In any given legislative session in Minnesota, thousands of bills are introduced on every subject imaginable. The Church does not pronounce its view or take a position on the vast majority of bills because it is not within its proper role or competency to offer technical solutions to every social and political challenge.
Instead, the role of the Church in the public arena, as Pope Benedict XVI described it in his speech at Westminster Hall, is to “help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles” that are accessible to all people.
Applying those truths to concrete problems is another matter, however, and lies outside the competence of pastors and clergy who are not technicians or politicians.
According to Pope Benedict: “If the Church were to start transforming herself into a directly political subject, she would do less, not more, for the poor and for justice, because she would lose her independence and her moral authority, identifying herself with a single political path and with debatable partisan positions.” (Address to Aparecida Conference, May 13, 2007.)
When the Church speaks
The Church’s need to transcend the partisan fray to maintain the integrity and credibility of her evangelical witness does not mean that the Church never takes a position on particular issues or pieces of legislation.
Sometimes, pastoral experience will guide the bishops to recommend various policies or reforms that they believe are needed to promote human dignity and the common good. They will also offer some general principles and suggest some features of a good piece of legislation. But they will usually stop short of endorsing a particular bill.
An excellent example is the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s recent statement on the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Similar examples include the bishops’ recommendations with regard to budgeting priorities and health care reform.
On other occasions, legislation will plainly contravene objective moral norms, imperil human dignity, or weaken the common good. Conversely, legislation may actually promote justice in a very direct way. In those instances, the Church may support or oppose a particular piece of legislation. The marriage amendment and legislation limiting abortion are perfect examples. But those instances are comparatively few.
Lay Catholic responsibility
On the vast majority of issues, the Church does not take a position because it is the laity, and not the clergy, who are directly responsible for the just ordering of society (“Deus Caritas Est,” No. 29).
To assist the laity in this task, “priests and deacons, assisted by religious and lay leaders of the Church . . . are to teach fundamental moral principles that help Catholics form their consciences correctly, to provide guidance on the moral dimensions of public decisions, and to encourage the faithful to carry out their responsibilities in political life” (USCCB, “Faithful Citizenship,” No. 15).
Equipped with this formation, lay Catholics are called to enter the public arena and work for the common good.
Voter ID amendment
Because many issues involve prudential judgment and technical expertise, it will be the case that lay Catholics disagree about a good many things. The proposed voter ID amendment to the State Constitution on the November ballot is one example. It asks Minnesota voters:
“Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters, effective July 1, 2013?”
Some believe the photo ID requirement is necessary to ensure fair elections that are free of corruption.
Others believe that requiring photo ID cards is a solution in search of a non-existent problem, and that the law will disenfranchise vulnerable citizens for whom it will be difficult to obtain identification. The provision in the amendment, however, requiring the issuance of free ID cards to anyone who needs them would seem to address this concern.
The Church does not take a position in support of or opposition to the amendment, but it is not the case that the Church is just ignoring the issue. When elections are held, they should be fair, free from corruption, and everyone who is eligible to vote should be given that opportunity free from unnecessary barriers or intimidation.
Just as it would be outside the Church’s competence, however, to say whether a unicameral or bicameral legislature is better, it would be inappropriate to opine on the proper technical solutions for creating a fair electoral process.
If the law is passed and it turns out that voters are being disenfranchised, then the Church would be compelled to raise its voice. Until then, however, it is up to those entrusted with the common good to implement legislation and create rules that will foster a fair political process.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.