Theologians look at politics, conscience and the common good


The 2018 Catholic Theological Society of America convention in Indianapolis will likely be remembered by future theologians for two powerful moments. Celica Gonzalez-Andrieu’s plenary address connecting her experience of cancer and chemo therapy with her advocacy for undocumented populations as “wounded’ encounters with grace and the “disquieting invitation of the Real,” and M. Shawn Copeland’s reception of the Society’s highest honor, the John Courtney Murray Award, for her contributions to black Catholic theology over the course of her lifetime. Both received thunderous standing ovations, which were appropriate and warranted, as many, including myself, had tears streaming down our cheeks at one or both of them.

Yet because of the particular forum of this newspaper and its audience, I want to dedicate my attention to another presentation in the paragraphs that follow. Santa Clara University professor David DeCosse offered an analysis of the recurring USCCB document entitled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”

In his powerful address he analyzed the 2016 iteration of this initiative and suggested strategies for improving the 2020 version along editorial and structural lines, including better means of dissemination among wider Catholic populations. Canadian respondent Carolyn Chau then engaged DeCosse by offering some ecclesiological nuances rooted in her particular context of the Canadian hierarchy-State relationship.

DeCosse’s respectful if critical approach to the most recent version of “Faithful Citizenship” and his hope for future formulations of it revolved largely around developing a more robust understanding of the role of forming and developing, not replacing, individual consciences. There was an insistence that articulations of clear moral doctrine can and must be complemented by more “visceral” and “primordial” moral intuitions which take more seriously embodiment, relationship, the common good, and the call of responsibility toward others in the voting booth as well as the neighborhood, workplace or soup kitchen.

DeCosse drew on thinkers like John Courtney Murray and James Keenan to argue that an inseparable relationship exists between the freedom of the Church and the freedom of the People. In some ways there has been an “arrested development” of the wider American conscience when it comes to issues like hyper-individualism, solidarity with the poorest and with the earth, respect for the dignity of every person regardless of past decisions or actions, protection of all children from violence, and the predilection to ignore or avoid discussions of the racism that was an undeniable part of our nation’s history and founding. A more profound understanding of the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful, “from the bishops to the last of the laity”) as put forward in the Second Vatican Council’s document Lumen Gentium would serve the American members of the Catholic Church and of all common society well.

David Hollenbach, S.J. asked a pointed question in the dialogue that followed, considering whether the church shares some of the sentiments of the populist risings that have germinated here and elsewhere in that too often do the bishops seem to consider religious freedom to orbit around “our rights” as Christians and not about the rights of other religions or of those of no faith at all. The hope was that the next iteration of the document in preparation for the 2020 presidential election would focus on this wider nexus of thought and practice that make up the public life of all men and women of good will.

It was also brought to light that in a social media-saturated culture such as ours, perhaps verbose, somewhat dry, physical publications are not the most effective way to reach potential voters so as to contribute both to the ongoing change of heart and mind that is a lifelong process of conversion for each one of us, and to the reinforcement of non-negotiable convictions, especially among younger generations. For as Thomas Aquinas puts it through his interpretation of Aristotle: “Good laws exist so as to lead people to virtue.” The USCCB has then the responsibility to aid in this noble social endeavor, and will hopefully find ongoing and ever-better means of doing so in their engagement with the political process.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.