September 26, 2020 // Bishop

Faithful Citizenship in a Divided Nation: The Political Responsibility of Catholics


The following is a talk given by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades on September 24 at Holy Cross College, Notre Dame.

In this talk on faithful citizenship and our political responsibility as Catholics, I will begin with a look at the division, polarization, and extreme partisanship in our nation.  I will look at the political homelessness Catholics who are faithful to the teachings of the Church feel, particularly in relation to our two main political parties and their platforms. I will look at our political responsibility as Catholics, as faithful citizens, in the situation we find ourselves in today. This entails fidelity to Catholic social doctrine, the lack of which has sadly led to polarization among American Catholics. I will look at some of the main polarizing issues in the cultural and political debate and where Catholics should stand on these issues in fidelity to our rich social doctrine. Such fidelity would lead to greater unity among Catholics, thus enabling us to be truly a leaven in society for greater unity and harmony.

Faithful citizenship demands that Catholics hold fast to the teachings of the Church and not succumb to the temptation of adopting positions of either political party that are inimical to the truths of our faith.  In the United States today, being a Catholic and a faithful citizen does make us, in a sense, truly politically homeless. So how do we live and act and exercise our citizenship as so-called “resident aliens” or, as Archbishop Chaput calls us, in the title of his recent book, “strangers in a strange land”?  Of course, we should not be surprised to find ourselves in this position. Did not St. Paul teach us that “our citizenship is in heaven”? And does not the letter to the Hebrews say: “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come?” Like God’s people of old, we recognize that we are only pilgrims and sojourners on earth (Hebrews 11:13). This truth, however, does not exempt us from our responsibilities in the earthly city, including our political responsibilities, but it puts things in perspective, gives us hope, and motivates us to bear witness to Christ and the truth of  the Gospel in a polarized society in need of justice, peace, and fraternity.

Let us look at the division and polarization in our nation. We are all aware of the widening political chasm in our country. All you have to do is turn on any news channel on TV or skim political news on the internet. There is not only a lot of disagreement on issues, which is nothing new, but a growing anger and outrage that some have called a “public epidemic in America.” Many in the news media have fueled this anger through biased coverage, sensationalism, and political flame-throwing. Social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, have often become forums used more for the expression of divisive and nasty commentary than for constructive and civil dialogue. Traditional social mores and norms of conversation are thrown to the wind. Respect for those with whom one disagrees is often missing. It has become culturally acceptable to abuse and injure other people and damage and destroy their reputation. Even many Christians engage in such a manner, seemingly oblivious to the eighth commandment’s prohibition of rash judgment, slander, and calumny. The anonymity of social media emboldens some people to behave badly. We must not forget that we are not anonymous to God.

Pope Francis has recognized this, noting that “Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned” (Gaudete et Exultate 115). This lack of civil dialogue and respect for others is a moral and spiritual problem, an area in which Christians should be setting a good example. Sadly, this is too often not the case. One need only look at some so-called “Catholic” media sites where rash judgment, defamation, slander, and calumny are common. The vitriol and hate of some Catholics, even towards our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is disturbing. The vitriol and sinful anger in letters and emails bishops receive — that I have received — from some Catholics makes me shudder. I wonder how the writers can consider themselves good Catholics when their attitudes and words are so contrary to the Gospel of Jesus. Catholics should be part of the solution, not part of the problem that we face in our polarized society. We are called to be better.

There are a number of issues about which Americans today are polarized, represented by positions of our two main political parties. The Church does not approach these issues according to political ideology or party, but according to our moral teachings and the demands of faith. As the Church, we approach issues from the perspective of Scripture and Tradition. We engage in moral discernment of issues based on the social doctrine of the Church, an organic system founded in biblical revelation and in the tradition of the Church. Through its social doctrine, the Church brings the light of the Gospel to social questions and issues. The Church approaches social issues from a faith perspective, a faith that interacts with reason. The Church’s social doctrine, which is centered on the mystery of Christ and His Gospel, has rationality and makes use of the contributions of philosophy and the human sciences. It recognizes the insights and discoveries of science, and only objects when science steps into the realm of moral judgments. The Church’s Magisterium has developed this social doctrine and teaches it authoritatively. Catholic social teaching provides the light of moral truth to Catholics in the formation of their consciences. It is also directed to all people of good will.

There are parts of the traditional platforms of both the Republican and Democratic parties that are in accord with Catholic social teaching. There are also parts of each platform that are not.  This creates a dilemma for many faithful Catholics. They feel politically homeless. As a result, many choose to be Independent. Others choose to remain in their respective parties, though are critical of their party’s positions that are morally problematic. Others switch parties because they discern the other party to be more in line with their faith. In sum, there are Catholics in both parties who strive to maintain their Catholic identity above their party affiliation and others who have chosen to become independent.

There is also the sad reality of Catholics who choose their parties over the Church. They dissent from Church teaching in some areas by embracing positions of their party that go against Church teaching. This has led to polarization within the Church. Catholics who are more Democrat than they are Catholic and Catholics who are more Republican than they are Catholic have brought about a disunity that hinders our evangelizing mission.  Rather than embracing and spreading the beautiful and prophetic social doctrine of the Church, they pay lip service to it or reject it completely. The Church is losing a great evangelizing opportunity because Catholics are divided by their political allegiances or by ideologies, instead of being united with the Pope and Bishops in fidelity to the Church’s moral and social teaching and to the obligations of justice and charity that we have in society.

This brings me to the central question of this talk: What does it mean to be a faithful citizen in our divided nation, and what is our political responsibility as Catholics?  To be a faithful citizen means putting one’s Christian discipleship ahead of allegiance to one’s political party and placing fidelity to the Church’s teaching ahead of any political ideology. If one is a Democrat, one should reject and work to repeal parts of the party platform that are inimical to the truths of our faith. The same is true if one is a Republican. I believe every faithful Catholic today feels a certain political homelessness, whether they are Democrat or Republican. I am not necessarily recommending that people become Independent since, in doing so, one loses somewhat his or her voice, especially in states where they cannot vote in primary elections. If one chooses to be Independent, one must still be wary of embracing ideologies and positions contrary to the faith. Another option is joining another political party. Four years ago, I learned about the American Solidarity Party, a relatively new political party that seems to have a platform largely based on the principles of Catholic social teaching, like past Christian Democrat Parties in Europe. It doesn’t seem that this party has gained much traction. Can a third party succeed in our nation? I’m not sure.  With so much dissatisfaction among the electorate, and given the political homelessness many feel, especially Catholics, I thought there was potential for the American Solidarity Party. Now I’m not sure. Most people have not even heard of it.

Provided by Lisa Kochanowski
At the invitation of college officials, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades speaks to students and faculty members of Holy Cross College, South Bend, Sept. 24 about forming one’s conscience on the issues affecting this year’s presidential election.

As citizens, we must not shirk our political responsibilities. As Catholics, we must not shirk our Christian responsibility to promote the common good. The Church teaches that the promotion and protection of the common good should be the purpose and goal of all political activity and of government itself. If we are tempted to withdraw from political participation, we must remember our moral responsibility to be engaged for the sake of the common good. The Catechism speaks of how our co-responsibility for the common good makes it obligatory, for example, to exercise the right to vote.  Voting, however, is not the only way we can be engaged. I mentioned bearing witness to our moral truths and social doctrine within political parties. It is also important to do so in the public square, in the media, and even in everyday conversations. Witnessing to our values at work and in the community is also important. For example, active participation in pro-life groups and activities, in community efforts to combat racism, in organizations that help and advocate for the poor and needy, in campaigns of justice for immigrants, in ecological movements and activities for the protection of our common home, in peace-building initiatives, etc. There are opportunities in parishes for education and advocacy as well as through engagement in promoting the works of Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services.

Of course, these ideas for engagement presuppose one’s belief in the teachings of the Church. I believe that the polarization among American Catholics often results from lack of knowledge, misunderstanding, or sometimes simply dissent from the social doctrine of the Church. The remedy for this polarization, then, is truly learning and embracing this teaching. Imagine the good fruits for our nation if Catholics were united in our commitment to the common good, respect for the life and dignity of every human being, commitment to justice and peace, love for the poor, and care for the earth, our common home. Imagine the good fruits for the Church’s evangelizing mission among youth and young adults. So many Catholic young adults are attracted to, and energized by, the Church’s consistent ethic in fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus, the Gospel of life. They are turned off by the inconsistency (and even hypocrisy) of far-right and far-left ideologies.

I would now like to look at some of the issues about which Americans are polarized. Economic issues are perhaps at the forefront. For decades, polls have shown that most often the economy is decisive for many voters. Economic concerns and policies are hotly debated.  Economic philosophies that diverge at a fundamental level create polarization, specifically regarding the activity of government in the economic sphere. On one side, people advocate for more government activity and regulation of business and the economy, with the concomitant need for more tax revenue.  The other side sees this as socialism and advocates for less government activity and regulation and lower taxes. The first side sees this as inhumane capitalism and argues for more government intervention in economic matters. It is deeply troubled by income inequality, while the other is troubled by the infringement on economic freedom and fears the creation a welfare state. I am generalizing here. Economic philosophy is more complex, but for our purposes, I think this is adequate for describing the polarization over economics.

Central American migrants are seen inside an enclosure in El Paso, Texas, March 27, 2019. Over the last year, Catholic dioceses on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico, in places such as El Paso and Brownsville, Texas, scrambled to accommodate the growing number of children, men and women crossing the border, seeking asylum and entering the U.S. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

Immigration is another polarizing issue. One side favors a more generous immigration policy, the legal admission of more immigrants and refugees to our country, and a path to citizenship for those who are in our country illegally. The other side favors a more restrictive immigration policy, is skeptical about receiving refugees, and opposes a path to citizenship for those who are in our country illegally.

There’s polarization in our culture and politics regarding a whole constellation of issues dealing with human life: abortion, physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, capital punishment, and racism. On the matter of abortion, there is deep polarization between pro-life and pro-(legal) abortion advocates. The same with physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. On the matter of capital punishment, there are those who strongly support and those who strongly oppose, and often, at least among party elites, many of those who defend the life of the unborn do not defend the lives of those on death row, and vice-versa. Even on the issue of racism, an evil which both sides condemn, one side sees it as a systemic problem, while the other sees it as an evil largely eradicated in our nation.

The environment is another polarizing issue. One side is deeply concerned about ecology and global environmental deterioration, global warming, the depletion of natural resources, and the loss of biodiversity. This side advocates for a global political response as an urgent need and priority. Those on the other side may express some concern, but do not view the problem with the same urgency and are resistant to international regulation. They tend to resist environmental legislation that could interfere with the free market and may even deny any human causes of global warming.

This list of polarizing issues is not exhaustive, but they are the ones I hear most discussed in the political debates in our nation at the present time. It is troubling that some do not even desire to engage on the issues. The desire to have a productive conversation about the issues is increasingly absent because of an “us vs. them” mentality which is not good for our nation.

I invite you to reflect on our responsibility as Catholics to be engaged and to propose in conversation and in the public square the social doctrine of the Church. I will now try to apply our Catholic social doctrine to the polarizing issues I mentioned and the stance that Catholics should take in relation to these issues.

The first issue I mentioned is economics. Fundamentally, we believe, as the Catechism teaches, that “economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole man, and of the entire human community. Economic activity, conducted according to its own proper methods, is to be exercised within the limits of the moral order, in keeping with social justice so as to correspond to God’s plan for man” (CCC 2426).

Much of the polarization in our nation over economic policy has to do with the role of the government. As Catholics, we are not socialists: we believe in individual freedom and private property. At the same time, we are not economic libertarians. We do not believe in unbridled capitalism. We stand up for the dignity of workers and the moral requirement of just wages. We recognize the value and effectiveness of the free market yet believe that it must be firmly rooted in ethical objectives. Freedom in the economic sector must be circumscribed within a juridical framework that protects human dignity and serves the common good. Catholic teaching recognizes the need for government action, not to stifle economic freedom or enterprise, not to be invasive, but to defend and promote the common good and the right of everyone to economic initiative, respecting the principles of both subsidiarity and solidarity. Government has a duty to guarantee the security of a stable currency and efficient public services. The government should not restrict the free initiative of individuals in business, but instead has “a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis” (Pope John Paul II, Centesimus annus 48), as in the situation of the present pandemic. While observing the principle of subsidiarity, the state has a role in addressing social inequalities through economic policies that foster the participation of all citizens in economic life, providing just, efficient and effective public financing that encourages employment growth, helps sustain businesses, and guarantees systems like Social Security and Medicaid that protect the weakest members of society. Government must ensure that public spending is directed to the common good and that there is a reasonable and fair application of taxes.

There is a lot of room for prudential judgment in applying the principles of Catholic social teaching in the area of the economy. Yet, the principles the Church upholds provide a framework that avoids the pitfalls and injustices of both socialism and unbridled capitalism. The Church’s voice is needed to ensure that the demands of morality, without which justice and solidarity are not possible, are observed in the area of the economy.

The next issue: immigration, one of the most polarizing issues in the political debate four years ago. Since this issue is still such an emotional one today, it is critical that we have a rational civil dialogue on immigration in our nation. And here the voice of the Catholic Church needs to be heard. Though immigration is a political topic, it is also a moral issue because it involves the dignity of the human person, the basis of all Catholic social teaching. Many of today’s immigrants have come here because of economic conditions in their home countries that undermine human dignity. Some have come here as refugees, escaping political or religious persecution. Some have come here legally and others illegally, the latter being the subject of much of our political debate.

What does the Magisterium of the Church teach about immigration? Here’s what the Catechism says: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive them” (CCC 2241). We can be proud of our nation’s historic record in welcoming immigrants seeking security and the means of livelihood. My grandfather immigrated from Greece at a time of great economic hardship. He was always grateful for the welcome he received in our country. Notice the Church’s teaching that more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome foreigners in search of security and the means of livelihood they can’t find in their home countries. We bishops believe that today our nation, with all its great resources, is not living up to this moral obligation, which is why we advocate for a more generous immigration policy, especially our responsibility today when there are at least 79.5 million people around the world who have been forced to leave their homes, among them 26 million refugees, about half of whom are under the age of 18. There is a natural right to migrate to flee violence, persecution, and life-threatening poverty. We have a moral duty to welcome people in such dire straits, to the extent that we are able. This is a moral imperative in consideration of the universal common good.

Regarding the situation of those who enter our country illegally, it is important to note that the Church does not condone illegal immigration. At the same time, we insist upon the just and humane treatment of undocumented immigrants, upholding their human dignity, guarding their safety, and preserving their family unity. This is a humanitarian issue. It involves the welfare of human beings created in the image of God. We believe that adopting a legalization program is the best way to preserve their human dignity. Of course, we agree about the need for proper screening of undocumented immigrants as a security issue, after which, recognizing, but not condoning, that our laws have been broken, we bishops favor allowing undocumented immigrants to earn the right to remain through their hard work and their good character. There may be just penalties imposed, depending upon the intent and the effect of the breaking of our laws, like paying a fine as well as any taxes owed. We do not consider undocumented immigrants to be criminals according to the standard use of the term, since immigration violations have traditionally and rightly been enforced as violations of civil laws. I realize that there is some room for debate here, but I don’t think there is room for debate on the issue of DACA. I believe there is a moral imperative for our nation to allow young people who were brought here as children, and only know this country as home, the ability to become legalized.

As I now turn to the life issues, I would note that immigration can also be considered a life issue. The entire social doctrine of the Church develops from the fundamental principle of the inviolable dignity of the human person. A just society is only possible if it is based on respect for the transcendent dignity of the human person. The truth about the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death is the foundation for Church teaching on abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, racism, and immigration. Political authority has the duty to recognize and respect the inalienable rights of the human person, beginning with the right to life.

Just as economic libertarianism, rooted in individualism, is problematic in its understanding of freedom as absolute autonomy, a severing of freedom from moral truth by supporting extreme capitalism, so also social libertarianism, also rooted in individualism, is problematic in its understanding of freedom as absolute autonomy, a severing of freedom from moral truth by supporting legalized abortion.

“Laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual” (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 72). The Church teaches that “abortion and euthanasia are crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize” (ibid 73). It is wrong for anyone, and especially scandalous for Catholic public officials and political candidates, to support intrinsically unjust laws, such as those permitting abortion or euthanasia (cf. ibid). We, the U.S. Bishops, state the following in the new introduction to our document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.” We do not consider attacks on innocent human life morally equivalent to other issues. It is the preeminent priority.  Victims of abortion are the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family. Also, as Pope John Paul II taught: “It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop” (Evangelium vitae 101). At the same time, we do not consider other issues regarding human life and dignity unimportant: it is not an either/or. As Pope Francis teaches, which we quote in the introduction to Faithful Citizenship: “The call to holiness requires a firm and passionate defense of the innocent unborn.  Equally sacred are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned, and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.” While we bishops affirm the preeminence of the threat of abortion as a priority, we state that “at the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”

Tara Becker,

The Catholic Church teaches a consistent ethic of life, an ethic that our nation desperately needs. There is an inconsistency in our political parties, where one party basically supports abortion on demand and the other supports the death penalty, for example. Though these are not morally equivalent issues, they both involve lack of respect for human life. Connected to our defense of the dignity of every human person, which is the source of all human rights, is our preferential love for the poor and the outcast, the marginalized. Connected to our defense of the dignity of every human person is our recognition of what Pope John Paul II called “the social sins which cry to heaven” (Ecclesia in America 56). These include the sins of violence, the drug trade, the arms race, racial discrimination, inequality between social groups and the irrational destruction of nature (ibid). In the words of Saint John Paul II, “There can be no true democracy without a recognition of every person’s dignity and without respect for his or her rights. Nor can there be true peace unless life is defended and promoted” (Evangelium Vitae 101). We need a fundamental change in our culture. We need a new culture of life. The embrace of a consistent ethic of life based on the principle of the dignity of every human person would create “a new culture of love and solidarity” for the “true good” of our nation and “of the whole of human society” (ibid).

This is the cover of the English edition of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’,” on Care for Our Common Home.” How has the Church responded five years after the release of “Laudato Si'”? (CNS photo/courtesy U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)

The final polarizing issue I wish to address is the environment. In our Introductory Letter to Faithful Citizenship, we bishops state the following: “we must find ways to care better for God’s creation, especially those most impacted by climate change – the poor – and protect our common home. We must resist the throw-away culture and seek integral development for all.” We should be grateful for the prophetic teachings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the environment, and especially for the prophetic encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home. The Holy Father addressed that letter not only to Catholics, but to “every person living on this planet.” This letter, which calls for “ecological conversion,” has shaken many from passivity in the face of global environmental deterioration.  I was personally awakened to this crisis in my visits with CRS to Ethiopia, Haiti, the West Bank and Gaza, and El Salvador. It is disturbing and frustrating for me to see polarization among Catholics on this issue. So many can be blinded by political ideology. The Church’s teaching is not ideological. We reject the fanaticism of environmentalists who ignore “human ecology,” and we reject the fanaticism of deniers of climate change and the environmental crisis. “Care for creation is a moral issue. Protecting the land, water, and air we share is a religious duty of stewardship and reflects our responsibility to born and unborn children, who are most vulnerable to environmental assault” (Faithful Citizenship 86). Protection of the environment is a responsibility for the common good of humanity, not only today, but tomorrow.  We must all ponder the question posed by Pope Francis: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (Laudato Si 160). This is a global issue and requires action by the international community through enforceable global political agreements to confront this problem. Decisive action to protect the environment is also needed within our nation. A healthy political discussion is needed to break the inertia. This is difficult when some will not even recognize the problem.  Here, the Church’s moral voice, together with the voice of scientists, needs to be heard to counter irrational and immoral ideologies which disregard the grave damage that has been done to the natural environment. All Catholics should share the sentiments of Pope Benedict XVI who said: “Preservation of the environment, promotion of sustainable development and particular attention to climate change are matters of grave concern for the entire human family” (Letter to Patriarch Bartholomew, Sept. 1, 2007).

Every issue I’ve addressed in this talk could have been a lecture or a book in itself. This has been a general overview of some, not all, of the important issues facing our nation, issues that reveal the polarization within politics and ultimately within our culture. I believe that the Church’s social doctrine not only positively contributes to our nation’s political discussions, but also addresses underlying problems, including our culture’s increasing moral relativism and distorted notion of freedom, which hurt the common good of our nation. I have not had time to speak about the very important issues of religious freedom, marriage and family, peacemaking and avoiding war, issues on which there are also polarized viewpoints. There has been some political debate on these issues in the current election season, but, from what I’ve seen in the news, not as much as the issues I’ve presented in this talk. I could not, in the time allotted, treat all the issues of importance and necessity for the common good. In any event, I hope this talk has been helpful for your own reflection as citizens of our nation (this earthly city) and as citizens of the Kingdom of God (the heavenly city). May God bless you and our nation at this critical time!

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