February 25, 2016 // Uncategorized

Political responsibility: Citizens of two cities

Presentation by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades at Saint Vincent de Paul Parish, Fort Wayne, on February 21, 2016

Click here for an audio version of this talk. The audio starts at minute 12.

I’ve been asked to speak this evening on a very important topic – our call to political responsibility as expressed in the USCCB document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship and also, in the context of this Year of Mercy, on the pastoral letter of the Indiana Bishops on poverty here in Indiana.

I’d like to begin by sharing some general teachings of the Church about political life.

You probably know the motto of Bishop Dwenger High School: Citizens of Two Worlds. This expresses a truth of our faith. The Second Vatican Council used the expression of Saint Augustine: citizens of two cities, the city of God and the city of man. In today’s second reading, we heard Saint Paul’s words to the Philippians: our citizenship is in heaven. Jesus Himself said that we are in the world, but we are not to be of the world. So we are citizens of two worlds: earth and heaven, human society and the Church. Pope Saint John Paul II reflected on this union that exists from being members of the Church and citizens of human society. He wrote: There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual’ life, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social relationships, in the responsibilities of public life, and in culture. Saint John Paul warned about the grave consequences that come when faith is separated from life and the gospel is separated from culture. (Christifideles Laici 59). The Second Vatican Council taught the following: The Council exhorts Christians, as citizens of one city and the other, to strive to perform their earthly duties faithfully in response to the spirit of the Gospel. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly respnsibilites; for they are forgetting that by faith itself they are more than ever obliged to measure up to these duties, each according to one’s vocation… This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (Gaudium et spes 43).

Among our earthly responsibilities is politics, our responsibility to be faithful citizens. To be a faithful citizen, one must first have a correctly formed conscience. To make good political choices, we must make prudential decisions that are based on well-formed consciences. We have a serious obligation to form our consciences in accord with human reason and Church teaching. Here is what the U.S. bishops state in our document: Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church. Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere ‘feeling’ about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil. Conscience always requires serious attempts to make sound moral judgments based on the truths of our faith” (#17).

Like other matters of decision-making in our lives, it is essential when it comes to political choices and voting that we make prudent decisions in light of a well-formed conscience. The bishops explain that there are several elements included in the formation of conscience: First, there is a desire to embrace goodness and truth. For Catholics, this begins with a willingness and openness to seek the truth and what is right by studying Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church…. It is also important to examine the facts and background information about various choices. Finally, prayerful reflection is essential to discern the will of God. Catholics must also understand that if they fail to form their consciences in the light of the truths of the faith and the moral teachings of the Church they can make erroneous judgments (#18).

After explaining the formation of conscience, the bishops’ document then presents a section on the virtue of prudence. This is very important. It has to do with discernment, looking at the alternatives for example when considering legislation or when considering which candidate to vote for in an election. The Catechism teaching that prudence enables us to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it (#1806). Clearly, this is important in making choices in our life, including political choices. Prudence shapes and informs our ability to deliberate over available alternatives, to determine what is most fitting to a specific context, and to act decisively. Exercising this virtue often requires the courage to act in defense of moral principles when making decisions about how to build a society of justice and peace (#19).

One way to look at making prudent decisions is to use the method used in the pastoral letter of the bishops of Indiana on poverty. The letter is divided in three parts: see, judge, act! We first look at the situation. Then, using a well-formed conscience, we judge. Then, we act. We take some action (for example, we vote). In general, when it comes to political decisions, we have to discern what public policies are morally sound. Now in many situations, there can be different judgments regarding the best means to respond to social problems like poverty. We’re all bound to embrace the principles of Catholic moral and social teaching, which I will speak about a little later. But there are certain social problems where there are not different judgments that can be made; problems that involve what the Church calls “intrinisic evils,” such as abortion and euthanasia, since the taking of innocent human life is always and everywhere wrong.

The US bishops’ document looks at making prudential judgments regarding good and moral choices in the political arena. It says we must always reject and oppose intrinsic evils. They can never be supported or condoned. It is a mistake of grave moral consequences, for example, to be “pro-choice.”  Certain things cannot ever be justified, for example: abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, destructive research on embryos, genocide, torture, terror, acts of racism, and redefining marriage. Now we shouldn’t just think about these negative duties, but also the positive duties that they entail, the various means that we should support that contribute to the common good, respect for human life, care for the poor, protection of the environment, etc.

There are two extremes that the bishops warn us about in this whole discussion. One extreme is what we call “moral equivalence.” This is the view that makes no distinction between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. Let me give an example: though they are connected and are both “life issues,” abortion and capital punishment are not morally equivalent. Same-sex marriage and poverty are not morally equivalent issues. Issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. should not be seen as just one issue among many. We can call them “preeminent.” Now, there is an opposite extreme, that of dismissing or ignoring other issues that are also very serious threats to human life and dignity, issues like the death penalty, environmental harm, and poverty. These are also moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. They are not optional concerns.

In discussing “making moral choices,” the bishops note that decisions about political life are often complex. They require the exercise of a well-formed conscience aided by the virtue of prudence. We must always oppose laws and policies that violate human life or weaken its protection. Sometimes we can support morally flawed laws to limit their harm. There are often imperfect pro-life laws, for example. We can support such laws because they provide some protection of unborn human life and bring incremental improvement. Saint John Paul II wrote about this in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae 73.

In making moral choices we are called to apply Catholic social teaching to the issues before us. And there are many issues in which we have a rich body of Catholic moral and social teaching: economic issues, health care, housing, education, immigration, etc. We should look for the Church’s guidance. The pope and the bishops often take positions on these issues. Though they don’t teach with the same moral authority as statements of universal moral teaching, they are still important for us to carefully listen to and consider. The principles behind the analysis done by the pope and bishops are obligatory for us. There are four principles of Catholic social teaching that we must follow: the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, the common good, and solidarity. I only have time to briefly describe these four principles, but I encourage you to study them on your own. We have such a rich tradition of social teaching using these four principles. No other church or religious tradition has such a deep and systematic teaching on social life. The social doctrine of the Church is a rich field of study, something that needs to be more widely known, including among Catholics. Some speak of Catholic social teaching as the best-kept secret of the Catholic Church.

In looking at the four principles, I would say that they can all be considered actually within one of them: the common good. We hear this term a lot, but what does it mean? A succinct definition is found in Gaudium et spes #26 and is quoted in the Catechism: the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily (CCC 1906). Notice that the common good concerns the life of all (ibid). The Catechism teaches that it consists of three essential elements:

1. The common good presupposes the principle of respect for the life and dignity of the human person, from the moment of conception to natural death, which is the first and fundamental principle of Catholic moral and social teaching. Public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person (CCC 1907). This includes the right to life and the right to religious freedom. It includes the right to fulfill one’s vocation.

2. Secondly, the common good requires the social well-being and development of the group itself. I think this embraces the two great principles of Catholic social teaching: subsidiarity and solidarity.

a. Pope Saint John Paul II gave a very good definition of subsidiarity: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good (Centesimus Annus 48). This is part of human dignity as well. The family, of course, is the first and fundamental unit of society. It should be defended and strengthened, not undermined, by the state. Basically, subsidiarity means that larger institutions in society should not overwhelm or interfere with smaller or local institutions (FCFC 48). Now this doesn’t mean that the state should never interfere. If a community or institution of a lower order doesn’t adequately protect human dignity, for example, the state should intervene. This gets to the next principle, solidarity.

b. Solidarity is clearly an obligation of the Gospel of Jesus. It has to do with justice and charity. Not surprisingly, the labor movement in Poland under Communist oppression adopted the name Solidarnocz, Solidarity, because it was inspired by Catholic social teaching and Pope John Paul II who taught so beautifully about the principle of solidarity. We must be concerned about our fellow human beings and their wellbeing, especially the poor. John Paul wrote: Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all (Sollicitudo Rei socialis 38). It has to do with the good of our neighbor. It includes concern not just for our fellow Americans, but for all people. It includes concern for the social conditions of all: the poor, immigrants, the sick, the suffering, the oppressed, the persecuted. Solidarity is a principle and a virtue. Only when there is solidarity is there true peace. The motto of Pope Pius XII: Opus iustitiae pax (peace as the fruit of justice). John Paul II took this and said that today we could say, “with the same exactness and the same power of biblical inspiration: Opus solidaritatis pax, peace as the fruit of solidarity (SRs 39). This gets to the third essential element of the common good: peace.

3. Finally, the common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order. It presupposes that authority should ensure by morally acceptable means the security of society and its members. It is the basis of the right to legitimate personal and collective defence (CCC 1909).

In the political realm, we must recognize that “it is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies (CCC 1910). We must also recognize that the common good is not just the good of Americans. There is a universal common good (CCC 1911).

We all have an obligation to participate in promoting the common good. Of course, we do so in our own lives of personal responsibility in our family and in our work. We also have a responsibility in politics. The aim of politics and the role of the state is to serve the common good. When we vote, we should ask ourselves which candidate we believe will best serve the common good. Each of us is obliged to promote the common good through our political participation. We have a moral obligation to be responsible citizens and to participate in political life. The role of bishops and priests is to hand on the Church’s moral and social teaching, to help Catholics to form their consciences correctly. We do not endorse or oppose particular candidates. Lay people can do so, can run for public office, work with political parties, etc. All of us have the right and duty to vote. As Catholics, we have an obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society. We must bring to the public square what our faith teaches about human dignity, the sacredness of human life, the truth about marriage and the family, the dignity of work, economic justice, care for the environment, etc. These aren’t optional topics of our faith. We bring our principles, principles so important for society and culture: the common good, the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, and solidarity. We must bring our moral convictions to the public square. We contribute to the wellbeing of our society and culture when we do so. We Catholics bring a consistent moral framework for assessing issues, political platforms, and campaigns. We also bring our experience as a Church in health care, education, and social services (cf. FCFC 12).

The Indiana bishops last year issued a pastoral letter on poverty in our state. It is entitled: Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana. In preparing this talk, I almost went in the direction of giving an exposition of the Church’s teaching on economics, but that would have added another hour to this presentation. As you know, the Church rejects both socialism and unbridled capitalism. Both can be idolatrous: socialism an idolatry of the state and unbridled capitalism an idolatry of money. The principles in considering economic issues are again the fundamental principles of Catholic social doctrine: the common good, the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity and solidarity. These principles can be found in the pastoral letter on poverty of the Indiana bishops.

Why did the bishops of Indiana choose to speak out about the issue of poverty? Quite simply, it is an important issue in the moral and social order of society. It is part of our necessary concern for the common good. As the Catechism states, “ the Church’s love for the poor is a part of her constant tradition” CCC 2444). This love is inspired by the Gospel and Jesus’ concern for the poor. This concern for the poor includes those in material poverty, and also many forms of what can be called cultural poverty and religious poverty. You’ve probably heard the expression of the Church’s preferential option for the poor, an expression used so often by our popes.

The methodology of the pastoral letter is, as I mentioned before, “see judge, act. These are the titles of the three chapter of the letter. We begin with seeing, studying the situation in Indiana. In an appendix to the letter, we present statistics about poverty in our state. For example, over 1 million Hoosiers are living in poverty; 22% of Indiana children live in poverty; we have a 5.6% employment rate in our state; over 2.2 million Hoosiers are low-income; 1 in 6 struggle with hunger; there are about 6,000 homeless people in our state. So the bishops first of all encourage us to see, to recognize the problem.

Next, judge. To judge is to evaluate and analyze, in light of the Gospel. There are clearly complex root causes of poverty that must be studied. We bishops are especially cognizant of the significant multigenerational poverty in Indiana and we recognize that to break the cycle, we have to address root causes. This is part of judging.

1. We emphasize marriage and family life. This was especially important in my mind because of my experience as a pastor in an inner-city parish years ago. Broken families, absent fathers, and unstable homes contribute to poverty. The reverse is also true: the instability of marriage and family is intensified by poverty.

2. We look at employment. Obviously, unemployment is a cause of poverty. But also we have so many “working poor” in Indiana, people with incomes not sufficient to support a family with the necessities of life.

3. We look at education. We consider the powerful role of education in breaking the cycle of poverty.

4. We look at health care, something fundamental to human life and dignity. Catholic teaching is clear that health care is a right, not a privilege.

Next, act. After seeing and judging the situation, we issue a call to act with justice and charity. Actions speak louder than words. We write about practicing the works of mercy as a response to poverty. Mindful of the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, we look at the role of our Catholic institutions in fighting poverty: our schools, hospitals, social services, etc. We call for action in addressing the root causes: supporting families, employment opportunity, good schools, health care for all. We need to support local and grassroots efforts (again subsidiarity). We also discuss the role of business and government in promoting employment, job creation, just wages. I would also mention, in the area of government, school choice as an example of subsidiarity as well as solidarity.

We ask people not only to act, but also to pray. Prayer and action – both are necessary.

You may notice that the USCCB document, in its summary of major issues and its application of Catholic teaching to these issues includes sections that deal with issues raised in the Indiana bishops’ letter: there are sections in FCFC on marriage and family life, education, health care, the preferential option for the poor and economic justice. In the new Introduction to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, we list among recent developments economic policies that fail to prioritize the poor, at home or abroad. We should be asking political candidates about a whole range of issues, including how their positions and proposed policies would affect the poor. Pope Francis is clearly calling the attention of the whole world to the issue of poverty.

I’d like to conclude by stating that the Church truly values democracy. It allows the people to participate in making political choices. It allows the people to elect and hold accountable those who govern us. So it’s a real blessing to live in the United States. But I think we should also be mindful of these words of Saint John Paul II: Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person (CA 46). I think there is a real and serious danger to the welfare of the United States as well as European nations today, something stated 25 years ago by Pope John Paul II: it’s the danger of relativism, the idea that truth is determined by the majority or subject to variation according to different political trends. When we sever freedom from truth, the common good is threatened. As history demonstrates, John Paul wrote, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism. And then there’s the opposite danger: fanaticism or fundamentalism – the claim in the name of a scientific or religious ideology the right to impose on others their own concept of what is true and good. Some relativists will make this latter charge against the Catholic Church and are trying to curtail our religious liberty. But Christian truth is not an ideology. The Catholic Church constantly reaffirms the truth of the transcendent dignity of the human person. We have a profound respect for freedom, true freedom, not the freedom to kill the innocent or to redefine marriage, but freedom that is rooted in the truth, the truth that is known not only by faith, but also by right reason. When human rights are not fully respected, it is very dangerous for democracy. The common good crumbles. I encourage your active participation in politics, your faithful citizenship. The culture of our nation is affected by its values. The Church and all its members have a responsibility to bring our values to the public square. As the founding fathers of our nation knew very well, the health of our democracy requires a foundation, God-given inalienable rights, in order for our nation to endure.

I mentioned at the beginning that we are citizens of two worlds, of two cities. Let’s not lose sight of our responsibilities in either. We should be patriotic, but not nationalistic. We should be active in political life, but not more Republican or Democrat than Catholic. We should be proud of our freedom as Americans, but even more proud of the “freedom with which Christ has set us free” (cf. Gal 5:1). Thank you!

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