In years past, the traditional start of the U.S. presidential general election season was after Labor Day. By then, the major parties had held their nominating conventions. Summer was over and people, it was assumed, were ready to focus on the November election. The serious work of scrutinizing and then selecting a president could begin in earnest after the kids were back in school and the lazy, hazy days of summer had faded.
Not so much anymore.
In the era of the 24-hour news cycle and especially during both parties’ prolonged, surprising and tumultuous primary season this past winter and spring, every speech, every sideways glance, every nasty comment and every Facebook post and Twitter tweet have been scrutinized to determine who’s in front, who’s more trustworthy and who should be the next president of the United States.
Amidst all this churning of information, perhaps a more thoughtful investigation of the parties and their “religion” platforms, especially regarding voters who bring their faith with them into the voting booth, may be helpful.
On its national website, one of the two major parties addresses the concerns of people of faith, including Catholics, by listing its governing objectives as: the economy, ensuring “equality,” foreign policy, protecting women’s health, the climate and guns. The other party’s website lists its concerns for people of faith as: the economy and jobs; the restoration of Constitutional government; energy, agriculture and the environment; health care, and family, schools and neighborhoods.
Are any of those broad areas “Catholic” issues specifically? Obviously not. Should a concerned Catholic voter, however, be interested in learning more about the proposed policies behind these platform planks and how they agree with or stand in opposition to church teaching on economic issues, or environmental concerns, or family life, or the proliferation of gun violence in our cities? Most certainly. Our bishops address these issues; Pope Francis does, as well.
For several years now, the U.S. bishops have published a teaching document entitled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” The most recent edition was voted on and approved by the bishops at their November 2015 meeting. Input from Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of the Archdiocese of Hartford, a member of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, was included in the drafting of the document. In writing “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops do not intend to parse every action and statement of the two major party candidates. In fact, their aim is apparent in the title: to form the consciences of faithful citizens. Why? So that, as they write in the document’s introduction, they can live up to their apostolic mandate to be teachers.
They write: “This statement represents our guidance for Catholics in the exercise of their rights and duties as participants in our democracy. We urge our pastors, lay and religious faithful, and all people of good will to use this statement to help form their consciences; to teach those entrusted to their care; to contribute to civil and respectful public dialogue; and to shape political choices in the coming election in light of Catholic teaching.
“The statement lifts up our dual heritage as both faithful Catholics and American citizens with rights and duties as participants in the civil order. First and foremost, however, we remember that we relate to the civil order as citizens of the heavenly Kingdom, whose reign is not yet fully realized on earth but demands our unqualified allegiance. It is as citizens faithful to the Lord Jesus that we contribute most effectively to the civil order.”
A favorite story about Servant of God Dorothy Day goes something like this. Once, during the early days of the Catholic Worker movement in New York City back in the 1920s, Day and others took part in a rally to support department store workers who had been on strike for just wages. Day and her compatriots carried placards on which they had hand-written quotes from Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical on social justice, Rerum Novarum (1881). In her memoir The Long Loneliness, Day recalled that when the mostly Catholic police officers were sent to break up the protest, they took one look at the signs, the words written on them and the author of the words, and then refused to arrest her or her associates. She said one of the police officers told her that arresting her for carrying a placard with the pope’s words on it “would have been like arresting the pope himself.”
Laws prohibit anyone from carrying a campaign or advocacy sign anywhere within 75 feet of a polling place. More important than a sign is a well-formed conscience, and an understanding of what it means to be a faith-filled citizen. The elections are still weeks away, but now is the time to review “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” to study the major parties’ platforms on faith issues and discuss these topics with your pastor, among your family and friends, perhaps in your Knights of Columbus council or among all people of good will.
“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” can be downloaded from the U.S. bishops’ website at: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/upload/forming-consciences-for-faithful-citizenship.pdf.