Catholic voters reminded to consult ‘Faithful Citizenship’ as guide

This logo appears on materials, study guides and videos related to the U.S. bishops’ quadrennial “Faithful Citizenship” document that provides guidance to Catholic voters during a presidential election year. CNS

With election day coming up, Catholic voters are reminded to take their responsibility to vote seriously. 

The U.S. bishops encourage voters to read and reflect on the document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility,” which is rooted in the Catholic Church’s long-standing moral tradition that upholds human dignity and the common good of all, according to Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, who chairs the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“The document is meant to give Catholic voters an opportunity to reflect upon how their faith intersects with their political and civic responsibilities,” said Archbishop Coakley.

One thing “Faithful Citizenship” is not is a mandate on which candidate for public office to vote for, Archbishop Coakley said.

“No candidate will likely reflect all of our values,” he told Catholic News Service in August. “But I think we need to begin in prayer. We need to know our faith. We need to study our faith. We need to have recourse to the Catechism and what it might teach about certain questions.

“This document is intended to be that, an official guide for the formation of consciences that Catholics can utilize as they weigh these questions,” the archbishop said.

Furthermore, he continued, “the Gospel cannot be parsed in political or partisan terms. The Gospel calls us to live by standards and our Catholic faith calls us to embrace standards that are not divisible into left or right, Republican or Democratic terminology.”

“Faithful Citizenship” draws from the teaching of Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, St. John Paul II, St. John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council, and “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.”

The introductory letter reminds Catholics that “we bring the richness of our faith to the public square” and that “faith and reason inform our efforts to affirm both the dignity of the human person and the common good of all.”

The letter also says, “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed. At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity, such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”

It concludes by reminding Catholics to “bring their faith and our consistent moral framework to contribute to important work in our communities, nation and world on an ongoing basis, not just during election season.”

The full document also is available in Spanish, with accompanying videos available in English, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. The English language videos, along with links to other USCCB Faithful Citizenship resources, are available at tennesseeregister.com.

On the Tennessee Register’s Faithful Citizenship resources page, links are available to the full text of the bishop’s document and more. 

Archbishop Coakley said the bishops expect the guidance offered in the “Faithful Citizenship” materials will gain wider attention this year.

“My hope and prayer is that Catholics who really want their faith to influence their decision-making when it comes to going to the polls will give the reflections in this document consideration rather than just going to their favorite news source,” he said. “That’s going to be a very different kind of guidance than what they receive from their favorite cable news anchor or pundit.

“This is our chance to bring a different light to bear to a very important fundamental civic responsibility.”

Faith Alive No. 30, Part 1: Document ‘Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship’ examined

CNS illustration; photo by Paul Ratje, Reuters

When facing a tough decision, it can be tempting to look for the comfort of having someone else tell us what to do.

Turning to “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in late 2019, Catholics looking for clear-cut answers to the question “How should I vote?” will be disappointed.

The document states: “We bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth” (No. 7).

Can the guidance at least be captured in a tweet? According to the bishops, discussion of how voting might be informed by a moral framework consistent with Catholic social teaching requires many more characters.

In contrast with voter’s guides that boil the assessment down to the single question of which moral issues are “nonnegotiable,” the bishops recognize that Catholic social teaching indicates several more layers of reflection.

The document explains: “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support” (No. 42).

But it is well worth digging into the analysis: “Forming Consciences” offers a rich and beautiful vision of the values and principles that can inform Catholic participation in public life and decisions about political platforms and candidates.

Let’s work with a quote from Pope Francis in the introductory letter. Pope Francis states that the call to holiness requires a “firm and passionate” defense of “the innocent unborn.” At the same time, he also describes as “equally sacred” “the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”

What to do when no political party’s platform, and none of the candidates on the slate, seem to conform with the full integrity of these concerns?

The first temptation, the bishops note, is to miss the ethical distinctions between different issues: “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception to natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed” (No. 28).

But their analysis does not stop there. They also warn against a second temptation: to misuse this distinction as an excuse for ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity, such as the moral crisis of environmental degradation and racism. These, and several other crucially important issues, “are not optional concerns which can be dismissed” (No. 29).

At this point, some might think: This is so frustrating. Why can’t they just state clearly what is the right answer?

Church teaching appreciates that a healthy society should allow for robust discussion about a variety of political parties and proposals. In 2002, when then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the congregation explained what gives rise to a plurality of parties and strategies in concrete political action.

As the congregation described, this plurality arises “because of the contingent nature of certain choices regarding the ordering of society, the variety of strategies available for accomplishing or guaranteeing the same fundamental value, the possibility of different interpretations of the basic principles of political theory, and the technical complexity of many political problems.”

Even if Catholics hold a shared moral vision of the evils that should be avoided and “the good that we must do” (No. 24), that shared vision does not equate with a single “right answer” in politics.

For this reason, in “Forming Consciences” the bishops explicitly encourage Catholics to develop the virtue of prudence, “the charioteer of the virtues.”

Prudence enables us “to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (No. 19, Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1806).

Prudence also helps us to discern how clear moral principles might apply in the particular circumstances, as well how to evaluate “a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity and ability to influence a given issue” (No. 37).

If prudence is the “charioteer” driving toward the good, “Forming Consciences” also offers a helpful guardrail: the voter’s intent. Recognizing that voters may face truly difficult situations in which all candidates support unacceptable moral positions, the bishops explain that a Catholic may never vote for such candidate “if the voter’s intent is to support that position” (No. 34).

In contrast, “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.”

When there is a truly grave moral reason for the choice, the voter’s intent, not the “nonnegotiable” character of the policy topic, is determinative (No. 35).

As the bishops note in their introduction, challenges abound: “At all levels of society, we are aware of a great need for leadership that models love for righteousness, as well as the virtues of justice, prudence, courage and temperance.”

If reflection on “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” is also pursued in light of those same virtues, we might hope for important steps forward in living out the call to holiness together, to “work with Christ as he builds his kingdom of love.”

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Uelmen

Amy Uelmen is a lecturer in religion and professional life at Georgetown Law School. She holds a Bachelor of Arts, juris doctorate and juridical science research doctorate from Georgetown, and a master’s degree in theology from Fordham University.

Faith Alive No. 30, Part 2: What is at stake when we vote?

CNS illustration; photo by Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

What is at stake when we vote? The question echoes ceaselessly at election time.

Many prepare to vote by asking what is at stake for them, their families or others they care about. Many reflect on what is at stake for their nation’s future and the wider world. Happily enough, these kinds of questions sometimes prompt us to reevaluate our presuppositions and stances on issues.

In preparing to vote I aim to recognize what is at stake, while realizing that an election is a beginning, not an end. Afterward, my concerns may well continue.

Catholic leaders encourage voters to prepare by listening, reading, consulting and considering how a particular election engages their values.

Regrettably, not everyone votes. Some think their vote won’t matter. Some conclude that the political realm is uninterested in them. Some say that their life allows no time to vote.

Would it help to think of voting as a means of putting faith into action and contributing to society’s well-being?

“We bring the richness of our faith to the public square,” the U.S. Catholic bishops affirm in a letter approved late in 2019 to introduce and supplement “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” their document currently reissued one year before each U.S. presidential election.

Racism is an issue consuming American society at the time of my writing. “The wound of racism continues to fester,” the bishops’ letter plainly states.

The chairmen of seven U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committees said May 29, four days after 46-year-old George Floyd died during his arrest in Minneapolis, that they were “broken-hearted, sickened and outraged to watch another video of an African American man being killed before our very eyes.” Nationwide protests followed Floyd’s death.

Will racism appear in some straightforward manner on any upcoming ballot? Evaluating moral issues at election time often means looking beyond the surface and slogans of the candidates and policies placed before us.

But social and political issues typically have a moral dimension. Public policies, after all, impact human lives. The bishops’ letter mentioned many such issues. Abortion, the bishops reaffirmed, “remains our preeminent priority.” Abortion, they noted, “directly attacks life itself.”

Other issues also pose “serious threats to human life and dignity,” and cannot be ignored, said the bishops. They mentioned “racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”

They called assistance for individuals and families struggling “to make ends meet” a “pressing” concern, and they accented the urgency of immigration reform.

Gun violence and xenophobia “affect human life and dignity,” the bishops observed. They also urged resistance to “the throwaway culture.”

Does preparing to vote, then, involve contemplating the positive or negative impacts an election could have on human life and dignity?

A sentence in the bishops’ letter that captured my attention reads, “Our approach to contemporary issues is first and foremost rooted in our identity as followers of Christ and as brothers and sisters to all who are made in God’s image.” The word “identity” made me think.

What kind of person do I intend to be? What are my deepest hopes for society? How does my faith factor into this? These are questions about identity, about who I am.

I don’t envision political ads that present the broad spectrum of issues facing voters as a call to work for “justice and healing” or to “affirm the dignity of the human person and the common good of all,” to borrow some words of the bishops.

Political ads inform us what candidates believe is at stake in an election. But a genuinely vital question remains: What do you or I conclude is at stake?

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(Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.)

‘Faithful Citizenship’ message: Gospel cannot be parsed in partisan terms

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City is seen in this 2018 file photo at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. The archbishop chairs the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
CNS photo/Bob Roller

CLEVELAND (CNS) — The U.S. bishops’ quadrennial document on political responsibility is rooted in the Catholic Church’s long-standing moral tradition that upholds human dignity and the common good of all, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City said.

“The document is meant to give Catholic voters an opportunity to reflect upon how their faith intersects with their political and civic responsibilities,” said the archbishop, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Titled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States,” the document has been offered as a guide to Catholic voters every presidential election year since 1976.

It has been updated and revised at four-year intervals to reflect changes in the issues confronting the country since it first appeared.

One thing “Faithful Citizenship” is not is a mandate on which candidate for public office to vote for, Archbishop Coakley said.

Voting, he added, is a responsibility to be taken seriously and that requires prudential judgment in determining who can best serve the common good.

“No candidate will likely reflect all of our values,” he told Catholic News Service Aug. 18. “But I think we need to begin in prayer. We need to know our faith. We need to study our faith. We need to have recourse to the catechism and what it might teach about certain questions.

“This document is intended to be that, an official guide for the formation of consciences that Catholics can utilize as they weigh these questions,” the archbishop said.

Furthermore, he continued, “the Gospel cannot be parsed in political or partisan terms. The Gospel calls us to live by standards and our Catholic faith calls us to embrace standards that are not divisible into left or right, Republican or Democratic terminology.”

The document went through no major revisions for this year’s election, but it is being supplemented by an introductory letter, which underwent a long debate before its adoption by the full body of bishops during their fall general assembly in November.

This time around, the document also is accompanied by a series of five videos that highlight vital public policy issues.

The document has three parts.

The first part outlines the responsibility of Catholics to incorporate Catholic teaching as they consider their vote as well as their support for myriad public policy issues that confront society.

The text explores a series of questions related to why the church teaches about public policy issues; who in the church should participate in political life; how the church helps Catholics to speak about political and social questions; and what the church says about social teaching in the public square.

Part two outlines policy positions of the bishops on numerous issues. Topics addressed include human life and dignity, promoting peace, marriage and family, religious freedom, economic justice, health care, migration, Catholic education, promoting justice and countering violence, combating unjust discrimination, care for the environment, communications, media and culture and global solidarity.

The bishops said they wanted to “call attention to issues with significant moral dimensions that should be carefully considered in each campaign and as policy decisions are made in the years to come.”

Part three lists goals for Catholics’ participation in political life, whether they are citizens, candidates or public officials. Notably, it invites Catholics to assess moral and ethical questions emanating from public policy issues. It also lists nine goals for Catholics to weigh in public life.

“Faithful Citizenship” draws from the teaching of Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, St. John Paul II, St. John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council, and “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.”

The introductory letter reminds Catholics that “we bring the richness of our faith to the public square” and that “faith and reason inform our efforts to affirm both the dignity of the human person and the common good of all.”

The letter also says, “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed. At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity, such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”

It concludes by reminding Catholics to “bring their faith and our consistent moral framework to contribute to important work in our communities, nation, and world on an ongoing basis, not just during election season.”

The full document also is available in Spanish.

The text of “Faithful Citizenship” can be downloaded as a free PDF from USCCB.org, or it can be purchased by going to Store.USCCB.org.

In addition to English, the videos were produced in Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

The productions explore various aspects of Catholic social teaching while reflecting on the teaching of Pope Francis.

The videos are posted on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website at faithfulcitizenship.org and the USCCB’s YouTube channel at bit.ly/31DHDGN. They are part of the bishops’ effort to broaden their outreach through the document.

“People respond to different media,” Archbishop Coakley said. “This is a very technically savvy audience today, especially younger voters. The videos use powerful images and brief statements that illustrate some of the teaching embodied in the formal document.”

Four English-language videos of about two minutes in length examine participation in public life, protecting human life and dignity, promoting the common good and loving others. The fifth video is a six-minute compilation of the highlights of the four shorter pieces.

The foreign language videos are slightly longer.

Each video was produced with young people in mind, said Jill Rauh, director of education and outreach in the USCCB’s Department of Justice Peace and Human Development.

Along with the images and voices of young people, each piece features one bishop narrating an aspect of Catholic social teaching. Each production closes with a different prayer specifically written for the series.

Scenes showing people feeding the hungry, protecting God’s creation, comforting the elderly, caring for children, migrant people and families, and engaging in civil discussions are prominent in the productions.

“The videos are meant to reflect the teaching of the bishops in ‘Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,’” Rauh said. “The videos are really trying to make that teaching more accessible.”

Other wide-ranging resources are being made available to parishes, schools, prayer groups and other interested parties through the faithful citizenship web page.

As summer ends and Election Day, Nov. 3, nears, dioceses and parishes have been gearing up their use of “Faithful Citizenship” resources, according to social ministry directors across the country.

Archbishop Coakley said the bishops expect the guidance offered in the “Faithful Citizenship” materials will gain wider attention this year.

“My hope and prayer is that Catholics who really want their faith to influence their decision making when it comes to going to the polls will give the reflections in this document consideration rather than just going to their favorite news source,” he said. “That’s going to be a very different kind of guidance than what they receive from their favorite cable news anchor or pundit.

“This is our chance to bring a different light to bear to a very important fundamental civic responsibility.”

Diocese reminds churches, organizations about rules on political campaigning

As election day draws near, diocesan officials are reminding pastors, administrators and leaders of diocesan corporations of the legal restrictions on campaigning.

Churches and other organizations that are part of the Diocese of Nashville are classified by the Internal Revenue Service as 501(c)(3), or nonprofit agencies, and as such are exempt from paying income tax and can accept tax-deductible donations.

Those exemptions have always been interpreted as a privilege, not a right, diocesan Chief Administrative Officer and Vice Chancellor Brian Cooper wrote in a letter to pastors, administrators and executive directors of diocesan corporations.

“As with any privilege, the benefits afforded a tax-exempt organization can be amended or completely revoked,” Cooper wrote. “In order to retain the privileges afforded a 501(c)(3) organization, an organization must abide by the rules applicable to that privilege.”

One of the primary rules is that 501(c)(3) organizations not “participate in or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office,” Cooper added.

“The IRS interprets the political campaign intervention prohibition as absolute, meaning that a single act can cause an organization to lose its tax exemption, regardless of whether the act constitutes a substantial part of the organization’s activities,” Cooper wrote.

“Courts have not been sympathetic to any claims of First Amendment, Free Speech or Religious Freedom when this privilege is revoked due to a violation of this absolute prohibition against political intervention,” he added.

“With elections only weeks away and campaigning in full swing, we wanted to strongly advise everyone that there should be no activity which can be interpreted as supporting or opposing a particular candidate for public office,” Cooper said.

Examples of actions diocesan churches and agencies should take to avoid violating the prohibition on political intervention include:

  • There should be no campaigning or campaign materials in any form at any event on a tax-exempt entity’s property or at an event sponsored by an exempt entity.
  • If a candidate for office attends a function open to the public, such as a picnic, fish fry, gala or fundraising event, there should be no campaigning, distribution of voter materials, campaign materials, etc. allowed.
  • If a church maintains a bulletin, website or news release, there should be no references to candidates, either gratis or through paid advertising.
  • Yard signs for or against a particular candidate or any other type of campaign materials should not be allowed on an exempt entity’s property.
  • Photos with a candidate, receptions honoring candidates, allowing a candidate to speak on an exempt entity’s property or at an event sponsored by an exempt entity are also strictly prohibited.

“Very simply, anything which could be interpreted as supporting or opposing a candidate is strictly not allowed,” Cooper summed up.

“The absolute prohibition against any activity supporting or opposing a particular candidate should not be confused with the freedom to, and perhaps obligation to, speak out on moral issues in a campaign,” Cooper said.

“A few examples are anti-abortion and pro-life positions, the need for affordable housing, school choice, non-discrimination, anti-violence, and a host of other moral positions embedded in the social teachings of the Catholic Church,” he said.

Cooper also directed people to materials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to learn more about Church teaching on the political responsibilities of Catholics.