Explainer: ‘Faithful Citizenship,’ the U.S. bishops’ guidance on voting — By: Catholic News Agency

The U.S. bishops meet in Baltimore for their annual fall general assembly on Nov. 14-17, 2022. / Credit: Katie Yoder/CNA

CNA Staff, Nov 13, 2023 / 14:06 pm (CNA).

The U.S. bishops will vote this week at the the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual fall plenary meeting on whether to approve an addition to a guide that aims to help Catholics vote according to their faith.

In the past, bishops have debated whether the document should continue to call abortion a “preeminent” issue, and that question may be brought up again this year.

That document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” states that Catholics “are called to participate in public life in a manner consistent with the mission of Our Lord,” with the bishops using the publication to educate U.S. Catholics on “political responsibility” in the context of Church teaching.

The document was first issued in 2007 and has been updated every four years, just before U.S. presidential elections in 2011, 2015, and 2019. Last year at their annual fall assembly the bishops voted to postpone writing a full revision before the upcoming presidential election, with the conference set to approve a full update after 2024. (The bishops at that meeting voted instead to include a new introduction and “supplemental inserts” before the 2024 election.)

The prelates in the guide state directly that they “do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote.”

“Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth,” they write. “We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.”

Though the bishops in the document refrain from directly telling the faithful how to cast their ballots, they point out, quoting the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that “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.”

“Those who knowingly, willingly, and directly support public policies or legislation that undermine fundamental moral principles cooperate with evil,” the bishops write.

“A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position,” the guide states. 

Debate over abortion in the guide

Bishops have not always agreed on the drafting of the guide. The document was the subject of controversy in 2019 when San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy criticized language in a supplementary letter to the guide that stated: “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself.”

“It is not Catholic that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face as a world in Catholic social teaching. It is not,” the bishop, who is now a cardinal, said at the time.

He later stated that Catholic social teaching “cannot be reduced to a deductivist model when it comes to voting to safeguard the life and dignity of the human person.”

No major revisions expected before 2024 elections

Bishops at last year’s assembly, meanwhile, disagreed over the appropriate time to rewrite the guide. Bishop John Stowe, OFM, of Lexington, Kentucky, said revisions were needed in time for the next election to take account of the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and the division and polarization in the country. “I think the time [to revise the document] is now,” he said at that meeting.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, meanwhile, was one of several bishops who spoke up in favor of delaying revisions to the document. He noted that it took two or three years to write the original document and that the bishops’ guidance does not necessarily need to reflect recent political events.

“It can’t be today’s news,” he said. “It is supposed to be a teaching document.”

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