I grew up in a household that was essentially a political product of FDR and the New Deal. My grandparents grew up in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. They were the working-class daughters and sons of first-generation Italian immigrants. They were Catholic. They were Democrats. In those days, there wasn't much room for daylight between the two.
My mother went to Catholic grade school where she learned perfect penmanship and Latin along with her catechism. She pinned a handkerchief on her head before going to mass.
I grew up in a parish with orange carpet and chairs in place of pews. There were felt banners on the walls instead of stained glass windows and guitar music in place of an organ.
These were our various trappings, but they all led somehow to the same political road's end. We voted for Democrats and understood that to mean we were standing with labor against big business, with the poor against the wealthy, with the underdog instead of his overlord. That was what it meant to be a Catholic.
During my adulthood, something changed. Suddenly, being a Catholic came to meaning having to vote Republican or be called out, often directly, from the pulpit. Parishes hand out flyers detailing the ways in which we should vote and command obedience at the risk or our continued communion with the Church.
This posture is deeply at odds with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council's document Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (aka Gaudium et spes). In the document, the Council asserts the primacy of conscience for the baptized. Gregory A. Kalscheur, S.J. of Boston College's School of Law makes the case far better than I could. He says, in part,
I agree... that we must understand the primacy of conscience in connection with our obligation to seek the truth and adhere to it. But I think it would be a profound mistake to stop talking about the primacy of conscience. As the central Vatican II texts on conscience indicate, affirming the dignity and primacy of conscience says something of real importance about responsible personhood. If we really expect voters and public officials to make responsible, conscientious decisions about matters of public policy, we should not suggest that proper formation of conscience is simply a matter of falling into line with church teaching. Such an approach will not contribute to the ability of Catholics in public life to make conscientiousHe ends the article by saying,
decisions, because church teaching does not generally speak definitively to the concrete questions that voters and public officials face (p. 12).
So, what does a commitment to the primacy of conscience mean for Catholics striving to be faithful citizens in today's pluralistic, democratic society? A commitment to the primacy of conscience calls us to strive for moral integrity and an undivided conscience. It demands that we dedicate ourselves to a life-long process of conscience formation, rooted in a commitment to truth, and carefully attending to the teaching of the church and the insights of human reason as we strive to form for ourselves right and true judgments of conscience. It recognizes that decisions in public life call for the exercise of the balancing virtue of prudence, always asking what will best promote the common good in all its dimensions through the concrete decision that must be made in the context of the reality that exists right now. It acknowledges that prudence may suggest to different conscientious decision makers a variety of strategies available for accomplishing or guaranteeing the same fundamental value. And in the midst of often deep moral disagreement in our society, respect for the primacy of conscience calls us to engage in the respectful dialogue that is essential if we are to join together with our fellow citizens in an authentic search for truth, forming hearts and minds committed to making choices that will protect human dignity and promote the common good.I quote this at such length because I think it is such an important case to make. Not blind obedience but active, on-going engagement with difficult issues -- and with one another -- is the path that leads to truth. And our dialogue must be mutual and must put love of neighbor ahead of any ideology, creed, or moral code.
I am not saying that every Catholic ought to vote as a Democrat. I am simply tired of being told that my sincere, prayerful effort to exercise my conscience on behalf of the common good is inherently wrong, because I have not come to the same conclusions as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It seems to me that this is the very same root of the stand-off between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Are we, as Catholic disciples of Jesus Christ, called to unquestioning obedience to Church authority or to unquestioning obedience to God? Is there no place for prophetic questioning of the leadership structure that has, over history, enabled the waging of war, the acquisition of vast wealth at the expense of the poor, and, more recently, the sexual abuse of children? This is neither to condemn the bishops nor to disregard their teaching office, but those who call themselves disciples of Jesus ought to be among the first to recognize the need for prophetic conscience alongside priestly authority.