Catholics and Politics 1996
As the presidential election season
of 1996 heats up, different groups are attempting to claim the
high moral ground. The once-unified conservative movement has
splintered into social conservatives (morality is their main concern)
and economic conservatives (who want a freer environment for private
enterprise). Each claims to be pointing the way for a return to
values of one sort or another.
But the conservatives are not alone. Themes of family values are
being sounded in the political center by members of all parties.
And the more liberal political factions insist that their plan
for a better America is one where things will be more fair for
everyone. Indeed all the campaigners say their political vision
will make America better.
Some organizations are aggressively targeting Catholics to join
their ranks. That's one of the more interesting political developments
for American Catholics since John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign.
One group, the Catholic Alliance (a small but growing branch of
televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition), has even suggested
in its literature that it intends to represent Catholic voters.
Who speaks for the Catholic Church when it comes to choosing political
candidates? No one does. Not this magazine, not any alliance,
campaign, coalition, network, political party--not even the U.S.
bishops' conference, the Vatican or the pope. Our Church leadership
has a strict policy of not endorsing candidates in the United
Issues Are Another Matter
Yet official Catholic leadership--the bishops of our Church--freely
advocate support for certain political proposals and oppose others.
They do this in their ordained role as religious leaders of the
faithful and as teachers of the faith. Catholic opposition to
abortion is a clear example. Abortion is, according to Church
doctrine, a moral and social evil that must not be condoned. (Yet
we are not to condemn those who have had abortions. We are to
extend a compassionate hand.)
Euthanasia and capital punishment are two other examples of social
policy that conflict with Catholic belief in the sanctity of life.
Our bishops lead the Church in speaking out strongly against these
and working for the rest of the Church to join them.
The unfair situation of the poor in society has been a concern
of Christians from the beginning. During the past 100 years, popes
and Church leaders have been outspoken critics of modern social
and economic policies that widen the gap between poor and rich.
In November of last year, the administrative board of our own
U.S. bishops published a statement on political responsibility
that has much bearing on the elections of 1996. Near the beginning,
they quote Pope John Paul II's 1995 homily at Camden Yards in
Baltimore: "The basic question before a democratic society
is, How ought we to live together?" As we enter an era when
more and more groups are claiming to have moral answers to social
questions, applying universal moral truths across the board has
become more complicated than ever.
Seeking the Common Good
In their statement, our bishops challenge us to go beyond the
horse-racing approach to political campaigns. Focusing on political
strategies rather than the real issues that face Americans has
led many to become disenchanted with politics. "The politics
of money and polarization may help fund-raising and ratings,"
the bishops write, "but it is a bad way to build community."
They use the current debate over welfare reform and family values
as an example. The campaigns are offering "false choices
between responsibility and compassion," they say.
Some would say that our current economic situation is a result
of too much compassion, in the bishops' words: "too many
immigrants and welfare mothers; not enough birth control, abortions,
prisons and executions; and too much foreign aid and affirmative
action." Our social problems go deeper than that, say the
bishops. Scapegoating certain social groups destructively divides
us as a society.
The moral key to sort through political choices is the common
good and the dignity of all creation, especially humans. "We
are called to measure every party and movement by how its agenda
touches human life and dignity," write the bishops. That
criterion does not fit neatly into categories of liberal and conservative, Democrat, Republican or
independent. The test of the 1996 elections will
be how the elections affect the lives of the weak and
vulnerable, say the bishops. (The full text of their document
can be obtained by calling the bishops' publishing office at 1-800-235-8722.)
There could be nothing more absurd to an American than to leave
all guidance in political matters to the Catholic bishops. It
is the proper place of every Christian, indeed every person, to
exercise citizenship actively and freely. But if we claim to be
Christians, our political opinions ought to be shaped by our beliefs.
If we claim to be Catholic Christians, our opinions ought to be
shaped by our Catholic beliefs. Our bishops certainly have a right
and duty to help us understand these beliefs. And they speak with
more authority than any political campaigner regarding what is
or isn't Catholic belief.
All of the alliances, coalitions, networks, campaigns and parties
have a right to operate freely. They each can attempt to persuade
us how to vote. That's the genius of our political system. But
each of us, in turn, has an obligation to vote with an informed
conscience. Go beyond the commercials. Get beneath the surface.
Look to the common good of the whole nation. And let no one, by
any name, convince you that in order to be a good Catholic you
must choose a particular candidate. That's un-American and un-Christian: It
violates our dignity as free persons.--J.B.F.