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Issues Are Another Matter Seeking the Common Good

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 States.

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.

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