EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series on Catholic voting in the upcoming presidential election. The second part of the series appeared in the Courier’s October edition.
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Imagine a scenario in which one presidential candidate vows to lower taxes by slashing funding for social services. The candidate’s chief opponent, meanwhile, promotes a sizable increase in the minimum wage as well as other incentives to aid the financially challenged — all financed by a tax hike for middle- and upper-class American families.
How should Catholics’ consciences guide them in decisions such as this one?
For many, the second candidate’s plan to set aside individual concerns in favor of the common good might seem downright un-American. Yet such a countercultural approach is exactly what our country’s bishops propose to Catholics in the upcoming presidential election this Nov. 4.
"Unfortunately, politics in our country often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites and media hype. The Church calls for a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable," observes the U.S. bishops’ document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship."
This document, issued every four years by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in advance of each presidential election, emphasizes church teaching with respect to four moral priorities: protection of human life; promotion of family life; pursuit of social justice; and practice of global solidarity. (To access the statement, visit www.faithfulcitizenship.org.) It provides substantial reflection as voters try to sort through the pros and cons for each candidate, asking voters to set aside "party affiliation, endorsing or opposing candidates, or mere self-interest" in seeking a moral framework "that does not easily fit ideologies of ‘right’ or ‘left,’ ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’"
Sister of St. Joseph Patricia Schoelles, for one, said the document would be a good refresher course for people who wish to be distinguished as Catholic American citizens, not simply American citizens.
"Catholics are no less influenced by individualism, consumerism. We’re not immune to the effects of culture," remarked Sister Schoelles, president of St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford, and associate professor of moral theology there. Although it’s natural to seek a good quality of life for one’s self and family, most Catholics in this country are guided by a mind-set of mistaking wants for needs, she said.
"I just think we’ve blended into the American way of life," she remarked.
Barnaby Bienkowski, 25, who attends Rochester’s Blessed Sacrament Church, said he earns "close to six figures" and admitted that it’s not easy to follow the bishops’ guidelines.
"I’d probably vote more with my pocketbook than my rosary," he said.
Even so, Bienkowski — along with several other young adults — took the admirable step of reflecting on their priorities during "Jesus for President," a Theology on Tap session for young adults held June 30 at Jitters Coffeehouse in Henrietta. Voting with one’s faith also will be the focus of public sessions Sept. 24 at St. Patrick Church in Owego, and Oct. 8 at St. James Church in Waverly, both to be led by staff members of diocesan Catholic Charities. These meetings, as well as the Theology on Tap session, rely on "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" as a basis for addressing the importance of a well-formed conscience in the voting booth.
Additionally, Catholic Charities offers a reflection series on the topic of faithful citizenship that has appeared in many parish bulletins in recent months. The short essays conclude with such questions as, "Are we praying for courage to insist that our leaders recognize the dignity of all human beings?" and "How does your experience of serving those in need help you to make political choices that are ‘right and just?’" These and similar resources are available by visiting www.dor.org/charities/dioprograms/FaithfulCitizenship.htm.
Voters’ priorities also can be sorted out by weighing the faithful citizenship statement’s explicit words on the consistent life ethic, which calls Catholics to affirm life from conception until natural death by renouncing abortion, capital punishment, unjust war, euthanasia, violence and economic injustice.
The bishops describe abortion and euthanasia as "intrinsically evil" actions, stating that "a legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed … those who knowingly, willingly, and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil."
In addition, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" notes that "direct threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life, such as human cloning and destructive research on human embryos, are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified."
Knowledge is vital
Despite these strong words, the bishops’ statement stops short of suggesting specific political candidates, explaining that "the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience."
"I think the church sees itself as a teacher, not a decision maker," Sister Schoelles said. "The church doesn’t make our decisions for us. It is not a moral parent; it is a moral teacher."
The U.S. bishops, in "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," acknowledge that making up one’s mind is difficult in a political environment "where Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised, sensing that no party and too few candidates fully share the Church’s comprehensive commitment to the life and dignity of every human being from conception to natural death." Indeed, several participants in the June 30 Theology on Tap session expressed disillusionment with the current state of political affairs, saying they’re tired of being lied to. They also voiced mistrust of the mass media and their reporting of politics.
However, many people at that session also offered practical ways of accurately forming opinions and consciences: improving knowledge of candidates’ political positions by visiting their Web sites; studying their past voting records on bills of particular interest to Catholics; calling politicians’ offices directly to ask questions; and not relying on just one or two media sources.
"Democracy was meant for conscientious citizens. It was understood that people would study their (candidates’) positions," Sister Schoelles said, adding that with a little effort, voters can make clear, informed, morally sound choices.
"We have the capacity of human reason," she said.