An article in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR, 9/16/11) provided polling data to show that U. S. Catholics pay little attention to their Bishops' statements on how Church teaching ought to influence political issues.
The U. S. Bishops update every four years a document they call "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship."
The 2007 version included sections on why the Church speaks on public policy and on the policy positions of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The NCR article noted a new poll which indicates that only 16 per cent of U. S. Catholics are aware of the bishops' document, and just 3 percent say they have read it.
For some reason U. S. Catholics pay little attention to what their bishops are teaching regarding politics and social issues. The same poll shows that only 4 per cent of adult U. S. Catholics think the bishops' statement was or would be a major influence in how they would vote.
The wall of separation between Church and State is a major concern to many Americans. Some think that this wall is a guarantee of freedom of religion, while others think it a guarantee of freedom from.
The term "wall of separation" is found in President Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut who were concerned that the new president's policies might infringe on freedom of religion. Jefferson wrote to assure them that there was a wall of separation between the two, and he would respect that wall.
In the present political climate Jefferson's analogy has been used by courts across the land to enforce complete and total separation of religious sentiment from the secular and civic world around us.
It may come as a surprise to some, however, that at the beginning, our nation and our national leaders embraced the notion that religion was an essential support for the new government. They did not propose one religious tradition over another, but they did recognize the value, indeed necessity, of having a God-fearing citizenry if the democratic/republican form of government was to endure.
In his farewell address to Congress on September 17, 1796, outgoing President George Washington was clear, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."
Washington went on to descibe religion and morality as the great pillars of human happiness, the firmest props of the duties of citizens. "The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them," he said, noting further that "reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
From the beginning of the great experiment we call the United States, there was the recognition, indeed expectation, that religion would inform public opinion and form the laws of our republic. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution was a guarantee of freedom of religion not freedom from.
Religion has a role to play in the formation of the citizenry, and the U. S. Catholic Bishops have an obligation to teach the principles, precepts and policies that characterize the Catholic faith.
Further, Catholics have an obligation to study those teachings and form their consciences in the light of the demands of their faith.
What is not demanded, however, what is not good for the country or the Church, is thoughtless application of the bishops' teachings to the politics of the country.
The U. S. Bishops' statement is deliberately titled "Forming Consciences."
The demand for forming one's conscience is essential. The bishops teach, for example, that "care for the earth is a duty of our faith." This statement requires thoughtful consideration and leads to decisions about how best to implement the conclusion. Individual persons, however, may not always agree on its implementation.
The bishops provide the principle; the populace must determine its application. Some will fight against use of fossil fuels; others will conclude that there is no such thing as man-made global warming.
I don't know why few Catholics look to the bishops' statement for direction. Are Catholics fearful that they would be crossing the wall of separation? Are the bishops confusing moral principles and practical application of them? Do Catholics think the bishops' opinions irrelevant? Are Catholics simply unaware of the bishops' statement? Do Catholics think they already know what is right and wrong? Is the statement too lengthy? too academic? too predictable? too ivory-tower?
In November the U. S. Bishops will meet and find on their agenda a discussion about whether their document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" needs revision in anticipation of the elections coming in 2012.
What will they decide? Since about one out of four U. S. voters is Catholic, their statement could have significant influence --if they can get Catholics to read it.