With the Election less that 10 days away, I submit the following excerpt from the Most Reverend Thomas J. Olmsted's booklet, "Catholics in the Public Square," for further reading. The complete, question and answer formatted, booklet is available for consumption here. Finally, as we are faced with this monumental decision on the 4th, it is crucial that we do not neglect to most fundamental and essential of all rights in America, the right on which all of our subsequent privileges are built upon, the right to LIFE.
"Catholics in the Public Square"
• How should Catholics understand the separation between Church and state?
The separation of Church and state all too often is used as an excuse to silence people of faith and to discourage them from legitimately participating in the public square. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, of course, does not advocate for a separation of Church and state at all, but rather the protection of religious freedom from the state.
Our founding fathers intended all persons to have the equal right to voice their opinions, including those based on religious convictions. Even more, they understood that it was imperative that the state not infringe upon the religious beliefs of its citizens. The Constitution is aimed at allowing all people to have a voice in government, including those whose voice is distinctively religious.
In other words, there is nothing in the Constitution excluding people from bringing their faith into the public square.
• Should Catholics take into account their own faith at the moment of voting?
It only makes sense that if Catholics are supposed to live their faith in all of their daily activities that they should also take their faith into account while voting. As noted in the Second Vatican Council's teaching, " every citizen ought to be mindful of his right and his duty to promote the common good by using his vote ." ( Gaudium et Spes , 75)
In preparing to vote, Catholics need to understand their faith so that their consciences are properly formed. Subsequent to this formation, it is important to research all of the important issues and candidates that will appear on the ballot. Only after sufficient preparation and prayer, is a Catholic fully ready to discharge his or her responsibilities as a faithful citizen and cast a meaningful vote.
• Can Catholics honestly disagree in matters of politics, social or cultural issues?
In 2002, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document entitled Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding Participation of Catholics in Political Life , that addresses the existence of political matters in which Catholics may disagree. There are, indeed, many issues upon which Catholics may legitimately differ such as the best methods to achieve welfare reform or to address illegal immigration.
Conversely, however, there are other issues that are intrinsically evil and can never legitimately be supported. For example, Catholics may never legitimately promote or vote for any law that attacks innocent human life.
• What does it mean that Catholics should follow their conscience when making a moral decision?
Before following our conscience, we must form it in accord with the voice of God. Our conscience is not the origin of truth. Truth lies outside us; it exists independent of us and must be discovered through constant effort of mind and heart. This is no easy task for us who suffer the effects of original sin and must contend with the constant temptations of the devil. Conscience receives the truth revealed by God and discerns how to apply that truth to concrete circumstances.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1783) teaches, “ Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-informed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings .”
As we see, to form one's own conscience well and to follow it with integrity is no small task. For a person's conscience cannot invent what is true and good. It must search it out beyond itself. When acting correctly, we discover the truth through the grace of the Holy Spirit and the help of God's word handed down to us in the Church. Then, when we submit our conscience to this objective truth, we act uprightly and grow to maturity in Christ.
• Is it mandatory for Catholics to follow what the Pope or bishops say on political issues?
Because they are the leaders of the Church, it is always important to respect statements from the Church's hierarchy. It is the role of the Pope and the bishops to teach clearly on matters of faith and morals, including those touching on political issues.
There are some matters, however, on which Catholics may disagree with the Church's hierarchy. In some cases, for example, a Catholic may agree with the teaching of the Church, but come to a different prudential judgment about its application.
Examples of these issues might include an instance where someone agrees with the Church's teaching on “just war” or “capital punishment,” but reaches a different conclusion as to whether the facts of the situation constitute a “just war” or the “rare” circumstances where capital punishment may be used under Church teaching.
It should be emphasized, however, that despite these examples, there are other issues, such as abortion or euthanasia, that are always wrong and do not allow for the correct use of prudential judgment to justify them. It would never be proper for Catholics to be on the opposite side of these issues.
• Are all political and social issues equal when it comes to choosing a political candidate?
Absolutely not! The Catholic Church is actively engaged in a wide variety of important public policy issues including immigration, education, affordable housing, health and welfare, to name just a few. On each of these issues we should do our best to be informed and to support those proposed solutions that seem most likely to be effective. However, when it comes to direct attacks on innocent human life, being right on all the other issues can never justify a wrong choice on this most serious matter.
As Pope John Paul II has written, " Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights - for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture - is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with the maximum determination ." (Christifideles Laici , 38)
• Are there any “non-negotiable” issues for Catholics involved in politics?
There are several issues that are “not negotiable” for Catholics in political life, because they involve matters that are intrinsically evil. In an address to European politicians on March 30, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI stated: “ As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable. Among these the following emerge clearly today:
• Protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death;
• Recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family – as a union between a man and a woman based on marriage – and its defense from attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different forms of union which in reality harm it and contribute to its destabilization, obscuring its particular character and its irreplaceable social role;
• The protection of the rights of parents to educate their children.”
The issues mentioned by Pope Benedict are all “non-negotiable” and are some of the most contemporary issues in the political arena. I should note, however, that other issues, while not intrinsically evil, deserve prayerful consideration, such as questions of war and capital punishment, poverty issues and matters relating to illegal immigration.
• What are the causes that can ban Catholics from Holy Communion?
No one who is conscious of having committed a serious sin should receive Holy Communion. For the Eucharist is the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, our most precious gift in the Church. And St. Paul warns us (I Cor 11:27-29): " Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself ."
All Catholics should examine their consciences, and refrain from receiving Holy Communion if they are not living in a proper state of grace. Should some Catholic politicians who are presently pro-abortion obstinately persist in this contradiction to our faith, this becomes a source of scandal. In these and similar cases, measures beyond those of moral persuasion may need to be taken by those in leadership in the Church . As God tells us in the Book of Leviticus (19:16), " You shall not stand by idly when your neighbor's life is at stake."
If a politician is actively supporting and furthering the culture of death, he is not only causing scandal; he is sinning. Similarly, when a politician performs actions (like voting) that allow for abortions and even promote abortions, or that mandate the distribution of contraceptives by pharmacists and others, that politician is materially cooperating in grave sin. When this occurs, then the politician cannot receive Holy Communion without previously making a good confession. A good confession would require sincere sorrow for such sin and a firm purpose of making amendment. Since the harm done would be public in nature, the amendment should also be public.
• How would you define a “candidate who is a faithful Catholic?”
There are a large number of candidates or politicians in our country that label themselves as Catholic. Regrettably, however, some of these are an embarrassment to the Church and a scandal to others by virtue of their support of issues that are intrinsically evil.
A candidate who is authentically Catholic is one who always defends the dignity of every human person and who puts the welfare of the common good over various partisan or self interests. His personal and public life is shaped by faith in Christ and His teachings. Such a candidate can be from any political party, but will never support matters that are intrinsically evil such as abortion, euthanasia, or “same-sex marriage.”
• What line should an elected official draw between his faith and his political commitments?
Elected officials should bring their faith to bear on all of their activities, including public affairs. In living out their faith, they should have a proper respect for the civil liberties of all people, including those of other faiths, or with no faith at all.
It should be pointed out, however, that sometimes Catholic politicians mistakenly claim that they need to abandon their faith out of an obligation to respect those of differing opinions or to honor a political commitment inherent with their office. These claims are perhaps most frequently made when Catholic politicians claim to be personally opposed to the killing of innocent unborn children.
Incredibly, it is somehow claimed by such people that it would be inappropriate to support legislation protecting human life because doing so would impose their faith on others or somehow violate their oath of office. These claims are ludicrous. Protecting human life is not only a religious imperative, it is a human imperative, and it is an imperative for all people.
People of faith have every right to bring their beliefs into the public square just like anyone else. In fact, Catholic elected officials should always live out their faith while promoting the welfare of all, including the protection of innocent human life.