Issues for Catholic Voters (2012 edition) – Our Public Witness
Our Public Witness (Chapter III)
Should a political candidate talk publicly about his faith? Should an elected official allow his or her faith to inform political decisions? These are questions that have been discussed for decades, but the debate has grown more heated in recent years.
It’s a crucial issue for Catholic voters: If Catholic politicians cannot be guided by faith in making laws and policies, then Catholic voters should not be guided by their deposit of faith either.
The Church’s position is clear: “A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals” (Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, 4).
This is precisely the principle invoked by those Catholics who objected to voting for health care legislation containing federal funding for abortion. It’s also the reason a number of Catholics in Congress promised to either repeal the legislation or strip out its abortion funding.
There can be no distinctive public witness if a Catholic politician fails to uphold the Church’s teaching on abortion, marriage, fetal stem cell research, or euthanasia.
To those who say the Church should stay out of politics, the Church replies by teaching very clearly that the political order is not separate from the divine order revealed by faith (Gaudium et Spes, 74).
Some well-known Catholic politicians over the past decades have argued that Catholic values should remain personal, not political. They have created a dichotomy of the human person where none actually exists.
Yet, these same politicians often claim a Catholic basis for policies addressing, for example, a preferential option for the poor, while wholeheartedly rejecting Catholic teaching on the protection of life. If faith cannot enter politics, then it has no place in either the social justice or the pro-life debate, but, of course, it belongs in both.
This insistence on keeping faith out of politics restricts our compassion to ourselves and our families. But a religion with “love thy neighbor” as its central tenet cannot be so artificially limited. Catholic values should be allowed to inform the rule of law, if that is the outcome of the political process.
None of the Founding Fathers believed that religion should be excluded from the political arena, or be considered off limits in the Congress and in the courts. Their only qualification was that the federal government should not establish an official religion for the state.
If the public witness of Christian politicians had been eliminated in the nineteenth century, the U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing the legality of slavery would have never been overturned in law. The voters who supported Lincoln didn’t worry about “imposing” their faith in ending the scourge of slavery – they didn’t worry about keeping their religious convictions private.
Principle of Subsidiarity
Yes, history demonstrates it is voters who change laws. Catholics recognize the grassroots nature of political change—it’s called the principle of subsidiarity. This principle states that social problems are most effectively addressed starting at the local level. If they remain unsolved, then it becomes the responsibility of larger institutions, such as the state and federal government, to act.
Pius XI inaugurated the term in 1931 and construed its meaning in the political realm by censuring as “an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order” for any higher association to usurp what a smaller one could more effectively address (Quadragesimo Anno, 79). Fundamentally, the principle of subsidiarity represents a confidence and optimism about the desire and ability of human persons to respond to human need.
Through its insistence on subsidiarity, the faith of the Church upholds the fundamental freedom and human rights of the person against the power of the state, a power that imprisoned and murdered more people in the twentieth century than in the entire history of mankind combined.
There are many facets of the Catholic Faith that the faithful do not seek to express through law or public policy—the need to attend mass regularly, to pray, to give alms, to seek the kingdom of heaven. The Constitution wisely forbids the establishment of a state religion in order to preserve the religious liberty of all citizens. We are not required by civil law to be religious.
Some specific parts of Catholic teaching do not reach into the public square, but that which serves the common good, human rights, and human dignity cannot be ignored. Why? Because these core concepts define basic truths of the human person and society. Catholic bishops have condemned again and again the growing tendency of Catholic politicians to ignore these teachings and allow the public square to be dominated by a secular perspective, one devoid of fundamental respect for all human persons, including the unborn, the suffering, and the terminally ill.
Once again, it belongs to the public witness of Catholics at all levels of politics to ground their decisions in what they know to be true about human life and society. There are times a Catholic politician causes scandal for supporting a policy that directly contradicts the Church’s witness to human dignity. For example, some bishops have publicly criticized politicians within their diocese who claim the label Catholic while supporting abortion or same-sex marriage. If Catholic voters took the action necessary to remove these politicians from office then the bishops would be saved the trouble of denying them communion.
No doubt, Catholic politicians would rethink their positions if they felt their offices were in jeopardy for ignoring the basic tenets of their faith.
Some argue that this is a case of the Church insisting on its authority over the secular realm. This is not the case at all: The Church recognizes the legitimate distinction between Church and state. The issue is what happens to human beings when the perspective of faith is eliminated from governance and politics. The result is a practical atheism in the policy-making arena coupled with a secular and materialistic view of the human person. Such a perspective leads to abortion as a method of population control, euthanasia as a means of ending suffering, and same-sex marriage as a form of civil rights.
- The Christian Faith cannot be restricted to oneself and one’s family, making it impossible to “love one’s neighbor.”
- The principle of subsidiarity teaches that Catholics should first address social problems at the local level before asking the government to intervene.
- Politics and government need the public witness of what faith teaches about the common good, human rights, and human dignity.
By Deal Hudson, President of Catholic Advocate