November 18, 2011


Bishops and political responsibility

Finally, the elections are over for this year. The negative commercials on TV are no longer being broadcast. But they will be back sooner than we will wish since next year we have elections for president and Congress.

In fact, campaigning for them has been going on for a long time, especially among the Republican candidates for president.

Every four years for nearly 35 years, the American bishops have issued a document on political responsibility. They do so more than a year before presidential elections to try to avoid the accusation that they are involved in partisan politics.

This year, they made “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” public on Oct. 4. This time, it was a reissue of the document the bishops issued four years ago, but with a new introduction.

When The Criterion reported, in our Oct. 21 issue, on the reaction to the reissue of this document, the article noted that few Catholics pay much attention to it.

A survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that only 16 percent of Catholics had even heard about “Faithful Citizenship” before the 2008 election. Less than 1 percent of adult Catholics said they had read the document, while 2 percent said they had read a short-form version.

Well, you who are reading this now know about the document. If you would like to read it, you can find it on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at

Since we suspect that few of you will do that, here is some of what the new introduction says.

First, it emphasizes that the document is not a voter’s guide, and it doesn’t tell Catholics how to vote.

Rather, “It applies Catholic moral principles to a range of important issues, and warns against misguided appeals to ‘conscience’ to ignore fundamental moral claims, to reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters, or to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological or personal interests.”

It lists six fundamental issues:

  • Abortion “and other 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 or to undermine it as “the permanent, faithful and fruitful union of one man and one woman.”
  • An economic crisis that has increased unemployment, poverty and hunger.
  • “The failure to repair a broken immigration system.”
  • “Serious moral problems” raised by wars, terror and violence, “particularly the absence of justice, security and peace in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East.”

The document does not, though, give equal importance to each of those six issues. It differentiates between issues that “involve the clear obligation to oppose intrinsic evils which can never be justified,” and those that “require action to pursue justice and promote the common good.”

But why do the bishops keep issuing a document about political issues when nobody seems to be paying attention to it? And doesn’t the separation of Church and state forbid the bishops from being involved in politics in the first place?

They issue a document like this because they believe that it is both their duty and their privilege.

It is their duty because bishops are the Church’s teachers and this is a teaching document. It tells Catholics that they have an obligation to be faithful citizens and pay serious attention to what the Church teaches regarding human life and dignity, marriage and family, justice and peace, care for creation and the common good.

It is the bishops’ privilege because, as the document says, American Catholics “are blessed with religious liberty which safeguards our right to bring our principles and moral convictions into the public area.”

The bishops take great pains not to be involved in partisan politics as much as both conservatives and liberals would like them to be. The document sticks to moral principles that should be taken into consideration when we exercise our citizenship. The fact is that no political party agrees with everything that the bishops teach.

As next year’s political campaigns heat up, we hope that Catholics will keep in mind the principles that the American bishops teach us.

—John F. Fink

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