An Assessment of the New USCCB Document Faithful Citizenship

The U.S. bishops recently issued an updated version of their 2007 document on the political obligations of Catholics, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (FCFC). While an in-depth analysis of it cannot be undertaken in a short column, I offer some thoughts and an assessment of its main points and try to put it into the context of the social teaching of the universal Church.

FCFC (#34) lists “intrinsically evil acts,” and says that Catholics cannot vote for a political candidate “who favors a policy promoting” them, at least “if the voter’s intent is to support” any such positions. It mentions here abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, “deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions,” “redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning,” and “racist behavior.” It suggests that this list is not meant to be exhaustive, by prefacing it with “such as.” In fact, later in the document it also mentions human cloning, in vitro fertilization, and the destruction of human embryos for research. While not specifically calling “intrinsically evil” such acts as torture, unjust war, genocide, attacking noncombatants in war, human trafficking, and imposition of the death penalty—although clearly almost all of these would also fall into that category—it says that Catholic teaching calls on us to oppose them and to also seek to “overcome poverty and suffering” (#43). It also cautions that a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to intrinsically evil positions such as these to “justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.” Still, and while rejecting “single-issue” voting, it says that a Catholic voter is justified in “disqualifying a candidate” who embraces such intrinsically evil positions (#42).

In addressing intrinsically evil acts, FCFC echoes the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2002 Doctrinal Note on Some Questions regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life. A main difference is that the Doctrinal Note lists among the “moral principles that do not admit of exception” the right of parents to control their children’s education, although that is spoken about elsewhere in FCFC. It is unfortunate that both documents focus the question of parental rights narrowly on education, when they are broader—concerning childrearing more generally—and have come under assault across the board in the Western world for decades.

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FCFC acknowledges, however, that the moral choices facing voters in deciding among political candidates are often less than clear-cut or satisfying. It says, “When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods” (#36). This reminds one of Raymond Cardinal Burke’s 2004 pastoral letter when he was Archbishop of St. Louis. He said it is permissible for a Catholic to vote for a candidate who supports the limitation of legal abortion, even if not opposing it entirely, if he is up against an opposing candidate who is outright pro-abortion.

forming_consciences1FCFC restates many points from the social encyclicals, including: the fact that Catholic social teaching is not an ideology but involves fundamental ethical principles applicable to all men; the family as “the first and fundamental unit of society” (#46); an explanation of just war teaching in both its jus ad bellum (when nations may go to war) and jus in bello (how war must be conducted) dimensions; the central principles of subsidiarity and solidarity; the moral mandate of a just wage; the rights—and obligations—of workers generally; the rights of economic freedom/initiative and private property; support for the agricultural sector; the need for good environmental stewardship; the rights to health care and education (they are in the catalogue of rights in Pope St. John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris); combatting unjust discrimination; the problem of divorce (FCFC implies that it should be harder to obtain); the preferential option for the poor; international debt relief for poor nations; and that institutions or social arrangements are not the source of evil (á la Marxism), but rather immoral institutions (i.e., “structures of sin”) result from sinful man.

FCFC also, commendably, acknowledges that a heavy dose of prudential judgment is needed to make good political choices. It acknowledges that, apart from intrinsically evil acts, Catholics are free to “choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems” (#20). This essentially paraphrases what the Doctrinal Note says: “It is not the Church’s task to set forth specific political solutions,” which “God has left to the free and responsible judgment of each person” (#3). Both documents emphasize that the Church’s role is limited to teaching the moral truths that must form the Christian conscience. FCFC also, laudably, makes clear that the USCCB’s statements on specific issues “do not carry the same moral authority as statements of universal moral teachings” (#33).

While FCFC is a commendable document in many ways, it is not without shortcomings. An obvious one is that it needed to define what is meant by the “racist behavior” included among the intrinsic evils. It should be apparent from even a cursory consideration of the race issue in America that “racism” has taken on an utterly expansive and ever-changing meaning that self-serving ideologues and activists constantly use to club anyone who gets in their way. Such a glaring omission makes me wonder about how carefully the bishops are following the current American socio-political scene.

Second, while the discussion of subsidiarity is most welcome, the stress on the usual centralized governmental programs makes one wonder how serious it is. While the support of the Social Security System is understandable, endorsing or seeking expansion of a governmental role in providing housing (at least in the context of “public/private partnerships” [#78]), the Food Stamp program, WIC, and Medicare and Medicaid is not. Again, when one looks at the poor record of many of these governmental programs, and the out-of-control public spending that sustains them, he might ask whether the bishops have at all researched them. My skepticism is further enhanced when FCFC says that the American health care system—presumably also including government-funded services—should provide for immigrant populations (it doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants), even though doing this has already considerably strained public budgets. Why aren’t the bishops foursquare stressing the civil society sector, which was once a cornerstone of Catholic social thought, in addressing human needs?

Speaking of immigration (#81), FCFC includes welcome statements about nations’ “right and responsibility” to secure their borders and “maintain the rule of law,” providing “refuge for those fleeing persecution and violence” (i.e., refugees in the true sense of the term), the acceptability of detaining immigrants in the interest of “public safety,” and addressing “the root causes of migration” (which are often caused by unjust practices in home countries); however its proposals to simply welcome “unaccompanied immigrant children,” have a “broad” legalization program (which seems to mean finding ways to legalize those who entered illegally), and require due process (with no statement about the circumstances in which it would come into play) are troublesome. It also neglects to mention that Pacem in Terris says that the “right to emigrate” applies “when there are just reasons for it” (#25) and that a nation has a duty to accept immigrants only “so far as the good of their own community, rightly understood, permits” (#106).

Next, what does FCFC mean when it says that “[s]ocial and economic policies should foster the creation of jobs for all who can work” (#73)? Is it suggesting a major publicly funded jobs program, with all the problems that would entail? Nowhere do the social encyclicals say such an approach is required.

The insistence that “global climate change” (#86) be addressed is not surprising in light of the encyclical Laudato Si’, but is nevertheless troubling, because of the doubt about whether human causes can even be identified. The certainty expressed about it may even go beyond the encyclical, where Pope Francis emphasized that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions” (#188). Is the bishops’ stance perhaps imprudent in light of the fact that it is likely to encourage some to believe that, despite the doubtful science, a moral mandate of sorts is imposed on peoples and nations?

The virtual readiness to lump the death penalty in with other human life issues which clearly involve intrinsic evils is also of concern, since even Pope St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae—which seemed to be the Church’s decisive proclamation against it—appeared to make this at least somewhat conditional on the fact that modern penal systems are able to deal in other ways with those who commit capital crimes (#56). With this in mind, FCFC’s speaking about “our broken criminal justice system” (meaning: one that doesn’t work as it should) makes the bishops’ outright rejection of the death penalty seem additionally problematic (#84).

In their discussion of international questions, it’s regrettable that the bishops do not repeat the statement of the Doctrinal Note that, while nations have an obligation to seek peace, “the complexity of the issues involved,” and ideological influences affecting perspectives about it, must be kept in mind (#4). This underscores that achieving international peace is not an easy task.

Finally, one whole part of FCFC summarizes the USCCB’s public policy statements of recent years. This suggests an internal contradiction in the document: even though it makes clear, as stated, that it does not want to force political solutions on the faithful, the fact that the USCCB often supports and endorses specific programs and policies seems to go counter to that. I wonder if the bishops, at least as a general rule, would be better off confining themselves to opposing morally problematic policies or legislative proposals. To go beyond this perhaps unduly restricts the very lay options in political life that FCFC claims to uphold.


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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