I’ve been praying these many weeks for the moral leadership of our country. I confess I had a specific idea of how that was to come about this past election season.
It dawned on me when I woke up Wednesday morning after the Presidential election that my prayers were misguided. Shame on me for looking to the government for moral leadership. While I hope that those we elect are of good moral character, I wonder how effective is legislated morality. Shouldn’t morality, instead, come from within, from our lifelong obligation to develop a well formed conscience in accordance with human reason and the teaching of the Church?
Still, I sense there is a void in moral leadership in our country. Political party, ideology, competence, experience, and performance, while important attributes, should not be the sole deciding factors for who we elect as leaders. Given being qualified in the above issues, we should give primary consideration to those who stand for protecting the dignity of life—especially of those most vulnerable. Who will rise up to meet the challenge and how will we know?
It is up to each of us, individually, to engage the public discourse, but to do so in an informed way and with civility. In the public discourse and debate, what do we gain if we vilify others just because they have different viewpoints of similar problems? What do we add to the public conversation if we lazily default to snap judgments and place labels on others because of their political party affiliation? Rather, what if our starting point for interactions with others was the belief that we all seek the common good; that we all believe in the sanctity of life, in feeding the hungry, clothing and housing the poorest of our neighbors, welcoming the stranger in the immigrant, and marriage as the fundamental building block of future society? The issues would then become how best to further the improvement of these areas of life. But, we must recognize that not all courses of action are morally acceptable.
Help from the Church
We need help from our Church and our clergy to understand what actions are morally acceptable. The Church is committed to clarity about moral teaching, encouraging us to develop the virtue of prudence. Prudence sometimes demands that we act courageously in defense of moral principles. We need our Church leadership to be bold and courageous and more effective in teaching us social principles that lead to behavioral change—especially as relates to the five non-negotiable life issues: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning, and gay marriage.
One such effort by our clergy to be clear concerning what the Church teaches regarding our rights and duties as participants in our republic is the Bishops’ Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. Our responsibility as faithful Catholics is to understand what that document says. Forming Consciences lists the central themes of Catholic social tradition as providing a framework for our decision making in public life. The number one issue is the sacredness of human life. The document states, “Catholics cannot vote for candidates who take a position in favor of intrinsic evil, such as abortion…” (34 and also 22, 44, 64, 90)
Forming Concsiences goes on to state that we are not “one-issue voters”, and so we face a dilemma when a candidate who supports abortion also rightly opposes other evils such as the death penalty and racism, and supports issues like overcoming poverty. Still, The Bishops tell us the guiding principle is that, “all issues do not carry the same moral weight…the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our conscience.” (37 and also 28, 40, 90)
How to Engage
My reading of the document makes it hard for me to understand how anyone, especially Catholics, can vote for candidates who favor abortion. Yet, I can’t believe that my Catholic brothers and sisters who vote for such candidates are evil. So, how am I to engage them and influence them for what I believe the Church teaches as good for society? Labeling them, dismissing and yelling at them don’t work. Titus 3: 1-7 reminds us that we are to be obedient to authority and open to every good enterprise; to slander no one, be peaceable and gracious toward everyone. Wow! That’s not what I see and hear on the talk shows.
We need to first inform our own consciences with the Truth of the Church and then come along side our fellow citizens, make friends, understand them, and find common ground. Certainly there is common ground—we all want what is best for our children, and we all want the poorest and neediest to be taken care of. How do we do that in a responsible way?
My prayer now is not for the moral leadership of our country, but for the conversion of our country. If each of us would draw closer to God, recognizing Him as the source of all we are and all we have, then we would be good stewards of His resources for the good of all.