The American bishops’ landmark 2007 instruction to Catholics about politics will be not be changed, but will be re-issued in its original form. Titled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, these instructions had come under fire from those, like former GOP Catholic liaison Deal Hudson, who complained bitterly that the 2007 document afforded cherry-picking by Democrats anxious to win church neutrality even for pro-choice candidates. Today, three years into the Obama presidency, the bishops are set to renew their support for Faithful Citizenship and its 2007 language.
What makes this all but certain was the release Tuesday of a brief introductory note over the signature of U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops president Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York with unanimous endorsements from all bishops who head policy committees of the conference. That note re-affirms the 2007 insistence that Catholics are morally obliged in political life to attend not only to the most important issue of abortion, but also to those of family, poverty, social justice, environment and peace.
Catholics should be pleased. Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship is a poignant articulation of the Catholic argument for good citizenship. Its teachings are both timeless statements of political responsibility and timely reflections on the moral imperatives of contemporary governance and citizenship. We are reminded at once that the church’s moral and social teachings transcend partisan politics and yet they also sharply challenge the ideologies fragmenting American political life–and challenge too the specific party platforms of Democrats and Republicans. More importantly, we’re reminded that in the Catholic understanding politics is itself good, that the political order arose not out of human sin but from the Creator’s intention that we be citizens, that governance is not a necessary evil but natural and divinely ordained, and that it is the moral obligation of government to promote life, serve the poor, build peace, assure health care, strengthen families, advance a living wage and employment for all, steward the earth, and bring justice to inequities.
Like Pope Benedict XVI’s wonderful encyclical
(Saved by Hope) that was also released in 2007, Faithful Citizenship insists that the operative virtue of political life is prudence. In Spe Salvi, the pontiff critiqued the ideologies of the modern world that promise to replace prudence with formulaic certainty in the unfolding of human affairs. In the same way, Faithful Citizenship insists that while Catholics are required in public life to address issues of life and social justice, they do so not with formulaic, ideological programs but with prudence (and maybe too, humility) grounded in a comprehensive, faith-based understanding of the human person, the human condition.
Sadly, reports suggest that few Catholics are even aware of
. Yet this powerful and clear teaching on the place of Catholics in public life has a special urgency for America today: a nation bitterly divided along partisan and ideological fault lines and roiled by hyper-individualistic movements on the far left and far right that deny the very legitimacy of its tenets. The American bishops need to bring the message of Faithful Citizenship to American Catholics. It should be in hands of every journalist and blogger in the country. It should be distributed in Catholic high schools and colleges. Homilies should be devoted to it. Talks and forums should be organized.
The American bishops, moreover, would do well to read this document again themselves. A marvelous crystallization of Catholics teachings about the person, the community, the common good, and the morality of governance, Faithful Citizenship should serve as the bishops’ own map for political engagement in American politics. The political engagement it preaches is neither a juridical one of judgment and censure nor a pietistic one of withdrawal and turning-inward. Faithful Citizenship demands from everyone a much richer and more positive participation in public life.
Stephen F. Schneck, Ph.D., is director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.