Social doctrine, policy positions and heavenly citizenship

By Alexander Mingus

Associate Director, Indiana Catholic Conference

The following article is part three of a three-part series on the U.S. Conference of Catholic

Bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. These articles originally appeared in Today’s Catholic, the publication of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

The bishops of the United States, in their role as pastors and shepherds, are responsible for promulgating the Social Doctrine of the Church and teaching it to the faithful. In parts II and III of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, they show how the Church’s teaching applies to various social issues.

The bishops begin part II by reminding the faithful of the importance of this guidance:

“...some issues involve principles that can never be abandoned, such as the fundamental right to life and marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Others reflect our judgment about the best way to apply Catholic principles to policy issues. No summary could fully reflect the depth and details of the positions taken through the work of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). While people of good will may sometimes choose different ways to apply and act on some of our principles, Catholics cannot ignore their inescapable moral challenges or simply dismiss the Church’s guidance or policy directions that flow from these principles” (No. 63).

In this article, I’m going to avoid spelling out the bishops’ positions in all the areas listed in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship because I want this series of articles to pique your interest in reading this short document in its entirety.

That said, to give a sense of the breadth of policy positions covered in the document, I list them here in the order they appear: human life, promoting peace, marriage and family life, religious freedom, preferential option for the poor and economic justice, health care, migration, Catholic education, promoting justice and countering violence, combatting unjust discrimination, care for our common home, communications, media, culture and global solidarity. 

The temptation in American political life is to assume that we must look at this list with voting in mind. We are tempted to think about these issues only insofar as how they inform our choice of candidate. The right to vote, an undeniable privilege of the U.S. citizen, is a very important aspect of participation in public life, but voting only fulfills part of our political responsibility. 

Before we even think about voting, it would do us much spiritual good to reflect on the multitude of social issues facing our country in the light of the Gospel and to firstly focus on forming our consciences well before we begin to consider the candidates presented to us during an election. But how do we begin? When participating in public life, what does Christ and his Church ask of me?

We should begin reflecting on these social issues with this question in mind. For example, No. 73 in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship states: “Social and economic policies should foster the creation of jobs for all who can work with decent working conditions and just wages.” Let’s focus on the concept of a “just” wage for a moment.

In “Rerum Novarum,” Pope Leo XIII began to articulate the idea of a just wage; a wage that would adequately support a worker, the worker’s family and allow for some savings over time. Leo did not prescribe an hourly rate nor simply acquiesce to the idea that the market would adequately meet human needs of its own accord. In this area and many others, the Church has some wisdom to offer us but too few of us know that this guidance exists.

Catholics and people of good will may take the principles that Leo lays out and come up with different conclusions. However, if we are mutually committed to the fundamental principles expressed by the Church, we have a foundation upon which we can have robust policy discussions. Mutual commitment to fundamental principles is the bed in which the seeds of civic friendship are sown. 

In part III of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops provide what they call “goals for political life: challenges for citizens, candidates and public officials.” This brief list of goals starts with a reminder to protect the weakest in our midst, turn away from violence to address fundamental problems, protect and strengthen marriage and family life, achieve comprehensive immigration reform that protects workers, families and our nation’s borders, provide economic security, education, care for creation, comply with moral limits of military force, pursue peace and protect religious freedom. 

These goals are well worth studying during national election years and beyond. Every year holds an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the Church’s teaching as part of the lifelong task of forming our conscience.

After reading these reflections on pressing social issues, it may be easy to accuse the bishops of having a myopic obsession with fixing social issues rather than focusing on spiritual goods. 

In response to that possible criticism, it is important to see this teaching in the context of the whole of Christian life. I often like to draw parallels between the bishops’ call to form our consciences and the universal call to holiness. The moral life is intertwined with our pursuit of deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, who instructed us to love God and love our neighbor. St. John Paul II also reminded us that “the teaching and spreading of her social doctrine are part of the Church’s evangelizing mission” (Solicitudo Rei Socialis, No. 41).

Charity, the theological virtue, is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine. Through our teaching and spreading of this doctrine, our neighbors, family and friends may begin to see that our worldview is underpinned by a current of love that emanates from Christ, rather than being informed by the overused and divisive partisan tropes of American politics.

In the humble opinion of this author, it is time to reclaim the moral vision that Christ offers to us through his Church. It is time to encourage a deeper and more widespread reflection on the teaching of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship and ultimately the whole corpus of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

We recognize that our citizenship here is fleeting and that our promise of heavenly citizenship is just on the horizon. We are called to be faithful citizens here as we hope for eternal citizenship in our heavenly home.