[Editor's note: The following is a homily given by Fr. Tran on Sunday, October 28th. It is posted here as part of Catholic World Report's desire to contribute to the discussion regarding principles of responsible citizenship among Catholics.]
For the past 41 years, the Catholic Church in America has celebrated October as Respect Life Month. This is a month in which our bishops have asked us to reflect upon, pray about, and renew our commitment to the defense of all human life. Today, I should like to address this issue vis-à-vis our civic duties as Catholic Americans.
Three months ago, I preached on our moral obligation “to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend [our] country” (CCC 2240). In that homily, I said that we are Catholic Americans; we are not American Catholics. In the term American Catholic, American is the adjective, which means that it qualifies the noun Catholic. To qualify our Catholicism is to qualify our faith, to qualify our allegiance to our Creator, to qualify our love for our heavenly Father. Those things we do not qualify, hence, we are not American Catholics.
In the term Catholic American, Catholic is the adjective, which means that it qualifies the noun American. As Catholics, our patriotism is tempered by our faith, our love of country is subordinated to our love of God, our decisions in the body politic and our actions in the public square are all determined by a conscience informed by faith. That is what it means to be a Catholic American.
As Catholic Americans, our Church teaches us that responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation (cf. Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship). If a Catholic conscience obliges us to participate in political life, then it stands to reason that we must participate in a way that is consistent with our Catholic faith. When it comes to matters that are purely political, then there is a great deal of latitude in our prudential judgments. This is the purpose of political dialogue. How much should people be taxed? What should the speed limit be? Should there be a minimum wage, and if so, what should it be? What are just immigration laws? There are many sides to these issues and men of good will differ in their opinions. Healthy political debate will hash out these issues for any particular country. The Church only gives us moral guidelines to form our Catholic conscience when engaging in these debates. She gives us the pale, if you will, that we should not step beyond in our political discourse. Within the pale, however, there is much room for disagreement and political discourse. After all, human governments are human institutions, hence, they cannot be perfect. There is usually not one correct answer.
The fundamental principle that under girds our political discourse, however, is respect for the dignity of the human person. Governments exist to protect the common good—to protect people because of our inherent dignity as beings created in the imago Dei, the image and likeness of God. 6. In 1998, the American bishops stated this principle thus: “Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these areas.
Catholic public officials are obliged to address each of these issues as they seek to build consistent policies which promote respect for the human person at all stages of life. But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community” (Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, 23). In other words, since the issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, etc., are fundamentally issues of respect for human dignity, it is logically inconsistent that one could be right on those issues while wrong on respecting the dignity of the most innocent and vulnerable human life, the unborn and the elderly. “You believe I have a right to an education, but I don’t have a right to life?” “You believe I have a right to housing, but I don’t have a right to life?” “You believe I have a right to health care, but I don’t have a right to life?” “Well, how do I get those things if I’m not alive?” This is what the bishops meant when they said, “the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community.”