Faithful Citizenship: Papal Visit and Episcopal Statement
For the first time in U.S. history, the Pope addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. Watching from the Press Gallery in the House Chamber, I saw Pope Francis unite a divided Congress in multiple standing ovations. He entered into dialogue with citizens of this country through our elected representatives as well as televised coverage of the speech. As the son of an immigrant, he reminded us of our country’s history of welcoming immigrants. He challenged the United States to respect human life through abolition of the death penalty. In this address he shared foundational concepts of Catholic social teaching: the promotion of human dignity, the common good, solidarity and subsidiarity. He illustrated points of convergence between foundational values of the United States and those of Catholic social teaching as he referenced both classic figures of U.S. history generally (Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.) and classic figures of U.S. Catholicism specifically (Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton). He also shared his most recent encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, which underscores the importance of caring for those who are excluded and for the earth. Francis’ address to Congress invites citizens of the United States to think about the contributions of Catholic social teaching to political life.
Francis’ speech to Congress brought to life a message of political responsibility that the U.S. Catholic bishops have tried to communicate prior to each presidential election since 1976. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the Administrative Committee of the United States Catholic Conference produced statements on political responsibility. In 2003, following the 2001 restructuring of the U.S. bishops’ conference, the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) continued this tradition. For 2007, the USCCB changed both the drafting process and the content of the statement. Multiple committees of the USCCB collaborated in drafting a revised statement, and a shift in focus from reflecting on political responsibility to reflecting on conscience formation resulted in more explicit focus on concepts of fundamental moral theology, such as conscience, intrinsic evil and cooperation. In subsequent years, moral theologians offered critiques of the document’s use of these concepts. In 2014, the bishops did not ask their drafting committee to engage these critiques. Instead, they asked for limited revisions, focused primarily on the inclusion of excerpts from Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate and Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium.
Just weeks after the papal visit, the USCCB met to discuss its revised version of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. A number of bishops advocated voting against the revised document. For instance, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson argued that the content and tone needed to be different to be an effective teaching document. Supporting this, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, KY advocated a tone of mercy to correspond with Francis’s pastoral approach during his visit to the United States and the beginning of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Echoing previous bishops, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego underscored that this is not 2007, and there is need for a new document. Rather than hold on to the agreement reached in 2007, McElroy advocated changing the structure of the document to prioritize the centrality of concern for the poor and the earth that Francis emphasizes. In response to McElroy’s proposal, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the head of the Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship working group, argued passionately for the revised draft, emphasizing a hermeneutic of continuity. The USCCB approved the revised draft with 89% of the votes cast in its favor.
If the vote suggests an affirmation of limited revisions and a hermeneutic of continuity, it also affirms an amendment to the working group’s draft that draws attention to the papal visit as a contribution to the U.S. Catholic Church’s on-going dialogue about faithful citizenship. At the end of the document, the bishops refer readers to Francis’ addresses at the White House, Congress, the United Nations and Independence Mall. Those addresses engaged the moral imagination in a way similar to the 2003 Faithful Citizenship document, and they are all well worth reading in the process of conscience formation for faithful citizenship.