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(NOVEMBER 1, 2012) – Each year on this day the Catholic Church celebrates “All Saints Day.” This solemnity remembers those who have fulfilled their earthly vocation and now enjoy eternal happiness in the presence of God. These saints may be unnamed, but they certainly are not unknown. Their lives are characterized by steadfast faith and charitable works. They exemplify what it means to love God and love one’s neighbor.
We celebrate these unnamed saints because all of us share a universal call to holiness. God the Father calls us, through Jesus, to be perfected (cf. Matt 5:48) and to live “as becomes saints” (Eph 5:3). As aspiring saints, we, too, must meet the challenges of our own time in history with boldness and humility, with courage and gentleness, and with an attentive docility to the Holy Spirit at work in our world.
We, the bishops of Pennsylvania, see next Tuesday (November 6), Election Day, as a day of historical challenge for our time. We propose this statement now because the upcoming elections, at every level, offer a critical opportunity for Catholics – i.e., all of us who are believers: clergy, religious, and lay alike – to exercise our civic duty and fulfill our social responsibility in a way that becomes us as aspiring saints.
Because politics is the place where competing moral visions of a society meet and struggle, our democracy depends on people of conviction fighting for what they believe in the public square, yet doing so with an abiding respect for one another. That struggle includes and depends on all of us, precisely as Catholics. For if we believe that a particular issue is gravely evil or that it will result in serious damage to society, then we have a duty, both as Catholics and as Americans, to hold political candidates accountable.
The 2012 elections take place during the Year of Faith. As Pope Benedict XVI explains, this year is necessary because, while many people continue “to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society,” nevertheless “in reality, not only can this presupposition no longer be taken for granted, … it is often openly denied” (Porta Fidei, no. 2). Today it is no longer the case, as it was for our country’s Founders, that religion can provide a shared moral framework and vocabulary for a pluralistic democracy. In fact, Americans would do well to realize that many of our country’s leading thinkers in law, higher education, and the social sciences simply no longer believe in the idea of inalienable natural rights guaranteed by a Creator higher than the State – one of the cornerstone principles of the American experiment.
This has serious implications because many of our most urgent political issues – ranging from the economy, immigration, and abortion to global security – raise profoundly moral questions. These questions cannot be resolved without a common understanding of right and wrong. Consider today’s aggressive efforts to redefine the nature of marriage, to exclude parental authority in the choice of the best education for their children, and to force Catholic healthcare and social services to end their ministries unless they violate their religious identities through mandated support of practices contrary to the very sanctity of human life.
Religious liberty itself – “our first, most cherished freedom” – is no longer secure. At first glance, this may seem otherwise because religious freedom is so deeply ingrained in our national history. But democracy has no special immunity to losing its soul by little steps. As Alexis de Tocqueville, the great chronicler of early American democracy, observed more than 150 years ago, “it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life” – because the more the state provides, the more it inevitably controls.
Events have proven this true. In recent years a pattern of legislative and judicial actions has emerged in our country that undermines religious liberty and jeopardizes the contributions of religious bodies in the public realm. Government policies that seek to impose morally repugnant services on religiously affiliated medical providers, or to limit the freedom of religion to the private realm or to places of worship, or to reduce religious liberty to just another subset of freedom of speech and association, get it backwards; under the Constitution, it is government power that is limited and subject to regulation, not the conscience rights of Americans – whether acting singly, or in organized communities, or through their institutions.
Today Catholics face a growing and deeply troubling effort that seeks to extend the reach of government into every aspect of social life. In turn, this generates a demand for exclusive allegiance of individuals and groups to the requirements of the State. This demand denies the primacy of associations that exist prior to the State, such as the family, church or synagogue, and even fraternal and charitable agencies. These groups enjoy a priority both chronologically, in terms of historical development, and practically, inasmuch as they engage the vast majority of activity in our everyday lives.
As Christians we do owe an appropriate loyalty to the State. We strive to maintain good relations with civil authority. But our primary allegiance must always be to God and to God alone. As St. Thomas More once said so eloquently, we are God’s good servants first. That is the nature of our personal calling; that is our human mission; and that is something we cannot forsake without betraying our baptism. Moreover, our calling and mission as Catholics remain fully consonant with the historic American understanding of law and justice.
Our allegiance to God and our reverence for religious liberty are not sectarian interests; rather, they render testimony to ideals of truth and charity that serve all people. As Pope Benedict XVI states, “In the present social and cultural context, where there is a widespread tendency to relativize truth, practicing charity in truth helps people to understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society … ” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 4).
The task of building a good society makes our Catholic civic engagement vitally important. But as Christians, we also have the religious duty of making the message of salvation known to all people. Impelled by the love of God, we draw others to Jesus Christ by doing good for our neighbor. And we fulfill this baptismal mission by conforming our lives to our faith so that we become the light of the world.
At election time, charity and truth are expressed through the votes we cast in favor of the inherent dignity of every human person and the common good of all. In this respect, faith must inform our electoral decisions. The Catholic faith is always personal but never private. If our faith is real, then it will naturally and necessarily guide our public decisions and behaviors, including our political choices.
And so, we, the bishops of Pennsylvania, urge citizens to vote this year, and we encourage Catholics to learn what our faith believes about the issues at stake in the 2012 election. To do this, we recommend a review of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship and Living the Gospel of Life, both available online at www.usccb.org.
Ideas have consequences. Beliefs shape our culture. We revere the best ideals of our American democracy. We embrace the truths of our Catholic faith. In this mutuality of politics and religious conviction – as informed citizens and as steadfast believers – we strive to fulfill the human vocation in our own day, just as all the saints have done in past ages.
In this Year of Faith, let us bring our faith to bear on how we vote this Election Day.
And may God, in His goodness, continue to bless America.