Bishops often speak about the virtue of “collegiality”—their desire to act and speak in one voice. The recent history of the Church illustrates problems arising from the expectation that individual bishops should subjugate their public message in favor of the USCCB. John Cardinal O’Connor and Bernard Cardinal Law were among the first bishops to challenge the demands of collegiality when they condemned Geraldine Ferraro’s pro-abortion stance in the 1984 presidential campaign. They couldn’t sit silently in the face of a vice-presidential candidate who constantly talked about her Catholic identity and misrepresented core teachings of the Church.
Other bishops have likewise spoken out in subsequent election seasons. The 2004 election was a particularly rowdy year for the bishops. I said at the time that it was a shame that this public discussion of Catholic participation in politics was happening during a presidential campaign. It would have been preferable to ask questions, such as those regarding reception of Communion by pro-abortion Catholic politicians, in a political off-year.
The opportunity for a more dispassionate reflection on and discussion of Catholics in politics comes with the publication of Catholics in the Public Square (Basilica Press) by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix. The virtue of this book is not only that it is timely and well-written, but that it is short, making it an ideal tool for discussion groups in parishes, schools, and colleges.
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Bishop Olmsted is to be congratulated for speaking publicly on a set of issues that has confused lay Catholics who want to be politically involved but remain faithful to Church teaching. He is uniquely suited to the task, having worked in the Vatican Secretariat of State for nine years and possessing a doctorate in canon law.
Bishop Olmsted does not avoid the central issue: He writes that there are “many issues upon which Catholics may legitimately differ. . . .However, there are other issues that are intrinsically evil and can never legitimately be supported. For example, Catholics may never legitimately promote or vote for any law that attacks innocent human life.” Frankly, any attempt to provide Catholics guidelines for political action that does not address this basic distinction does not deserve serious attention, because it is avoiding the issue that has framed all the controversies of Catholics in politics since Roe v. Wade in 1973.
The excuse given by pro-abortion Catholic politicians since the 1970s has been their “conscience.” They treated the notion of conscience as if it absolved them from any moral obligation they might reject. Bishop Olmsted drives a stake through the heart of that myth: “Before following our conscience, we must form it in accord with the voice of God. Our conscience is not the origin of truth. Truth lies outside us.” This is the voice of a teacher, someone who knows how to put profound thought into accessible language. Catholics in the Public Square is filled with illuminating explanations of issues often made complex and convoluted by other commentators, most often those who want to avoid complying with Church teaching on the life issues.
Bishop Olmsted is not the only bishop who has decided to address key issues in a public way. Basilica Press is publishing an entire series of short books called “The Shepherd’s Voice Series.” Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio has written A Will to Live, examining the ethical dilemmas of death and dying. Francis Cardinal Arinze has taken on a similar group of moral concerns in Draw Near to Me. I recommend calling Basilica Press today to order all three (888-570-5182).