Catholics have an obligation to live their faith in all aspects of their lives, to include participation in the political process. As citizens of the United States of America, we have a certain amount of control over the laws and policies of our nation through the electoral process and, to a lesser extent, through the legislative lobbying process. To the extent that Catholics can influence laws and public policy, we have an obligation to see to it that our government respects the dignity of the human person and that the government, through its proper influence, can provide a political and social environment of freedom from the evils of poverty and oppression, in the advancement of a lasting peace for all peoples and nations.
In a world of conflicting values and goods, the means by which these objectives are reached are often open to debate within the Church and certainly within the nation. Indeed, the individual who casts his or her vote in our democratic republic must identify and prioritize the issues which are important, select candidates for public office who can be trusted to advance these issues, and then evaluate their elected officials as they account for their stewardship of our government. This is not a trivial matter. The officials elected or appointed to office in our government directly reflect the outcome of the choices made on election day.
The stakes of elected politics have been so high and so contentious in recent years, considering issues such as the right to life, the definition of marriage, the prosecution of war, ongoing poverty, the national deficit and debt, government corruption, international relations, and other issues. In addition, in recent years the collective "Catholic" political voice has not resounded with confidence or conviction, even in the values we hold most dear. In response to these needs, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have commissioned a program known as Faithful Citizenship to help Catholics and other people of good will to consider their response to these issues in our day in light of the perennial truths observed and taught by the Church through the ages.
The document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (summary), the USCCB asks Catholics not to vote for any specific candidate, party, or cause. Rather, Catholics must approach the polls fully informed on the moral significance of their choices as they select appropriate candidates for public office to meet these ideals. The Church finds within its competence (indeed, as its obligation) that it boldly and publicly teach the values of the Gospel when standing along side the culture in forming consciences.
The Church does not want voters to take a single-issue approach to their responsibility. Indeed, conscientious voters must evaluate everything before them as they make their choices. In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops discuss many areas of political responsibility, from the dignity of the human person to care of the environment. They focus on four areas of special concern: defending human life, promoting family life, pursuing social justice, and practicing global solidarity. While the issues before voters are not all of equal importance, they should be all considered and prioritized, nonetheless, when one casts his or her vote.
Of increasing concern is the scandal of Catholic politicians who do not act in the best interest of the public good by ignoring, confusing, downplaying, denying, or displaying simple ignorance of the teachings of the Church. In disciplining these officials, the Church does not intend mere punishment or censure, but rather is calling them to live their Catholic faith in truth and integrity--core values all should expect and demand of their government leaders. This sometimes-challenging call is not offered simply in advancement of the political process, but also for the reconciliation of those who are responsible for ill-formed moral choices as government officials. This is an imperfect process, but a necessary one for the leaders of the Church to engage in as pastors and teachers of the faith.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta was quoted as saying, "we are not called on to be successful, but to be faithful". The true power of the Church comes not from the political process or the power of this world, but from its witness to the faith. As we strive and sometimes struggle to build a society that reflects the deepest values that resonate within the human heart, our ultimate success may be measured not by the achieving victory as a destination, but instead by persevering in God's grace while living each step of the journey.
Doctrinal Note on Questions regarding the Participation Catholics in Political Life (via the Vatican)
The Discipline Regarding the Denial of Holy Communion to Those Obstinately Persevering in Manifest Grave Sin by Archbishop Raymond Burke