Bishop Wuerl on Faithful Citizenship in 2004 Election (Part 1)

Pittsburgh Prelate Outlines Importance of the Common Good

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PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania, DEC. 18, 2003 ( Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl wants Catholic voters to refocus on the vision of the common good in the presidential election next year.

That’s why he and the other members of the U.S. bishops’ conference released in October “Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility” — a document that implores Catholics to take the demands of their faith and the needs of others seriously in 2004.

Bishop Wuerl shared with ZENIT the inspiration behind the prelates’ appeal for Catholic voters to support public policy that will benefit all, seek a political party that fits the Catholic moral framework and get involved in politics. Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday.

Q: The bishops insist that “politics in this election year and beyond should be about an old idea with new power — the common good.” What is the “common good,” exactly?

Bishop Wuerl: We speak of the common good as the recognition that we are not just individuals but part of a wider community. As such, our rights must be considered in relationship with the rights of everyone else. Our legitimate goals and desires must be realized in the context of the aspirations of others.

The common good is the result of balancing the basic rights and responsibilities of every person so that we may find a way to live together in interdependence, harmony and peace.

Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, in his masterful encyclical letter “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,” celebrating the 20th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Populorum Progressio,” on the development of peoples, wrote in section No. 38 that the common good to which we are called to commit ourselves is “the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”

In his equally insightful encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” on the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum,” on capital and labor, Pope John Paul II describes the common good as “not simply the sum total of particular interests; rather it involves an assessment and integration of those interests on the basis of a balanced hierarchy of values; ultimately, it demands a correct understanding of the dignity and the rights of the person.”

In recent years, we have lost an important element of the vision of the common good and its ability to call us beyond ourselves. This is true in a great part of the world today, but unfortunately is all too evident in our own country. So much of our focus today as presented by politicians, judges, intellectuals, teachers, media commentators and opinion makers is solely on individual rights.

While it is important to recognize individual rights, we cannot do so at the expense of the balance that must be achieved between individual rights and the rights of everyone living together in community. If we think of the balance as a scale, then we need to weigh equally individual rights and the rights of the whole community.

We have traffic laws not because an individual does not have a right to drive from one point to the other as quickly as possible but because without some regulation of the rights of individuals there would be chaos, not to say catastrophe, on the highways. By common consensus we agree to stop when the light is red and to allow other traffic to move while the light is green.

We relinquish to some extent the exercise of an individual right so that the rights of all might be exercised in harmony and peace.

It is fair to describe the so-called American mind-set as arguably more individual than communal, more competitive than cooperative, and, generally, more self-focused than other-directed. We should not be surprised by this condition.

Several generations have had their views formed by an information and entertainment industry that has promoted and fostered the prominence of individual rights in music, television, movies and every form of electronic and print media.

If we were to examine our legal system, our court processes, our public education and in no small part our political processes, we would quickly realize that many vested interests, pressure groups and lobbyists have lost the focus and vision of the common good. Today too many see the world in a very limited perspective.

Responsible citizenship calls us to step beyond the immediacy of our own needs so that we can work together for the satisfaction of the needs of everyone in a manner that acknowledges the dignity of each person. Perhaps an example might help.

For many decades now we have lamented the condition of public education in too many parts of our country but particularly in the large urban centers. Yet so many of the parties who control the levers of power in the roles of union leaders, school boards and politicians seem to have looked away from the only reason we have schools — for the quality education of our children.

In all of the national debate over choice in the funding of education you almost never hear anything about the effectiveness of our educational efforts for our children. The only way we know how poorly our children are doing is from personal experience or independent studies of the educational system that all too frequently yield shockingly inadequate results.

The common good demands that all the participants in the educational enterprise work together for the benefit of our children. So, too, in all endeavors, the common good requires that we function as a community not just as individuals.

What the Church calls us to, and I believe it is part of the basis for “Faithful Citizenship, A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility,” is the recognition that there is a right order of things. There is a natural moral law. We are created with an inherent human dignity.

At the same time we are social beings. We cannot truly flourish in isolation from one another. Thus we need to balance our personal rights so that all of us can live together in unity and peace.

Q: The bishops said that a Catholic moral framework doesn’t easily fit with the platform of any political party. But the bishops are concerned mainly with family and life issues. Will that lead most Catholic voters toward one particular party?

Bishop Wuerl: Given the diverse background, history and socioeconomic condition of Catholics throughout this land and the fact that no political party platform adequately reflects Catholic teaching, it is doubtful whether Catholic voters as a bloc, if such a thing exists, would tend towards either one of the two major political parties today.

An interesting concept was recently raised among talk show programs. The question was: “Is it time to form a third political party that focuses on moral values — particularly one that embraces a combination of pro-life and pro-social justice issues?”

The argument went something like this. In Europe there is a range of political parties in countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain. These are all democratic lands, and yet those who see moral issues at the core of the political process can effectively exercise their voice through the concerted effort of a small third or fourth party that is necessary to form a coalition government.

While our political tradition does not lend itself to such an approach, it seems that within our two major political parties today there should be space for an articulate Catholic voice that speaks to a consistent ethic involving life, family and economic development.

Q: Why don’t more practicing Catholics get involved in political life?

Bishop Wuerl: Historically — and this has been verified over and over again by study after study — anti-Catholicism has been and continues to be a part of the fabric of the United States. It is an ugly and dirty thread. It runs through the fabric because the Catholi
c Church has consistently taken stands that are rooted in moral reality and are sometimes not popular or politically expedient.

However, because these stands are deep-seated in conviction, they are not subject to the type of political pressure that can force another organization or religious group to modify its position.

In a hierarchical Church whose teaching is rooted in Revelation, it is simply impossible to change that teaching to agree with the political correctness of the hour. Thus a Catholic politician is going to be suspect at best and under enormous pressure to bend faith convictions to the political needs of his or her party.

Some Catholic politicians have stood up to the pressure and have in fact enunciated the values consistent with the faith they profess. However, the positions of other Catholic politicians are not always consistent with the faith they claim to profess.

I hope that more and more young women and men today will see the dire need to interject values, particularly family and human life values, into our political system and society and thus step forward. This is not a Catholic issue. This is a human issue. Family and human life are not Catholic doctrines. They are basic human realities.

I remember speaking with a young aspirant to political life who asked why the Church did not address political issues more directly. I pointed out to him that it is the task of bishops to proclaim the teaching of Christ and the principles that underlie Christian living. It is the task of politicians to translate those principles into action.

His response was, “You have the easier part.” I do not dispute his view. That may be the reason why we do not have as many practicing Catholics in politics as we should.

Nonetheless, many Catholic politicians actively practice their faith and are a great testimony to their own personal integrity and to the good they can accomplish within the political process.

[Friday: Top issues Catholics must consider when voting]

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