Part 1: The Church's Role in a Secular Society and Our Duty as Catholics

As we approach another national election in the United States on Nov. 3, you may be wondering: How should my faith affect the way I vote? 

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has sought to bring clarity. In 2015, the USCCB issued Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States, a 53-page document written to help faithful Catholics “apply a consistent moral framework to issues facing the nation and world, and shape their choices in elections in the light of Catholic Social Teaching” (Introduction).

The following is part one of a seven-part series summarizing the document. In part one, we look at the Church's role in a secular society and our duty as Catholics. It's our hope this series will help you to understand your moral responsibilities as a voting Catholic.

Obligated to Participate?

In this nation that has a tradition of religious freedom and political participation, we as a Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice” (Evangelii Gaudium, 183). Christ commands that we go into the world and “proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). This command “includes our engagement in political life” (1). So, as Catholic citizens of the United States, we have a moral obligation to participate in civic life and to vote. 

The Big Issues

Since we have an obligation to help build up a “civilization of truth and love” (14), now more than ever we need to participate in politics. To begin, we need to know our nation’s greatest threats. 

Though our country was founded on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” our nation frequently fails to protect the right to life. The USCCB 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 (Introduction). 

Though the threat of abortion is “preeminent,” the bishops warn not to dismiss other serious threats to life “such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty” (Introduction). Special mention is also made of immigrants who “endure separation, inhumane treatment, and lack of due process” (Introduction). Other issues mentioned include: poverty, gun violence, xenophobia, capital punishment, gender ideology, and the redefinition of marriage. Thankfully, the Church provides us with a consistent moral framework to address these and all the issues we face as citizens of this great, albeit imperfect country. These issues will be explored in greater depth later in this series. 

The Church’s Role 

As Catholics, we have a lifelong, moral obligation to allow the Church and her teachings to educate and form our hearts and minds in the light of the truth. Now, the Church does not “intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote” (7). Without endorsing particular candidates, the Church seeks to help form consciences. It teaches foundational principles that rely upon a “comprehensive vision of the dignity of the human person” (8). We ought not take these principles selectively to serve partisan interests. Though the Church does not endorse a political party, Pope Francis says that pastors “have the right to offer opinions in all that affects people’s lives” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 182). 

More on Our Obligation 

The Church has an obligation to help shape the moral character of society because Jesus revealed to us the dignity of each human person, that we are “created in God’s image and likeness and endowed by the Creator with dignity and rights” (9). Jesus also revealed to us the truth about human weakness. We ought to realize that our individual sinfulness lies at the root of the structural issues our nation faces. 

Despite our weaknesses and failures, the Church upholds the dignity of each person, which “is the core of Catholic moral and social teaching” (10). Christ compels us to love one another and teaches us to care especially for the weakest among us. This call to charity includes advocating for morality in the public square. Pope Benedict XVI said that “charity must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and therefore also their political activity, lived as ‘social charity’” (Deus Caritas Est).

Some question if the Church should play a role in political life at all. The USCCB answers that the Church has an obligation to teach morality, and we cannot divorce our moral convictions from our public lives. They say:

Civil law should fully recognize and protect the right of the Church and other institutions in civil society to participate in cultural, political, and economic life without being forced to abandon or ignore their central moral convictions. Our nation’s tradition of pluralism is enhanced, not threatened, when religious groups and people of faith bring their convictions and concerns into public life (11).

Furthermore, the Church has a history of serving the common good, especially the weakest among us. In fact, the teachings of the Church correspond with the very values upon which the nation was founded: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Who Among Us? 

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, everyone ought to “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” (1913-1915). Though the Church does not endorse a political party, Catholic lay men and women are encouraged to run for office, work within political parties, join community organizations, communicate concerns with elected officials, and to do anything that helps bring authentic moral teaching to the public square. 

Of course, politics is filled with special interests, partisan attacks, and media hype. But that’s all the more reason we need to participate today. As citizens, we should be “guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths or approve intrinsically evil acts” (14). 

The next article in this series will address the complexities that often arise in assessing a candidate’s position and the two temptations that can distort the Church’s defense of human dignity. 

Read the full text of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States.

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