As the election season draws near, Catholics called to be faithful citizens

September 4, 2012

HOUSTON — With the 2012 fall election on the horizon, voters are closely examining and pondering pertinent social issues. Among those in the deciding electorate are the Catholic voters, who are called to follow their consciences as they participate in political life as faithful citizens.

What is faithful citizenship?
The introductory note of the U.S. bishop's document, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility" explains that the Church is "a community of faith with a long tradition of teaching and action on human life and dignity, marriage and family, justice and peace, care for creation and the common good."

Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, emphasizes that "…charity must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and therefore their political activity, lived as ‘social charity' (no. 29)."

Citing those sources, Deacon Sam Dunning, the Office of Justice and Peace director for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, also referenced the Second Vatican Council's "Guadium et Spes" to describe faithful citizenship: "Christ's love for us lets us see our human dignity — and that of all others — in full clarity and compels us to love our neighbor as he loved us."

"I would say that at the heart of being a faithful citizen is ‘service to others' … it emerges from a sense of gratitude at what God has done for us through the life, death and resurrection of Christ," Deacon Dunning said.

The U.S. bishops teach that respect for the dignity of every person — which stems from the belief that all people are created in the image and likeness of God - is at the core of Catholic moral and social teaching. 

"We are called to make certain our individual political and social decisions, as well as the actions of broader society, always take into account the needs of the poor, the suffering, the struggling and those pushed to margins," Deacon Dunning said. "Thus, in the language of the Church, we are called to pursue not only our own personal good, but also the common good."

What is the Church's role in politics?
The U.S. bishops address this question in their quadrennial document, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship." The statment was developed to help people in the pews better understand their political responsibility not just at the polls come November, but also as they consider any number of social issues locally or nationally on any given day.

"Faithful Citizenship" traditionally has been released a year before a presidential election as a teaching document on the role of faith and conscience in political life. In October 2011, the bishops reissued their 2007 document but added a new introductory note explaining that the document reflects their teaching and their guidance for Catholics as they exercise their rights and duties under American democracy.

"However, this is not about telling people how to vote or which political party to embrace," Deacon Dunning said. "As teachers, the bishops' first and primary intent is, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, ‘…to help form moral consciences in political life and to stimulate insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest.'"

The bishops model this role of the Church through their formal teachings, testimonies before government bodies and general pronouncements, such as those issued recently over the recent Health and Human Services mandate and religious freedom. "[The bishops] do not necessarily speak to the particulars of public policy," Deacon Dunning said. "Rather, they always strive to make certain the voice of the vulnerable and weak are heard in the halls of power as laws and policy are fashioned. Thus, the effort of shaping the ‘moral character of society' is not limited to only Catholics."

"How should I vote?"
The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston stands with the Catholic Church in the United States in strongly urging all parishioners to register, to become informed on key issues and to vote. The Church does not support or oppose any candidate, but seeks to focus attention on the moral and human dimensions of issues. 

"The question. [‘How should I vote?'] speaks to the quandary we Catholics find ourselves in a nation with such a rich history of diversity and differences of opinion that are inevitable in a healthy democracy," Deacon Dunning said. "No one political party can embrace the whole of our tradition's moral and social teachings."

He suggests that question is best answered with subsequent questions. First, what does the Catholic faith tradition, the scriptures and the pronouncements of the bishops say about a candidate's positions, this issue or this social concern?

"I believe that by looking through this lens of faith,rather than through the lens of self-interest, or political ideology, we are less likely to make, as the bishops state in ‘Faithful Citizenship,' ‘erroneous judgments.'"

What voter materials and messages may be distributed at parishes?

In the document, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops outlines important principles to be considered in voting: protecting human life, promoting family life, pursuing social justice and practicing global solidarity.
Teaching — during preaching at Mass or otherwise — which omits comprehensive reference to all these principles does a disservice to the Catholic bishops' efforts to fully inform the consciences of the faithful and may be viewed as selective and partisan. 

Priests in the Archdiocese are encouraged to be mindful that the goal of the Church to encourage Catholics to vote (while not endorsing specific candidates or political parties) cannot be achieved by fragmenting the message of "Faithful Citizenship."

The distribution of political literature (propaganda, endorsements of a political party or candidate, etc.) on parish property is prohibited in the Archdiocese. These publications are not proper for distribution on parish property, as they engage in partisan politics. 

The only voter education materials allowed for distribution at parishes are those produced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Archdiocese. Materials developed by parishioners or other groups are not authorized for distribution at parishes and are prohibited. 

To read the U.S. Bishops' document, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," visit

Deacon Dunning also suggests Catholics ask: How does this candidate's position, policy or social concern adversely or positively affect others, since all are created in the image and likeness of God?

"No one, no political party, no policy or law is ever perfect," Deacon Dunning said. "Rather than encouraging us to slip into a kind of apathy, this calls people of faith to be ever more vigilant and dedicated to perfecting the political and social order."

In the introduction to "Faithful Citizenship," the bishops name six particular concerns for the Church: threats to the lives and dignity of others who are vulnerable, sick or unwanted; conscience threats to Catholic ministries in health care, education and social services; efforts to redefine marriage; an economic crisis that has increased national and global unemployment, poverty and hunger;failure to repair a broken immigration system; and moral questions raised by wars, terror and violence, particularly in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East.

Can faithful citizens really make a difference?
"I believe that if there were only a small percentage of increase in Catholics who took up the difficult, often frustrating moral struggle to aim our tradition and teachings onto our political process — this nation would be even greater, even more generous, an even brighter beacon on the hill," Deacon Dunning said. 

He acknowledged one of the most common complaints he hears is that Catholics are forced to choose between two alternatives — neither of which seems satisfactory. 

"I believe that if more Catholics were committed to being 'faithful citizens,' then we would no longer be so constrained — we would have more candidates in both parties who sought out and pursued the common good," Deacon Dunning said. "We would have a different agenda in this country that included the unborn and the poor on the same page." 

— Catholic News Service contributed to this story.