The Responsibility To Have a Well Informed Faith Life

Author: Bishop Robert J. Carlson

The Responsibility To Have a Well Informed Faith Life

Bishop Robert J. Carlson
Diocese of Sioux Falls

August 2004

Within the past few weeks at least two people proclaiming membership in the Catholic Church wrote letters to the editor to daily newspapers presenting flawed thinking on the Catholic teaching of abortion and their particular political beliefs. As their bishop, I have no choice but to respond to their public action.

As people of faith, we are called to be in an intimate and personal relationship with Jesus Christ, accepting him as Lord and Savior. Only then will our hearts and minds, our words and actions be truly formed by Jesus Christ.

As Catholics, we learn about our faith through the reading of the Sacred Scriptures and the teaching of the Magisterium. This teaching is found in doctrinal instruction, encyclicals like the Gospel of Life, and other official documents like the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. Much of this material is collected into handy resources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The church, in our ever-changing world, always turns in faith to the Lord. As the Bible reminds us, the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. The teaching of the church is in opposition to the culture of death and therefore the church is attacked by agents of the culture. Actually, if we follow Jesus, we should expect to carry the cross of misunderstanding, attack and even hate. As St. Peter said to the sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men.”

The teaching of the Church

In light of the letters to the editor, I want to present the church teaching in a straightforward manner: You cannot on the one hand support abortion rights and on the other be a Catholic in good standing. Likewise, you cannot offer personal opposition to abortion and then act differently in your professional life.

As the Fathers of the Vatican II Council said more than 30 years ago: “This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.” (Gaudium et Spes 43)

The church, through the bishops, must teach the Gospel. I have the duty to teach about human life and dignity, marriage and family, war and peace, the needs of the poor and the demands of justice. As we learned during the civil rights struggle, we have a moral responsibility to state the truth about the dignity of every human being regardless of race. It doesn’t matter whether a particular politician or a candidate for office agrees with us or not.

The same is true today.

The Catholic Church has taught from the beginning that the killing of the unborn (burning them with a solution the doctor injects into the womb, cutting them up while still alive in the womb like so much meat, or sucking out the brain in partial birth abortion) is intrinsically evil, murder and can never be justified.

Those who perform an abortion and those who cooperate willingly in the action, if fully aware of the grave evil, cut themselves off from the church and separate themselves from God’s grace. This is and has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church.

The common good

The letters to the editor and statements I have received in a few private letters are clear examples of the erosion in Catholic formation for the last two generations.
Today nominal Catholics are often soft on abortion and badly misinformed about this and other aspects of the faith including the Eucharist and the proper formation of one’s conscience. They fail to grasp the difference between the common good and excessive individual rights.

In the Diocese of Sioux Falls we have the Institute for Religious Education (IRS) offering up to 120 hours of training in the faith for religious education teachers, Catholic school teachers, and others to have the full teaching of the church. It will be offered again this fall, and I encourage you to take part. Call the Education Office at 605-334-9861 and ask to be included. To date more than 1,500 people from the diocese have enrolled for all or part of the program.

During the June bishops’ meeting in Denver, we stated clearly that the legal system itself cooperates in evil when it fails to protect the lives of those who have no protection. When the Supreme Court interpreted that abortion on demand is a constitutional right, the justices failed to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless new members of the human race; a sin against the common good.

The morality that protects human rights and thus the common good is the first and best thing worth legislating. When a politician says, “I am personally opposed to abortion but don’t want to impose my Catholic beliefs” or says something like, “You can’t legislate morality,” he or she fails the common good.

As the bishops stated in “Faithful Citizenship,” Catholics who bring their moral convictions into public life do not threaten democracy or pluralism, but rather enrich them and the nation. The separation of church and state does not require division between belief and public action, between moral principles and political choices, but rather protects the rights of believers and religious groups to practice their faith and act on their values in public life.

The church clearly teaches in the Gospel of Life (par. 73) and on page 6 of the Statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (in the English translation) that those who formulate the law (legislators at the state and national level) have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life. If you review someone’s voting record or listen to their campaign promises, you will have the information to cast an intelligent vote.

The statement from the Congregation goes on to say, “A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental content of faith and morals.” (CDF page 6)

Morality not political activity

It is clear that from the pulpit you cannot endorse a certain political party or speak for or against a particular candidate for office. However, pastors are only fulfilling their duty when they share the teaching of the church with regard to faith and morals. This is not political activity.

I have given the statement from the CDF to the priests and deacons so they can reflect on it and address it from the pulpit when appropriate. I have asked them to read the Gospel of Life and Veritatis Splendor and share this with the people. This is important as we help people properly form their conscience. We cannot be silent out of fear and anxiety, but rather we must speak the truth of the faith.

As our Holy Father said in the Gospel of Life (par. 28), “We are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life.’ We all have a responsibility which we cannot escape of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.”

There is a faulty thinking today that all life issues are equal or the same. Even some priests and religious and a few politicians try to promote this. The philosophical fallacy that underpins this argument is called relativism. It teaches that all things and issues are relative and up to the individual to decide which is of greater importance. Some elements in the media favor it as it “squares” in their minds with the sense of strong individualism fostered by the culture. It goes hand-in-hand with the attitude, “whatever I think or believe, whatever I value or want, whatever I feel or desire must be correct.”

The fundamental right

But the teaching of the church, which corresponds with reality and the natural law, is that all life issues are not equal or the same. In fact, there is one which is primary, life itself. It is so basic and foundational that if it is not upheld, all other issues and rights are meaningless.

Opposition to abortion binds every Catholic under pain of mortal sin and admits of no exceptions.

It was for this reason that I stated in October of 2000 that you cannot vote for a politician who is pro-abortion when you have a choice and remain a Catholic in good standing. For some Catholics this is a hard teaching, but I am simply repeating church teaching: “Human life is sacred because from the beginning it involves the creative action of God (Gospel of Life, par. 53)...the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being (abortion and euthanasia) is always gravely immoral (Gospel of Life, par. 57, 65)...protecting the mother’s health does not justify the deliberate killing of an innocent human being (Gospel of Life, par. 58).”

As Cardinal Ratzinger has said, “Catholics would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present themselves for Holy Communion, if they were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stance on abortion or euthanasia.” This would separate one from the community of the Church.

If one had a properly formed conscience admitting the grave evil of abortion and euthanasia, as the Church teaches, and does not share a candidates stand in favor of abortion and euthanasia, but votes for the candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation which can be permitted, Cardinal Ratzinger states, if proportionate reasons are present, e.g., the candidate would limit abortions.

You cannot form your conscience properly based on popular opinion or feeling or an article in some news magazine, but only from the Scripture and the teaching of the church. If your personal belief or feeling is different from the church, then you need to change.

It is not a matter of one opinion versus another opinion. As the Catechism states in its section on abortion, when the unborn are not protected, the “very foundations of a state based on law are undermined.” (CCC, 2273). Life is “the issue,” because every other right is dependent upon it. Understand that this is not simply one bishop’s opinion, but is the truth as revealed to us through the church founded by Christ. Certainly, each individual conscience has rights, but it also has duties, and one of the primary duties is to inform our conscience through the teaching of the church.

The right judgment of conscience is not a matter of personal preference nor has it anything to do with feelings. It has only to do with objective truth. “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influence and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.” (CCC, 1783)

Have you read the Gospel of Life, Veritatis Splendor, the Doctrinal Notes from the Congregation on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, and the Catechism, especially the sections on abortion, euthanasia and conscience formation?

What have you read?

In all honesty, how could a person oppose Catholic teaching or claim to be right if they have never read what the church teaches? I urge all Catholics to properly inform their conscience by reading the relevant church documents before stating what is believed or not believed!

I join the bishops of the United States in committing myself to teaching clearly, persuading and mobilizing Catholics and all people of good will to defend human life and support policies that protect human life from conception to natural death.

In the Diocese of Sioux Falls, those who act in defiance of these fundamental principles of life should not be honored or invited to speak at Catholic colleges, schools or parishes, or hold any office such as lector, Eucharist Minister, usher, parish council member or religious education teacher.

While we commit ourselves to maintain communication with public officials who make decisions every day that touch human life and dignity, we also remember that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Catholic life. As we read in the Scriptures, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:27) This means that all must examine their consciences as to their worthiness to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord. This examination includes fidelity to the moral teaching of the church and how we live our personal and public lives.

I think we all have some work to do.

Reprinted from The Bishop's Bulletin, East River, South Dakota, with permission