Monday, October 6, 2008

Faithful Citizenship and the Common Good

"Difficult political decisions require the exercise of a well-formed conscience aided by prudence." So says a 2-page document from the U.S. bishops' Faithful Citizenship website, hinting at the wealth contained in their longer document, updated each presidential election year, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.

Most people jump directly into the fray of political debate, with a focus on issues or personality, or both. The coverage of the secular media certainly encourage this, with the constant emphasis on the particular barbs and jibes of each day, and frequent tallies of who is ahead by what percentage. In reality, most of this matters very little. In these last few weeks before the election, the candidates will tweak and twist their fundamental positions so that they appear appealing to the remaining undecided voters. Short of some major revelation, the events of these last few weeks - even the debates - tell us very little about what these men would actually do in office. Their voting records, their campaign speeches earlier in the race or in other races, and the interviews granted when they were mere wannabes earlier in the primaries may tell us more.

While the political hoopla is interesting, inviting - and the media make it seem so genuinely important - the process of preparing, mentally and spiritually, for voting is difficult, slow and perhaps boring (at least to conversation partners). Yet this is what our faith calls us to do.

Since Ronald Reagan's famous question, "Are you better of now than you were 4 years ago," the rhetoric of American public life has been grounded in a strong sense of the individual good. The assumption, I suppose, is that each person voting for his or her own needs will yield an accurate and effective outcome for the common good. This is a fundamentally flawed approach. First, there are many actors in society - children, the unborn, the mentally ill, many frail elderly and disabled people - who will not be able to voice or vote for their own needs. More important, though, is the degree of interconnectedness that few citizens recognize. The policies that seem to offer immediate benefit may, in the long run, work to one's detriment.

The fundamental flaw, though, is the failure of this perspective to highlight the common good over the individual good. Christians are called to work for the common good - and Catholics to exercise a preferential option for the poor and the most vulnerable. This is a difficult task: it requires that we develop knowledge and awareness of the needs of people who are very different from ourselves. Then it requires that we make these needs more important to us than our own.

"As Catholics, we are not single-issue voters," say the bishops. "At times, Catholics may choose different ways to respond to social problems." Yet the document does not imply that any candidate is a fine choice, so long as we have good reasons. No. Rather, we have an obligation to form ourselves to be able to make the decision properly.

What does that take? A willingness to truly read and understand the beauty of the Church's social teaching - and to accept the claim that it makes on our lives and our votes. The analytical and rational use of one's mind to explore the character and positions of the candidates - not the latest stump speech but the trajectory of their lives and actions. Finally, that boring virtue proposed by the bishops - prudence.
"Prudence shapes and informs our ability to deliberate over available alternatives, to determine what is most fitting to a specific context, and to act. Prudence must be accompanied by courage which calls us to act. As Catholics seek to advance the common good, we must carefully discern which public policides are morally sound." (USCCB)
It is not too late to begin this process of learning prudence, of forming one's conscience, but it does require turning one's attention aside from the on-going horse race of the campaigns. Rather, a combination of study of many aspects of church teaching and a contemplative stance that is ready to hear God's voice, accept guidance, and courageously choose for God's reality, not a lesser one of political party or ideology.

The hope and promise of the U.S. bishops, in providing these documents, is not that the decisions will become crystal clear and easy. Rather, they want to give us the tools and the spiritual guidance so that our participation in this year's election will be yet one more part of our discipleship, one more way of seeking to draw closer to Christ. May it be so.

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