Social Balance: From the pew to the public square

April 10, 2012

From time to time I am asked whether I consider myself a Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. To wit, I typically reply, “I am a Roman Catholic.” Usually this results in a baffled expression on the part of the one making the inquiry, until I explain a bit further. Another question that is sometimes asked by fellow Catholics, “Who should I vote for?” 

Both questions, it seems to me, underscores the complex relationship people of faith, especially Catholics, have with a democratic, pluralistic society where oftentimes laws and public policy are enacted that is in serious conflict with the moral and social teachings of our tradition. 
As the next round of elections for Congress and the race for the White House intensifies, we have seen, and will continue to see, deep and divisive contrasts between the moral stance of the Church and that of many candidates for office. This why the teachings offered by the statement, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility” by the Catholic Bishops of the United States is so important. 

It is neither my role, nor that of the U.S. bishops, to tell anyone how to, or for whom, to vote, but it is important to take into account the lens through which we look at the world. The “Faithful Citizenship” statement goes a long way in providing the Catholic in the pew guidance on how to look at issues in the public square. 

They are quick to note that avoidance is not an option when they insist. “In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation” (no. 13). 

The document emphasizes the formation of our conscience based upon the moral and social teachings of the Church and of course this means that no one political party or program can fully embrace the range of beliefs encompassed in our tradition around matters of public concern. 
The bishops also point out there are some actions that must never be engaged in, and abortion and euthanasia come immediately to mind. They warn however against the misuse of these moral distinctions in that our focus on public issues cannot be limited, that there are other threats to human life and dignity. “Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy are serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act” (no. 29).

While it is true that not all issues and moral positions are equal, and our place as a people of faith in the public square can often be confusing, frustrating and even, seemingly, self-defeating, “Forming Consciences” is a thought provoking and theologically challenging document, offering up a moral framework that should inform our language and fuel our action in the political life of our nation. 
Whether we are defending the unborn, or advocating for immigration policy reform, whether we are struggling against religious bigotry, or racial discrimination, or working for housing for the homeless, or peace in the world, our tradition provides a worldview and a voice of moral strength that the world around us so desperately needs. For as Pope Benedict XVI writes in his Deus Caritas, “…charity must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and therefore also their political activity, lived as ‘social charity’” (no. 29).

“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” provides fertile ground for helping us all live out this “social charity.” 


Deacon Sam Dunning is the Director of the Archdiocesan Office of Justice and Peace and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.