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Forming Consciences, Not Faithful Citizenship

The nation has learned many things this election cycle. We have learned that President Donald Trump’s narcissism is total, standing firm even in the face of a pandemic. We have learned that former Vice President Joe Biden is no longer as sharp as he once was, but he is nobody’s fool and nobody’s figurehead. We have learned difficult lessons about the fragility of democracy and the power of demagoguery. We have learned that social media brings curses as well as blessings.

This election also holds lessons for the Catholic Church in the United States, the most obvious of which is that the Catholic bishops of the country need to scrap the current text of their quadrennial document on voting, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” usually shortened to “Faithful Citizenship.”  They need to start anew before the 2024 election.

At last November’s plenary meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gave final approval to a deeply flawed text. They had already decided to retain the underlying document from 2016, which was the same document they adopted in 2008. That is to say, it’s not magisterium of Pope Benedict XVI, whose one social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, was issued in 2009. As in previous cycles, the bishops decided to add a new introductory note to the text.

The introductory note is a disaster. For years, those bishops who think the only issue that should command the attention of Catholic voters is abortion had tried to raise its significance in the text. Back in the early years of this century, they had borrowed the concept of “intrinsic evil” and improperly applied it to considerations of voting. I say “improperly” because that an evil is “intrinsic” does not tell us whether or not it is grave or whether it is a properly concern of civil authority. For example, lying is intrinsically evil, but civil authorities only criminalize it when it subverts justice as in cases of fraud or perjury. Telling your child she is the most intelligent child in the world or that he is the most beautiful child in the world is not criminal. Masturbation is an intrinsic evil. Do the bishops think it should be criminalized?

Last year, for the first time, the “abortion-only” crowd succeeding in having the drafting committee include the statement that abortion was “our preeminent priority.” Of course, the bishops had no way of knowing that COVID-19 would become the priority for most voters, and indeed, that the president’s failed response to the pandemic would become the principal life issue for most voters. The bishops did not explain how abortion could be “preeminent” when the document later states that many other issues are “equally sacred.” If they are equal, abortion is not preeminent or, better to say, it may be a preeminent issue, but not the preeminent issue. Nonetheless, the bishops ignored the contradiction and kept the adjective.

Some bishops who supported the inclusion of “preeminent” were forced to admit that their logic was formed by political, not theological, assessments. Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, OR, said, “We are at a unique moment with the upcoming election cycle to make a real challenge to Roe v. Wade, given the possible changes to the Supreme Court.” Sample had no theological justification, only a reading of the political winds, and he read them wrong.

“Preeminent” has been misused since because it was intended to be misused. Bishops and conservative Catholic commentators routinely argue that because abortion is “preeminent” it is therefore “determinative,” when the teaching in the underlying document, to say nothing of the teaching of recent popes, all indicate that no issue can be pronounced determinative as a matter of theological teaching, because voters must make a host of prudential judgments in deciding how to cast their ballots.

The whole effort to prioritize abortion and make it determinative for conscientious Catholic voters fails for another reason. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis wrote, “We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not replace them.” (#37) Telling Catholic voters which issues they must prioritize is an attempt to replace, not form, the consciences of Catholic voters. It defines “faithful citizenship” far too narrowly and implies those who do not follow their lead are somehow not faithful.

The emphasis the bishops place on religious liberty in the introductory note is similarly misplaced. I consider religious liberty one of the founding fathers’ great gifts to the nation. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis humanae, in turn, shared that gift with the world, albeit constructed on a different philosophic foundation from that employed by America’s founders. But the religious liberty campaign mounted by the bishops’ conference has become absurd. In recent weeks, fears for the future of religious liberty have been stoked as a part of the effort to confirm Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court Justice. Her confirmation will mean that six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Roman Catholics and a seventh was raised Catholic. How many justices do we need before we feel our religious liberty is secure?

The person of Donald Trump has also exposed another flaw in the document: It emphasizes issues over character and competence. Voters select a person, not a platform, when they go into the ballot box. Boston College Professor Cathleen Kaveny has been arguing this point for years, most prominently and comprehensively in her 2016 book Prophecy Without Contempt. In fact, if the bishops do decide to scrap “Faithful Citizenship” and start over, they should make Kaveny their principal theological and legal adviser.

If the bishops want a new document, they also have a text with which to start. In his recent talk at St. Mary’s College, “Voting as a Faithful Disciple,” published by the National Catholic Reporter, Bishop Robert McElroy provides a thoughtful, balanced and theologically sound alternative to the problematic “Faithful Citizenship.” No one can gainsay McElroy’s fierce opposition to legalized abortion, but he does not allow that opposition to cloud out all other considerations, even among life issues.

It is an interesting parlor game to speculate how different the Church’s witness in the public square would have been if the USCCB had stuck with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” approach, rather than its prioritization of abortion. But politics is not about parlor games, it is about power, and bishops, of all people, should recognize the dangers—moral, theological and institutional—of reducing religion to politics. If they commit to rethinking how they can better fulfill their responsibility as teachers of the faith, I can’t predict whether they will come up with something better or not. But we will know they are on the right track if, having junked the current text and forged something new, it comes to be known in shorthand as “Forming Consciences” not “Faithful Citizenship.” Bishops are not, and should not pretend to be, political pundits. That is one of the principal lessons of the 2020 election cycle.


Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.

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