Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good–Part Six

This will be our final post on this series on the recent meeting of Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good Earlier posts can be found here:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

The final major paper presented at the annual meeting of Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common at Georgetown University was delivered by John Borelli, a theologian and the assistant to the president at Georgetown.  Borelli offered his interpretation of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the statement of political engagement written by the United States Catholic Bishops.


Here were some of the key themes he addressed:

  • The bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote, but will “encourage Catholics to focus on issues and make judgments based on church teaching.”
  • “Forming Consciences” is not a voter guide–a document that “advises specifically on where to check ballots.”
  •  The document states that “a Catholic voter cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position.  “Intrinsic evil” is defined as actions “incompatible with the love of God and neighbor.”
  • Catholic social teaching comes to us “as a gift of human reason.” The goal is to defend life and human dignity. Practices such as abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, destructive research on human embryos, genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants are thus morally suspect and against the teaching of the church.
  • The text of “Forming Consciences” rejects the idea that Catholics should be single-issue voters.  At the same time it “seeks to counter the age-old stereotype of Catholic clergy telling American Catholics how to vote and think.
  • John 13:34 is the only direct reference to the Bible in “Forming Consciences.”  Borelli adds that “care is taken in official Catholic statements not to cite scripture in a fashion that provides a proof text.”  A more “holistic” approach should be employed.
  • The scriptures should always be interpreted in light of church tradition, but tradition cannot be reduced to bishops.  Instead, Catholic “tradition” includes church life, precedents, the sacraments, pastoral writing, preaching, theology, and reflections on the Bible using the tools of science.
  • “Personalism” or the theological and philosophical tradition that celebrates the dignity of the human person and the idea that humans were made for relationships, is a fundamental part of Catholic social teaching.
  • Catholics believe that religious pluralism and freedom of religion are good things, but, as Borelli notes, this view is only about fifty years old.
  • The following teachings are at the heart of Catholic social teaching:  the protection of the weak, the rejection of violence to solve the nation’s problems, marriage as defined as a union between one woman and one man, immigration reform, the alleviation of poverty, health care for those who do not have it, opposition to policies that reflect injustice, care for creation, the placing of moral limits on the use of military force, and the pursuit of peace, human rights, religious liberty and economic justice.

Borelli’s paper was the best explication of Catholic social teaching  that I have ever heard.  (Although I am not sure that is saying much!)  Some suggested that Borelli’s interpretation of “Forming Consciousness” was in some ways better than the document itself. His paper triggered much discussion.

For example, one member of the group noted that “Forming Consciences” was almost entirely about voting.  People of faith often make other kinds of political choices such as donating money or volunteering for campaigns.  Borelli admitted that these issues were not directly addressed in the document.

A Catholic participant wondered how the Church is able to convince non-Catholics that its interpretation of natural law is correct.  In other words, how does one enter the public square with faith-based ideas based on either the Bible or natural law when the society does not embrace these ideas? Cardinal McCarrick suggested that one must do so with humility.  Ronald Sider argued that a person of faith must make his or her argument in the public square and then trust in natural law or something akin to common grace to call attention to the law of God “written upon the hearts” of all people.

A Catholic participant made an attempt to define “conscience.”  He said that when most Catholics use the term “conscience” they mean something akin to “I can do anything I want in the way I want to do it.” This is not a Catholic understanding of conscience.

An evangelical participant asked a great question about the virtue and character of political candidates.  What if a candidate has the temperament or character to lead, but has the wrong views?  What role does “conscience” play in such a situation?  In other words, one might agree with Sarah Palin on life issues, marriage, family, etc…, but decide to vote for another candidate based on the fact that Palin’s temperament and/or style is not conducive to her being President of the United States.  Borelli believed that such a view of conscience was permissible in Catholic social teaching.

In the end, when it comes to social teaching, Catholics and Evangelicals (or at least the moderate Catholics and Evangelical who attend this annual meeting) are doing nearly identical things.  This was the most important thing I took away from this dialogue.

4 thoughts on “Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good–Part Six

  1. Thanks, John–we're waiting on baby #3, now almost a week past due…and I've been cramming since work will slow in the coming weeks! But I appreciate your reports on this as I'm finishing up my work on the political philosophy–or more accurately, the public theology–of progressive evangelicals.

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