Some people prefer not discussing politics or religion in
social gatherings—and definitely avoid discussing them together.
On January 16, 2003, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith (CDF) released its 18-page Doctrinal
Note about some questions
regarding the participation of Catholics in political life. This statement is
directed to bishops, Catholic politicians and laypeople in democratic
The Note states, "It is
commendable that in today’s democratic societies, in a climate of true freedom,
everyone is made a participant in directing the body politic."
The Note urges Catholics to base their contribution to society and political life "on their
particular understanding of the human person and the common good." In the 20th
century, the Holocaust and totalitarian governments were two bitter examples of
denying the moral law rooted in human nature.
"The Church recognizes that, while democracy is the best
expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it
succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the
human person," explains the Note.
Protecting Human Life
This document cites Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Gospel of Life that those directly
involved in lawmaking bodies have a "grave and clear obligation" to oppose any
law that attacks human life (#73).
The CDF Note says that
identifying religious law with civil law can lead to unfair restrictions on
"The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the
government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty
to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and
indivisible," says the Note.
Making Prudential Judgments
Conscientious voting includes making concrete choices about
candidates or about issues. Each person must strive to develop a well-informed
conscience. But two people could assess the same information differently and
might make different conscience decisions.
Starting in 1976, the U.S. bishops began to issue, every four
years, a reflection on political issues facing voters in this country. Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility
for a New Millennium was released in late 1999, long before any party
platforms or candidates were finalized for the elections in 2000.
In Faithful Citizenship,
the bishops invite Catholic voters to see their responsibilities in public
life "through the eyes of faith and to bring their moral convictions to their
civic tasks and choices."
The bishops wrote, "We believe every candidate, policy and
political platform should be measured by how they touch the human person;
whether they enhance or diminish human life, dignity and human rights; and how
they advance the common good."
They continued: "As bishops, we do not seek the formation of a
religious voting block, nor do we wish to instruct persons on how they should
vote by endorsing or opposing candidates. We hope that voters will examine the
position of candidates on the full range of issues, as well as on their personal
integrity, philosophy and performance. We are convinced that a consistent ethic
of life should be the moral framework from which to address all issues in the
Who Is Pro-Life?
Consider theoretically a state with two main candidates for
governor. One of them campaigns to end all abortions yet also wants to increase
the use of capital punishment and abolish many welfare programs. The other
candidate deplores abortion yet is ready to uphold existing laws while arguing
against the increased use of capital punishment and abolishing those welfare
Which candidate is pro-life? Is either candidate totally
pro-life? Must all conscientious Catholics vote for the same candidate? If
politics is the art of the possible, will all conscientious people always agree
on what is possible and how to achieve it?
In democracies, voting is often an act of conscience, which
Vatican II described as a person’s "most secret core and sanctuary" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the
Modern World, #16).
Uniting Faith and Life
The CDF Note is remarkable for its praise of democracies. The Holy See was very suspicious
about them 150 years ago.
Democracies have nothing to fear from people whose voting is
motivated by a well-formed conscience. In 1787, the drafters of the U.S.
Constitution went as far as their consciences and current politics allowed.
Later voters went further, for example, outlawing slavery and extending to
women the right to vote.
Conscience choices are often difficult. But they cannot be
avoided simply because there are many different opinions on the subject and
people do not want to impose their moral values on others.
In politics, someone’s moral values will prevail, directing
public policy. Conscientious voters ask, "Which moral values? Which public
St. Thomas More was martyred in 1535 for making a conscience
choice. In 2001, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him the patron
of statesmen and politicians. May we never fear to use our
consciences in making political choices. P.M.
text of this CDF Note can be found at www.vatican.va.