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Election Year Checkup


Offering Guidance
Politics and Religion

Each year at my checkup, my doctor tells me all the things I have come to expect: Eat healthy, exercise more, take vitamins, get the required tests for my age, etc. It’s my doctor’s job to tell me those things. In fact, if he didn’t, I would question just how good a doctor he is. But the reality is, once I walk out of that office, what I do with his advice is up to me.

I was reminded of this while at the meeting of the U.S. bishops in Baltimore this past November. During that meeting, the bishops passed the document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States. They have issued a version of this document before every presidential election since 1976.

The purpose of the 2007 document is clear: “We bishops seek to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with the truth, so they can make sound moral choices in addressing these challenges. We do not tell Catholics how to vote. The responsibility to make political choices rests with each person and his or her properly formed conscience.”

Almost immediately after the document was passed, the analysis began. In a press conference, one reporter asked if the document, which speaks very strongly against abortion, meant Catholic voters could never vote for a Democrat. (The answer was no, that’s not what was meant.)

What about denying Communion to Catholic politicians who are pro-choice? This document is for voters and is not meant to address politicians, the bishops said.

The bishops again reiterated that the document is simply a tool to help voters form their own conscience. Nothing more, nothing less.

The document addresses a wide range of topics such as war, health care, education, the environment and numerous other issues. In the end, the bishops note, it will be up to each of the voters to decide how the candidates address these issues.

“We have a responsibility to discern carefully which public policies are morally sound. Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems, but we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means, so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity are defended,” they said.


Offering Guidance

In his final presidential address, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, talked of the bishops’ leadership role, as illustrated in Faithful Citizenship.

“For us as bishops,” he said, “a deep and Christlike vision of leadership must be at the heart of our service. Christ has called us, as successors of the apostles, to be his voice in our time.”

The bishops have simply done their job by raising these issues up for us to reflect on and think about. They can only enhance the political debate by highlighting issues they see as important not only for Catholics, but also for the country as a whole.

In fact, they point out, “Our nation’s tradition of pluralism is enhanced, not threatened, when religious groups and people of faith bring their convictions into public life. The Catholic community brings to the political dialogue a consistent moral framework and broad experience serving those in need.”

Politics and Religion

There are those who feel the bishops have no business getting involved in politics. But like it or not, religion plays a big role in politics. Don’t believe me? Then go back to the 1960 presidential election when John F. Kennedy gave a speech to a group of Protestant ministers assuring them that his Catholic faith would not control his presidency if he was elected.

And in the 2004 election, Senator John Kerry took heat for the seeming disparity between his religious beliefs and his platform and voting record.

Last December, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a speech addressing his Mormon faith and the important role he felt religion plays in our country.

And let’s not forget that our forefathers repeatedly cited religion in documents establishing our country.

So, yes—for better or worse—religion and religious values do play a role in politics. It seems quite logical, then, that the U.S. bishops would identify for the country’s 67.5 million Catholics some issues they might want to think about before heading to the polls.

Leading up to an election, we all should spend time examining a candidate’s platforms, stands, records, promises, etc. Treat this election like a jigsaw puzzle. Take each piece and look at it closely, turn it around and upside down to see how—and if—all the pieces fit together. Watch the debates and delve into important issues. For instance, as a parent, I am always interested in education issues. Faithful Citizenship provides Catholic voters with just one more piece of that puzzle.

But again, this is just a guide. Just as your doctor provides you with the best advice he/she can, so do our bishops. And whereas your doctor is worried about your physical body, the bishops’ concern is your spiritual well-being and the common good. You can take their advice, or not. That’s your call.—S.H.B.

The full text of Faithful Citizenship is available at

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