On Faithful Citizenship

What is a Catholic to do when no political party or candidate fully upholds the Church’s teaching?

Editor’s note: The following is a homily given by Fr. Tran on Sunday, October 28th. It is posted here as part of Catholic World Report‘s desire to contribute to the discussion regarding principles of responsible citizenship among Catholics.


For the past 41 years, the Catholic Church in America has celebrated October as Respect Life Month. This is a month in which our bishops have asked us to reflect upon, pray about, and renew our commitment to the defense of all human life. Today, I should like to address this issue vis-À-vis our civic duties as Catholic Americans.

Three months ago, I preached on our moral obligation “to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend [our] country” (CCC 2240). In that homily, I said that we are Catholic Americans; we are not American Catholics. In the term American Catholic, American is the adjective, which means that it qualifies the noun Catholic. To qualify our Catholicism is to qualify our faith, to qualify our allegiance to our Creator, to qualify our love for our heavenly Father. Those things we do not qualify, hence, we are not American Catholics.

In the term Catholic American, Catholic is the adjective, which means that it qualifies the noun American. As Catholics, our patriotism is tempered by our faith, our love of country is subordinated to our love of God, our decisions in the body politic and our actions in the public square are all determined by a conscience informed by faith. That is what it means to be a Catholic American.

As Catholic Americans, our Church teaches us that responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation (cf. Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship). If a Catholic conscience obliges us to participate in political life, then it stands to reason that we must participate in a way that is consistent with our Catholic faith. When it comes to matters that are purely political, then there is a great deal of latitude in our prudential judgments. This is the purpose of political dialogue. How much should people be taxed? What should the speed limit be? Should there be a minimum wage, and if so, what should it be? What are just immigration laws? There are many sides to these issues and men of good will differ in their opinions. Healthy political debate will hash out these issues for any particular country. The Church only gives us moral guidelines to form our Catholic conscience when engaging in these debates. She gives us the pale, if you will, that we should not step beyond in our political discourse. Within the pale, however, there is much room for disagreement and political discourse. After all, human governments are human institutions, hence, they cannot be perfect. There is usually not one correct answer.

The fundamental principle that under girds our political discourse, however, is respect for the dignity of the human person. Governments exist to protect the common good—to protect people because of our inherent dignity as beings created in the imago Dei, the image and likeness of God. 6. In 1998, the American bishops stated this principle thus: “Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these areas.

Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the human person at all stages of life. But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community” (Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, 23). In other words, since the issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, etc., are fundamentally issues of respect for human dignity, it is logically inconsistent that one could be right on those issues while wrong on respecting the dignity of the most innocent and vulnerable human life, the unborn and the elderly. “You believe I have a right to an education, but I don’t have a right to life?” “You believe I have a right to housing, but I don’t have a right to life?” “You believe I have a right to health care, but I don’t have a right to life?” “Well, how do I get those things if I’m not alive?” This is what the bishops meant when they said, “the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community.”

So, now we see where the pale is. Catholics must address the issues of education, housing, health care, etc. But within the pale, there is not one right answer to those questions. We should not resort to personal attacks or straw men when discussing these issues. What is beyond the pale is a lack of respect for the dignity of human life at its most vulnerable stages: the very young and the very old.

In 2002, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, commonly known as the CDF, which was then headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, issued a document entitled Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life. In this document, the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI, laid down the moral principles that we as Catholics use to form our consciences when entering into the body politic. In that document, the CDF stated, “Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society” (Doctrinal Note, 3). Non-negotiable ethical principles are “moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation” (Doctrinal Note, 4). That is, principles that are beyond the pale because they are foundational to any society, they “concern the integral good of the human person.” Some of the issues explicitly named in the document are abortion, euthanasia, protection for the rights of the human embryo, monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, protection of minors, and religious freedom.

People often wonder why capital punishment and war are not on the list. They seem to also be issues to respect for human dignity. The difference is that capital punishment and war are not intrinsically evil; they are not evil in and of themselves. Both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition teach us that there are times when a government can justly execute criminals and there are situations where a government can justly go to war to defend its people. These are prudential matters that are within the pale, that men of good will can disagree on, which is why virtue and character matter in our political leaders. What is beyond the pale is the intentional killing of innocent human life, the redefinition of marriage and the family, and the denial of religious freedom.

 There is obviously more than one issue here, but it is usually at this point in the discussion that someone brings up the “one-issue voter” argument. When people make that claim, I like to ask them, what if that one issue were slavery, or pedophilia, or even women’s suffrage? If you agreed with a politician on every issue except for one, that he wanted to bring back slavery, or that he wanted to legalize pedophilia, or that he wanted to take away a woman’s right to vote, would you honestly say to yourself, “Well, that’s only one issue. I agree with him about everything else, so I’ll vote for him”? Or would the “rightness” of his other positions be rendered suspect because of this one issue? It seems to me that it depends upon what that one issue is. And the one issue we are talking about here is respecting the dignity of human life, human life in its most vulnerable stages. This is why a politician’s claim that he is personally opposed to abortion, but he does not want to impose his beliefs on others is—if I may borrow a term that has recently come into political discourse—a bunch of malarkey.

 The only reason to be personally opposed to abortion is because one believes what is inside the womb is a human being. If it is not a human being inside that womb, if it is just a lump of cells and tissue, then there is no reason to be personally opposed to abortion; destroying the embryo would be no different from removing a cancer. So, if one is personally opposed to abortion, then one must believe that what is inside that womb is a human being. And to say that one is personally opposed to the destruction of an innocent human being, but one is not willing to impose that view upon others is no different from saying, “I’m personally opposed to murder, but I don’t want to impose my personal beliefs upon others.” “I’m personally opposed to pedophilia, but I don’t want to impose my personal beliefs upon others.” “I’m personally opposed to rape, but I don’t want to impose my personal beliefs upon others.”

“But, Father, in those cases, you’re causing harm to someone else.” Exactly! Abortion is not about a woman’s right to choose to do what she wants with her body. The scientific evidence is very clear that the embryo has a different DNA than the mother; it is a different being than she is. And reason tells us that if it was created by a human egg and a human sperm, then that being is a human being. Hence, an abortion is not about a woman’s body; it is about her child’s body. We want equal rights for all women, including that woman in her womb. The mother’s choice was to engage in the act that created that life. She certainly has the choice to engage in that act or not. But once that life is created, then we are talking about someone else’s body, not hers anymore. This is why the “personally opposed” argument is specious at best and hypocritical at worst.

The hypocrisy lies in the fact that these very same politicians have no problems with imposing the Church’s other social doctrines upon society, her preferential option for the poor, her teaching that even illegal immigrants have rights and human dignity that must be respected, her teaching against incest, or her teachings about war, just to name a few.

As Catholic Americans, which is to say as Catholics, we do not vote for parties, but for principles. We judge political ideologies through the lens of the Church, because political parties are fallible human institutions, whereas the Church is a divine institution, founded by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and guided through the ages by the third person of the Holy Trinity.

Now, as we all know, it is very hard to find a perfect political candidate. They are human, after all. This is all the more reason why faithful, knowledgeable Catholics need to be involved in the political process, to become politicians themselves even. But what are we to do when no one fully upholds the Church’s position on the dignity of human life, for example, when someone is opposed to abortion, but supports it in cases of rape and incest? Only when the mother’s life is in danger, not her health, for every pregnancy affects the health of the mother, but only when her life is in danger is an indirect abortion—i.e., the removal of the embryo to save her life, but causing the unintended side-effect of the death of the child—morally allowed.

 So, what is a Catholic to do when no one fully upholds the Church’s teaching? In his encyclical, Evangelium vitae, Blessed Pope John Paul II answered that question thus: “an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality” (EV 73). He specifically mentions abortion, but his moral reasoning could be applied to any of the “non-negotiable ethical principles.” We cannot support a politician because of his inconsistent position—that would be formal cooperation in evil and mortally sinful. But if his position were closer to a consistent ethic of life, and his proposals would “limit the harm done,” then we could licitly support that candidate to help move society in the right direction (e.g., in situations like abortion and embryonic stem cell research) and to keep society from going over the cliff (e.g., in situations such as euthanasia, marriage, and religious freedom). We do not have to sit out of the political process because no candidate is perfect. That would be as imprudent as not participating in the political process at all.

These social doctrines of the Church exist to protect the common good, to keep rulers from lording their power over those whom they rule, so that all human life may respected and protected (cf. Mk 10:42). This is why Holy Mother Church tells us that faithful citizenship is a virtue and participation in political life is a moral obligation. I should like to end with a quote from the CDF that states this principle far more eloquently than I can. “By its intervention in this area, the Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions. Instead, it intends—as is its proper function—to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good. The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and indivisible. … Living and acting in conformity with one’s own conscience on questions of politics is not slavish acceptance of positions alien to politics or some kind of confessionalism, but rather the way in which Christians offer their concrete contribution so that, through political life, society will become more just and more consistent with the dignity of the human person” (Doctrinal Note, 3-4).

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About Father Augustine Hoa T. Tran 0 Articles
Father Augustine Hoa T. Tran teaches theology at Blessed Trinity Catholic High School in Roswell, Georgia and is in residence at the Catholic Church of St. Monica in Duluth, Georgia.