The Church’s Prophetic Guide for Participating in American Political Life

By Alexander Mingus

Associate Director, Indiana Catholic Conference

The following article is part one 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.

This May, and perhaps more acutely in the months leading up to November, our nation will be hurled into the whirlwind of politics as we have come to know it: bitter political ads, partisan attacks, sound bites and media hype.

When Americans first began watching televised debates in American politics in 1960, Richard Nixon ended his opening statement in a way that would shock most of us attuned to today’s debates:

“I know Senator Kennedy feels as deeply about these problems as I do. But our disagreement is not about the goals for America, but only about the means to reach those goals.”

Say what you will about Nixon, JFK or the state of America in the 1960s, but the rest of the debate undoubtedly transpired with no personal attacks, several instances of respectful disagreement and even moments of praise of the other candidate’s sincerity.

It is of no use to us to look back at this moment in history with rose-colored glasses nor to ignore the issues of grave importance that drive the deepening polarization of today. We can, however, examine how the exchanges within that debate exemplify the increasingly lost virtue of civic friendship in public life. The loss of civic friendship, a symptom of increasing polarization, is but one example of the ways our political discourse contradicts the Gospel. 

Our Catholic vision of politics compels an even deeper examination: we’re not to be only concerned with civic friendship, but also committed to a defense of the timeless principles of the Gospel found in the Catholic social teaching: the dignity of the human person, solidarity, subsidiarity and the common good.

If these principles sound foreign, I invite you to begin wrestling with a fundamental question: When participating in public life, what does Christ and his Church ask of me?

The Bishops of the United States have regularly issued statements on political responsibility since 1976, offering judgments of American political life based on the Church’s moral teaching. In this article, I will begin breaking down the introductory note and the first part of the U.S. Bishop’s most recent document: “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (FCFC). In FCFC, we can begin to find answers to that fundamental question I posed above.

FCFC challenges Catholics to be faithful in a way that is profoundly more radical and beautiful than the solutions to social problems found in our partisan politics. It is a document that vigorously defends nonpartisan, issue-based advocacy, the beauty of the Church’s social teaching and moral principles, and the importance of a well-formed conscience.

“Allowing your conscience to be stretched and formed by these reflections can give you peace! They point to Jesus’ challenge to show mercy to those in need, just as the Good Samaritan,” say the bishops in the introductory note. The bishops also exhort the faithful to put on the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) when forming our conscience. This is no small feat, one that requires a firm and persevering commitment to the exercise of many virtues.

As the name suggests, “forming consciences” is central to FCFC. To some, it may seem like the bishops are not saying much here, opting for a gentle, non-controversial tone and offering a general moral platitude to guide political decision-making. Nothing could be further from the truth, because it is indeed the truth that must inform our conscience: “the truth is something we receive, not something we make.”

Far from wanting to avoid commentary on important moral issues, the bishops outline the Church’s moral priorities in specific issue areas: abortion is a “preeminent” priority, but other grave threats to human life and dignity include “euthanasia, gun violence, the death penalty and human trafficking. There is also the redefinition of marriage and gender, threats to religious freedom at home and abroad, lack of justice for the poor, the suffering of migrants and refugees, wars and famines around the world, racism, the need for greater access to healthcare and education, care for our common home, and more.”

When we see this list, we must stop to examine how our consciences are formed on each of these issues. One of the central purposes of FCFC is to convict us of our obligation to first examine social issues through reflection on God’s Revelation and the teachings of the Church and allow that foundation to shape our participation in politics and political parties. Unfortunately, Catholics face the immense pressures of a society at war with itself. We are constantly tempted to remove foundational moral principles from our vocabulary in the name of the “separation of church and state.” This interpretation of the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause is neither correct nor does it honor our Christian obligation to be a faithful citizen.

Living in this dissonance can profoundly affect our spiritual and mental health, and it's no surprise that many Catholics feel a sense of despair, anger, hopelessness and apathy toward participation in public life. But FCFC is clear: “the teachings of the Church ... offer a vision of hope, where justice and mercy abound, because God is the infinite source of all goodness and love.” In study, prayer and the practice of prudence, we can move from hopelessness to fruitful participation, knowing our work in this world is important while keeping an eye fixed on the promise of eternal life in our heavenly home.

The bishops, citing Ephesians, also remind us of how we can find peace with how we participate; to “never let evil talk pass your lips.” We are reminded again of the civic friendship on display in that 1960 debate. 

St. Paul goes on: “... say only the good things men need to hear, things that will really help them. Do nothing that will sadden the Holy Spirit with whom you were sealed against the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ (Ephesians 4:29-32).

If we heed St. Paul’s words, we more closely align our lives with the demands of the Gospel, thus answering the call to be faithful citizens.

If you haven’t already, I invite you to read through “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” this year and follow along with subsequent articles, which will be published in future issues of The Message, where we will explore parts II and III of the document.