FORT WAYNE, Indiana — Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, of Fort Wayne-South Bend, acknowledged that Catholics face serious challenges when discerning what message to send to political leaders when they vote.
The message is compounded by division, polarization and extreme partisanship that have developed as hallmarks of political discourse in recent years, leading to what may become the largest voter turnout in a presidential election this year.
A lack of fidelity to Catholic social doctrine is responsible for Catholics not being immune from the polarization of ideals in the cultural and political debate, Rhoades told students at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Indiana, Sept. 24.
He said that fidelity would lead to greater unity among the faithful and enable them to be truly “a leaven in society for greater unity and harmony.”
His comments came in a talk titled presentation “Faithful Citizenship in a Divided Nation: The Political Responsibility of Catholics,” which he presented at the invitation of college officials.
The central question of the talk was what it means to be a faithful citizen in a divided nation — and what the political responsibility as Catholics in this situation is.
“To be a faithful citizen means putting one’s Christian discipleship ahead of allegiance to one’s political party and placing fidelity to the church’s teaching ahead of any political ideology,” he said.
“As citizens, we must not shirk our political responsibilities. As Catholics, we must not shirk our Christian responsibility to promote the common good,” he said. “The church teaches that the promotion and protection of the common good should be the purpose and goal of all political activity and of government itself.
“If we are tempted to withdraw from political participation, we must remember our moral responsibility to be engaged for the sake of the common good.”
At the same time, Rhoades acknowledged to the socially distanced audience, there seems to be a situation of political homelessness for Catholics who are faithful to the teachings of the church — particularly in relation to the two main political parties and their platforms.
“We are all aware of the widening political chasm in our country,” he said. “All you have to do is turn on any news channel on TV or skim political news on the internet. There is not only a lot of disagreement on issues, which is nothing new, but a growing anger and outrage that some have called a ‘public epidemic in America.'”
“Traditional social mores and norms of conversation are thrown to the wind,” he said. Respect for those with whom one disagrees is often missing and the “vitriol and hate of some Catholics, even toward our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is disturbing.”
“Catholics should be part of the solution, not part of the problem that we face in our polarized society. We are called to be better,” the bishop said.
The church does not approach political issues according to political ideology or party, he reminded the audience, but according to moral teachings and the demands of faith, explaining that issues are approached from the perspective of Scripture and tradition.
Parts of the traditional platforms of both the Republican and Democratic parties are in accord with Catholic social teaching, and there are parts of each platform that are not, he said. “This creates a dilemma for many faithful Catholics. They feel politically homeless,” he added.
Rhoades shared with the students examples of the issues about which Americans are polarized, including economic issues, immigration, issues dealing with human life, and the environment. He invited them to reflect on their responsibility as Catholics to be engaged and to propose in conversation and in the public square the church’s social doctrine.
There’s a lot of room for prudential judgment in applying the principles of Catholic social teaching in the area of the economy, he explained.
“Yet, the principles the church upholds provide a framework that avoids the pitfalls and injustices of both socialism and unbridled capitalism. The church’s voice is needed to ensure that the demands of morality, without which justice and solidarity are not possible, are observed in the area of the economy,” he said.
Immigration, one of the most polarizing issues in the political debate four years ago, is still an emotional one today, the students heard.
“It is critical that we have a rational civil dialogue on immigration in our nation. And here, the voice of the Catholic Church needs to be heard. Though immigration is a political topic, it is also a moral issue because it involves the dignity of the human person, the basis of all Catholic social teaching,” he said.
“There is a natural right to migrate to flee violence, persecution, and life-threatening poverty,” he said. “We have a moral duty to welcome people in such dire straits, to the extent that we are able. This is a moral imperative in consideration of the universal common good.”
It’s important to note that the church does not condone illegal immigration, Rhoades added.
“At the same time, we insist upon the just and humane treatment of undocumented immigrants, upholding their human dignity, guarding their safety and preserving their family unity. This is a humanitarian issue,” he added.
Referring to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” as well as St. John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”), he noted there is a severing of freedom from moral truth by supporting legalized abortion.
As Pope Francis teaches, and is quoted in the introduction to “Faithful Citizenship”: “The call to holiness requires a firm and passionate defense of the innocent unborn. Equally sacred are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned, and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection,” he said.
“While we bishops affirm the preeminence of the threat of abortion as a priority, we state that ‘at the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.'”
Marlin is editor of Today’s Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.