, it goes on to insist, "The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church's social doctrine does not exhaust one's responsibility towards the common good."

In this light, we face a serious pastoral challenge. Some Catholic politicians defy Church teaching in their policy advocacy and legislative votes, first and most fundamentally on the defense of unborn life, but also on the use of the death penalty, questions of war and peace, the role of marriage and family, the rights of parents to choose the best education for their children, the priority for the poor, and welcome for immigrants. Some Catholic legislators choose their party over their faith, their ideology over Catholic teaching, the demands of their contributors over the search for the common good. While all these matters are clearly not of equal moral weight, there is a too common pattern of ignoring the values of our faith and pursuing a political agenda divorced from fundamental moral principles.

We've all heard Catholic political leaders insisting "I'm personally opposed to abortion, but can't impose my convictions on others," when many public choices involve acting on our convictions even when others disagree. We've seen Catholic representatives and judges cavalierly dismiss the witness of Pope John Paul II and the teaching of the Catechism on the use of the death penalty. We've seen members of our faith seem indifferent or hostile to Catholic teachings on life and death, war and peace, the priority of the poor and welcome for immigrants.

In this effort we must be principled, courageous and wise. We need to persuade, not just proclaim, to engage not condemn. But we also must tell the truth. When Catholics deny what our faith teaches or insist their faith has no role in their public choices, we have to find effective ways to make clear what our Church teaches and that public life should reflect our deepest values, not just partisan or ideological agenda, or the demands of special interests.

Our message is positive. Our faith gives us moral principles and ethical criteria to guide our public choices. Our nation is enriched, not diminished when we bring our deepest convictions to public debate and decisions. These religious and moral convictions have been at the heart of the civil rights struggle and the defense of the unborn, the pursuit of peace and the search for economic justice. Every believer, every Catholic, especially those in public life, needs to ask does our faith shape our politics or other way around?

We are not a sect fleeing the world. We constantly pray to Our Father, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." We are called to be the "salt of the earth," the "light of the world," the "leaven in society." This is not always easy. As we pointed out in Faithful Citizenship, "At this time, some Catholics may feel politically homeless, sensing that no political party and too few candidates share a consistent concern for human life and dignity. However, this is not a time for retreat or discouragement. We need more, not less engagement in political life by Catholics."

Our goal is to help all the Catholic faithful, including Catholic political leaders, to more fully understand and embrace the teaching of our faith. We also seek to be effective in shaping our society so that all children have the opportunity to see the day of their birth as well as the opportunity to live a decent life, free of poverty and suffering. For guidance, we can look to the prophetic example of Pope John Paul II, who speaks to all and who speaks the truth.

So we come to you - now and in the days ahead - asking for your guidance. How do you teach and preach, engage and persuade in this environment? How do you carry out your roles as faithful teachers and pastors, advocates and leaders?

We will also consult with the Holy See and other bishops Conferences. We plan to bring back a set of general guidelines to help shape the prudential judgments we will make.

Our Faithful Citizenship statement offers a way forward. It calls us to be:

* political, but not partisan
* principled, but not ideological
* clear, but also civil
* engaged, but not used.

I and the other members of or Task Force look forward to your advice and guidance today and in the days and weeks ahead.

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