National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 24, 2003

Bishops issue call to political responsibility

A visitor from Mars asked to evaluate the state of American Catholicism based on popular press presentations of the past year could easily conclude that it is a religion focused on sex (whether that be abuse of minors, optional celibacy for priests, gay marriage) and the deteriorating physical condition of its aging Rome-based leader.

This is a caricature: a grain or more of truth taken to its illogical extreme.

It is true, however, that the prophetic voice of the church has been muffled, if not quite silenced, by the scandals of the past 22 months.

Often in these same pages, however, we are reminded that the church is more than sex scandals and papal deathwatches. The heroics of migrant activists, health care workers, peacemakers in a violent world and courageous religious leaders who have been subjects of recent cover stories and major stories make the point. The point was emphasized further earlier this month by the U.S. bishops in their 8,000-word reflection on “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility.”

Say the bishops: “While working to protect children and rebuild trust, we must not abandon the church’s important role in public life and the duty to encourage Catholics to act on our faith in political life.”

Amen to that.

Since 1975, the bishops have issued such a document to coincide with the federal election cycle. But this year’s reflection seems particularly significant: “Since the last presidential election and our last reflection on faithful citizenship, our nation has been attacked by terrorists and has gone to war twice. We have moved from how to share budget surpluses to how to allocate the burdens of deficits.”

The bishops offer this framework: “Politics in this election year and beyond should be about an old idea with new power -- the common good. The central question should not be, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ It should be, ‘How can we -- all of us, especially the weak and vulnerable -- be better off in the years ahead?’ ”

The bishops speak plainly: “As Catholics, we are not free to abandon unborn children because they are seen as unwanted or inconvenient; to turn our backs on immigrants because they lack the proper documents; to create and then destroy human lives in a quest for medical advances or profit; to turn away from poor women and children because they lack economic or political power; or to ignore sick people because they have no insurance. Nor can we neglect international responsibilities in the aftermath of war because resources are scarce. Catholic teaching requires us to speak up for the voiceless and to act in accord with universal moral values.”

That structure established, they move on to specific issues.

  • Respect for life: “Each person’s life and dignity must be respected, whether that person is an innocent unborn child in a mother’s womb, whether that person worked in the World Trade Center or a market in Baghdad, or even whether that person is a convicted criminal on death row.”
  • Marriage: “The God-given institutions of marriage -- a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman -- and family are central and serve as the foundations for social life. Marriage and family should be supported and strengthened, not undermined.”
  • Workers’ rights: “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers, owners and others must be respected -- the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize and choose to join a union, to economic initiative, and to ownership and private property.”
  • The environment: “We show our respect for the Creator by our care for creation.”
  • War: “Nations must protect the right to life by finding ever more effective ways to prevent conflicts from arising, to resolve them by peaceful means, and to promote post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation. … We have raised serious moral concerns and questions about preemptive or preventive use of force.”
  • Labor: “Because financial and economic factors have such an impact on the well-being and stability of families, it is important that just wages be paid to those who work to support their families and that generous efforts be made to aid poor families.”
  • Education: “No one model or means of education is appropriate to the needs of all persons. Parents -- the first and most important educators -- have a fundamental right to choose the education best suited to the needs of their children, including private and religious schools.”
  • Communications: “We support regulation that limits the concentration of control over these media; disallows sales of media outlets that attract irresponsible owners primarily seeking a profit; and [instead] opens these outlets to a greater variety of program sources, including religious programming.”
  • Poverty: “The measure of welfare reform should be reducing poverty and dependency, not cutting resources and programs.”
  • Health care: “With tens of millions of Americans lacking basic health insurance, we support measures to ensure that decent health care is available to all as a moral imperative.”
  • Agriculture: “Those who grow our food should be able to make a decent living and maintain their way of life … [and] our priority concern for the poor calls us to advocate especially for the needs of farm workers, whose pay is generally inadequate, whose housing and working conditions are often deplorable, and who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.”
  • Immigration: “The United States should adopt a more generous immigration and refugee policy.”

Whatever one makes of the solutions the bishops offer (and we’re grateful, for example, that their defense of marriage makes no mention of their ill-advised support for a constitutional amendment banning gay unions), there’s no doubt that it is a radical gospel-based vision, a far cry from the platforms offered by our tweedledum and tweedledee political parties.

And the document serves as a reminder to the 64 million U.S. Catholics that our church is about more than scandal and shame; that however flawed we are, however flawed the institution is, we’re ultimately called to love one another, to promote -- as best we can discern it -- the common good.

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: