Today (October 22) happens to be my mother’s 92nd birthday. As I give thanks to Almighty God for the gift of her life and for being my mom, I have been thinking of some letters and emails asking me for counsel on life issues in this election season.
What does this mean for us who seek to be faithful Catholics and involved citizens? In their document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (FC), the Catholic bishops of the United States outline four principles of Catholic social teaching. They are the Dignity of the Human Person, Subsidiarity, the Common Good, and Solidarity. In applying these principles, the bishops state,“Catholic voters should use the framework of Catholic social teaching to examine candidates’ positions on issues affecting human life and dignity as well as issues of justice and peace, and they should consider candidates’ integrity, philosophy, and performance” (FC, 41).
The first principle of “the Dignity of the Human Person” is the foundation of the moral vision for our world and human society. This principle holds that “direct attacks on innocent persons are never morally acceptable, at any stage or in any condition” (FC, 44). In line with Pope Francis, we oppose anything that contributes to a “throwaway culture” (FC, 45). As the bishops state, “We revere the lives of children in the womb, the lives of persons dying in war and from starvation, and indeed the lives of all human beings as children of God” (FC, 45).
This leads us then to the second principle of “Subsidiarity.” This principle highlights that the family is the building block of human society and that parental rights concerning the child’s upbringing and care as well as his/her education need to be respected. Subsidiarity refers also to the individual’s right to be involved in the formation of the society in which we live. It counters against larger institutions interfering with smaller and local communities, especially through the imposition of legislation that is contrary to the natural law and treads upon individual rights and responsibilities.
Thus, we come to the third principle of “the Common Good.” Respective of the principle of Subsidiarity, this tenet states,“Human dignity is respected and the common good is fostered only if human rights are protected and basic responsibilities are met” (FC, 49). The bishops further declare that “every human being has a right to life, the fundamental right that makes all other rights possible, and a right to access those things required for human decency — food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing, freedom of religion and family life” (FC, 49). In this instance, freedom of religion and of conscience are rights that need to be protected because they, in turn, are the upholders of our other rights (Cf. FC, 49). As noted in Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, underpinning this principle are our care for our common home and the recognition of one another as brothers and sisters all. This then furthers the notions of our care for God’s creation and an economy that is a “growth in justice,” protecting the dignity and rights of the laborers in the Lord’s vineyard, and the fair distribution of wealth and goods (Cf. FC, 50 & 51)
All of this brings us to the final principle of “Solidarity” — that as citizens of this Earth, we are all in this together! As the U.S. Catholic bishops note, “We are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be. Loving our neighbor has global dimensions and requires us to eradicate racism and address the extreme poverty and disease plaguing so much of the world” (FC, 52). The only bumper sticker I ever had on a car was one that read, “If you want peace, work for justice” (St. Paul VI). I can remember people stopping to talk to me as a twenty-something about that slogan and how much it meant for them. I think some 30 years later, we need it to mean even more! What concerns me most about the direction of our nation, no matter what political party we are registered with, is our own self-centeredness. These days we just seemed so concerned with our precious egos, in line with advancing our self-interest and our “enlightened” social doctrine!
As brothers and sisters all, our greatness as a nation is epitomized, for me, in what is found on Ellis Island, where immigrants were welcomed. The words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are found on a gateway to our nation. The Church terms this the “preferential option for the poor.” The very first teaching of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Mt 5:1). Quoting Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (54) directs us to this fact: “[L]ove for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to [the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel” (Deus Caritas Est, no. 22). That is why the bishops go on to state, “These four principles and related themes from Catholic social teaching provide a moral framework that does not easily fit ideologies of ‘right’ or ‘left,’ ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ or the platform of any political party. They are not partisan or sectarian, but reflect fundamental ethical principles that are common to all people” (FC, 55). This leads the bishops to note that “the Church is involved in the political process but is not partisan. The Church cannot champion any candidate or party. Our cause is the defense of human life and dignity and the protection of the weak and vulnerable” (FC, 58).
As Catholics we believe and teach that whether a diploid cell, known at the time of conception as a zygote, or a more advanced embryo, or the fetus in the womb, or the frail elderly or the terminally ill, or the most vulnerable of our society, each and every life no matter its sex, no matter its color, no matter whether it is healthy or unhealthy, bears the imprint of the divine. Each and every human being has the innate potential to be a cornerstone in the building of a just social order and of the Kingdom of God itself. Consequently, practices such as abortion, euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide are “our pre-eminent priority” because they are a direct attack on the sanctity of human life (FC, Intro). At the same time, the bishops also observe that “we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty” (FC, Intro).
The preciousness of the gift of life is highlighted by the gift the Holy Eucharist — the real and living presence of Jesus Christ — given to us under the appearances of bread and wine as nourishment for our journey to God. This hidden treasure is reflective of the gift that is contained in each and every human person from the infant in the womb to the elder on their deathbed. Neither gift should be taken for granted and should be received with reverence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Holy Communion separates us from sin” (1393). Therefore, it is important for all Catholics to remember the admonition of paragraph 1385 of the Catechism: “To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: ‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.’”
I hope these reflections help us to better understand the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life and the issues that arise from it. Let me conclude with this prayer as we approach the polls this November:
Lord God, as the election approaches,
we seek to better understand the issues and concerns that confront our city/state/country,
and how the Gospel compels us to respond as faithful citizens in our community.
We ask for eyes that are free from blindness
so that we might see each other as brothers and sisters,
one and equal in dignity,
especially those who are victims of abuse and violence, deceit and poverty.
We ask for ears that will hear the cries of children unborn and those abandoned,
men and women oppressed because of race or creed, religion or gender.
We ask for minds and hearts that are open to hearing the voice of leaders who will bring us closer to your Kingdom.
We pray for discernment
so that we may choose leaders who hear your Word,
live your love,
and keep in the ways of your truth as they follow in the steps of Jesus and his Apostles
and guide us to your Kingdom of justice and peace.
We ask this in the name of your Son Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit.