Social Issues, Elections 2012

Even if our influence may be less than before, still many people look to priests as to how one should think and act in public life, how one should live out one’s faith and baptism in the public square, and maybe how to vote on Election Day. 

Exercising a civic or political activity is part of our Catholic faith. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops reminds us that “in the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation. This obligation is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person. . . .As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life” (Nos. 1913-1915). 

Moral theology teaches that the good citizen prepares himself by examining each candidate’s positions and opinions; being reasonably informed about candidates’ character, studying the issues currently at stake, and not voting merely along party lines or for some other trivial motivation. 

What’s Happening to the People?

Allow me to tread into areas in which angels might be afraid to stride, but we do need to speak about, ask tough questions about, and give sage orientation on major issues. Our decisions must be shaped by good principles and have clarity on what points are negotiable and which values are used in selecting candidates. I cannot handle all the nuances of complex questions in a short article, but I hope to indicate basic values that will serve as landmarks or guideposts. 

In our globalized and interconnected world, social life, the economy and politics have become mixed together, their impact and sway over our daily lives persuasive. As Christians, we should be asking of any government policy or economic system what is happening to the people, and not what is happening to the economy. Cultures and societies are generally judged and evaluated by how much time and treasure they spend on the weaker and fragile members. What is good for Wall Street does not automatically mean that Main Street will be benefitted. 

A current belief of many in the middle class and of those heading upward is that America is a land of opportunity, not of entitlements. What is the role of government, therefore, in helping members of a society who have been left behind, are unemployed, jobless, sick, aging, etc.? As recent research has pointed out, the 1% is doing quite well and even getting richer, while the other 99% is struggling, and many are falling behind. Where in our current economic and social make up is the human face, the compassion, that recent popes and presidents have all talked about? 

As I travel the United States preaching, I hear pastors’ and parishioners’ viewpoints on many issues. I have heard and seen preachers condemn the use of birth control or abortion or gay “marriages.” I have yet to see an equal number of people talking about health care for all, humanized immigration reform and the indecent increases by the very rich. There are those who condemn welfare programs for the less well-off as being wasteful and creating dependency, but are only too happy to receive federal money for their areas (which others call “pork”). 

Sleeping Dogs?

I believe that most would agree that the major issues of our Christian social ethics include the dignity of the human person; a call to family, community and participation; rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; dignity of work and rights of workers; solidarity, and caring for God’s creation. 

So what social issues are we talking about? Or not talking about? Which church documents or social issues in ecclesiastical statements are we quick to quote, and which controversial issues do we shy away from? Is it a case of letting that sleeping dog lie still, to avoid stirring up problems? 

Let me paraphrase Father Bernard Haring on hearing confession. He says that a confessor who feels obliged to ask many details and questions about the Sixth Commandment, is also obliged to ask the same number of questions about the other Commandments. A preacher who limits himself to only condemning or talking about one of the above seven issues, therefore, is morally obliged to also preach and teach about all the other social issues enumerated. 

The American bishops wisely remind us that “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.” 

Lay Faithful and the Fight for Justice

Our pastors also invite us to include seeking to advance the common good — to not only defend marriage and the inviolable sanctity of human life from the moment of conception until natural death, but also to feed the hungry, house the homeless, welcome the immigrant and protect the environment. They do not want us “ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity. Discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed. Catholics are urged to seriously consider Church teaching on these issues.” 

We all realize that church leaders do not normally endorse or oppose candidates by telling people how to vote. As Pope Benedict XVI stated in Deus Caritas Est, “the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. . . .The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice (No. 28). As the Holy Father also taught in Deus Caritas Est, “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful” (No. 29). 

I find it damaging and detrimental to see secular or angry commentators talk about the “Republican” Catholic Church, that Catholics are gay bashers, that we defend the child only while it is in the womb. We also need more of the Church’s voices questioning the military budget, or closing loopholes that allow the super rich to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. 

The Constitution and God’s Law

The American “way of life” seems to hold the Constitution as the final basis for interpreting current situations. It has worked remarkably well for over 200 years in many diverse cases. Yet we as Christians and Catholics do reserve the right to say that there is still one document over and above the Constitution: God’s Law and Will. 

Let’s tackle the question of voting based on a single issue. Does it make me more pro-life that I vote against someone who is not in favor of or will not work to repeal abortion (as though a politician could decide the matter by himself since it is already the “law” of the land, a situation beyond one person’s control to change)? It has been said that sometimes morally flawed laws already exist and that, in such situations, such as that of protecting life, the process of framing legislation is subject to prudential judgment and “the art of the possible.” 

Yet another candidate who declares himself pro-life is also in favor or going to war, is willing to bomb and is willing to cut benefits to the weaker members of our society. It seems as though there are rigid individuals who would insist that one must always vote for the so-called pro-life candidate, independent of his or her other anti-life stands. There are people who wish to prioritize this aspect of life as the only one that matters. But can we ignore other violations against life once it has begun? Truly the wisdom of Solomon is needed in such cases. 

The Seamless Garment

Cardinal Bernardin created the wonderful “doctrine” of the seamless garment, a viewpoint that life is to be defended and promoted on all levels. What good moralist today will defend the just-war theory when, in any war, so much suffering and collateral damage falls upon civilian lives? So the USCCB wants us to keep in mind and include in our thinking that “direct threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life, such as human cloning and destructive research on human embryos, are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified. 

Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate and decision, this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore Church teaching on these important issues. . . .we need to support one another as our community of faith defends human life and dignity wherever it is threatened. We are not factions, but one family of faith fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ.” 

The Candidates

What are the personal lives of my candidates like? Have they been honest, ethical, decent persons, above suspicion of corruption? Taken money and support from questionable groups that live in violation of Gospel values? 

What is the faith of my candidates? Do they allow religious values to sink in? Do they exercise positive influences like trying to serve others, helping the fragile and creating a better society for all? Do their core beliefs and reasoning impact public dialogue in a positive way? 

Have my candidates had a past record of involvement in community service, helping others, or is this a first time journey? What past accomplishments of promoting the community and the common good can one point to? Are the candidates really trying to better society, working to eliminate problems which afflict the public, or are they in for the ride to achieve personal gains and advantages? 

When I choose my candidates, I need to ask: who is backing them? What are their interests and rationales? Why are people donating money to get a particular candidate elected? What will they expect in return, once that person is in office? 

What about other positions of my candidates’ political party? Where does care for the sick, the weak, the aged, and the poor fit into that party’s philosophy? Does that party seek to benefit only certain members of society, or does it help all who need it? 

The USCCB has also said, “Affordable and accessible health care is an essential safeguard of human life and a fundamental human right. With an estimated 47 million Americans lacking health care coverage, it is also an urgent national priority. Reform of the nation’s health care system needs to be rooted in values that respect human dignity, protect human life, and meet the needs of the poor and uninsured, especially born and unborn children, pregnant women, immigrants, and other vulnerable populations.” 

Social Action Study Groups

In American parishes I readily find Bible-study clubs, prayer groups, St. Vincent de Paul organizations, youth formation, groups that visit the sick, etc. I cannot remember when I last ran into a social-action study group that analyzes and reflects upon Church teaching and tries to apply it to their local or national state of affairs. For being the country’s leading religious group, we Catholics seem to be the proverbial sleeping giant, unaware or unprepared in the multiple ways we could influence people more directly in a multi-cultured, pluralistic society. 

How well do we know the richness of our Catholic tradition? Pope Paul VI used to say that the Church is an expert in human affairs. Pope Benedict XVI statements about social issues make clear that love of God will always lead “to participation in the justice and generosity of God toward others” (Spe Salvi, No. 28). 

Prophets have never been popular. No one took them on vacations. Frequently they were exiled, put into jail, killed. But they have always been the best moral voice of every society, speaking out the unspeakable, the unpopular, because it was the right thing to do. 

This prayer by Kathy Judge could be a fitting one for us all: “Holy Spirit, instruct us during this election season to contemplate issues through an ethical and spiritual lens and to resist excessive self-interest and blind partisanship. May we be principled, not impractically ideological. Renew the political vitality of our country. Amen.” TP

FATHER KIRCHNER, C.SS.R., was ordained a priest in 1966, spent 39 years in the Amazon, has been a pastor many times and also did formation work. He received a degree in moral theology in Rome, taught (and is looking to teach) courses in parishes, and is currently working and living at Liguori, Mo.