Subscribe to our monthly Woodstock Reflections podcast in either video or audio format, by pasting these URLs into iTunes!

Faithful Citizenship and the 2008 Election

A Woodstock Forum featuring Thomas Reese, S.J., Thomas Melady, and John Kelly (Feb. 25, 2008)

by Jerry Filteau, published in Woodstock Report No. 91, October 2008

Thomas Reese, S.J., Ambassador Thomas Melady, and John Kelly

In a forum at Georgetown University, Thomas Melady, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See who served in three Republican administrations, and John Kelly, Catholic outreach liaison for the Democratic National Committee, analyzed the role of the U.S. bishops’ latest political responsibility statement in this year’s national elections.

The 90-minute forum, sponsored by the Woodstock Theological Center, was held Feb. 25 at the Bunn Intercultural Center Auditorium. Woodstock senior fellow Thomas J. Reese, S.J., served as moderator.

The forum was titled, “Election 2008: The Values Inside the Issues.” It focused on the bishops’ latest quadrennial election-year statement, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” – available online at

The bishops adopted the 44-page statement at their general assembly in Baltimore last November.

“The bishops want to remind voters that political issues are not just economic issues,” Reese said in his opening remarks. “They’re not just about power, but they are fundamentally moral and ethical issues.”

Melady said there was no doubt in his mind that the bishops should speak out as they did in “Faithful Citizenship” – offering guidance on forming one’s conscience on political issues without taking partisan political stands. “I think it’s an excellent document. ... The bishops have an obligation to teach about moral values that should shape and lead our lives, including every aspect of it. They’ve done that,” he said.

Kelly said that in the six years that he worked as a Catholic campus minister and director of social justice ministries in Miami, “I really relied on (previous versions of) this document for workshops and discussions, and I know it can be a fantastic tool.” In the current version, he added, the bishops “continue to speak about a consistent ethic of life. And throughout this document, you can see how they truly highlight the linkages between each and every issue. There’s no way that you can read this document and think that the seamless garment of our Catholic social teaching can be torn apart to just support one or two issues.”

Melady said that in issuing “Faithful Citizenship” it’s clear the bishops are speaking as pastors and teachers, not from a politically partisan standpoint.

He said the bishops spoke appropriately in the context of a pluralistic society in which Catholics are a thriving minority. “The statement is sensitive to our life in a pluralistic society, and it should be because of how much we have benefited in terms of living in a pluralistic society. ... They should speak without being partisan. And I think they’ve been quite careful about that,” he said.

Melady focused most of his initial remarks on the importance of church officials avoiding even the appearance of partisanship in the U.S. political system. He noted that after World War I, when bishops of several European countries formed Catholic political parties, the U.S. bishops debated that question and decided not to do so. He also pointed out that historical identification of “altar and throne” in a number of countries has been detrimental to the church.

He addressed the question of “whether people, politicians especially, who advocate or seem to approve, in one way or another, of abortion ... should receive Communion” as potentially one of the most sensitive issues in current U.S. debates over the role of the Church in politics. He praised a recent talk by Washington’s Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl in which he said the archbishop focused on the importance of preaching Church teachings, not punishing those who disagree.

He called for civility in addressing controversial issues raised by the bishops, saying this does not mean giving up on strongly held beliefs, but only expressing one’s convictions “in a civil way.” On a matter like abortion, he said, “Some say to me: ‘Well, you can’t be calm and cool about it; I mean it’s a matter of life and death.’ I happen to feel otherwise – that you can be calm and cool and hold to the positions.” Kelly highlighted the bishops’ focus in “Faithful Citizenship” on the need for prudential judgment.

“We have individual and communal consciences,” he said. “Our consciences are formed by different experiences, and that leads us to some variance in our prudential judgments on how to best address some of the very pressing issues raised up in this document. But at the very end of the day, there are core shared values ... securing economic justice for all and caring for the poor and vulnerable, insuring the stewardship of the earth, and promoting the dignity of work and pursuing the common good.”

Noting the church’s long history of caring for the sick, poor and marginalized as the nation’s leading private social service provider, Kelly said, “Today, Catholic Democrats are in solidarity with the same folks and we recognize the budget and our spending priorities as a moral document. And we hope to lay out plans in a similar way that John Paul II spoke of as a society of work, enterprise and participation.”

He said Catholic Democrats are taking up the cause of “the unborn and humanity in the earliest stages of life” by promoting legislation “that would help women to choose life. This year we saw the Democratic-led Congress pass the Ryan-DeLoro funding package ... of $650 million that would have targeted reducing abortions this next year” a bill President George W. Bush vetoed for budget reasons.

“I’ve spent the last couple days over at the Catholic Social Ministries Gathering (an annual national event in Washington) where Catholic leaders from across the country are coming together, and tomorrow they’re going up to the Hill,” he added. “And I’m very happy that one of the top issues that they’re going to be lobbying Congress on is actually Sen. Bob Casey and Rep. Lincoln Davis’ bill. It’s the Pregnant Woman’s Support Act that’s targeting programs that will also prevent abortions.”

Kelly said he felt personally affirmed by the bishops’ “call to get involved in political parties as much as possible and help transform them.”

“The bishops very clearly speak, and I think Ambassador Melady pointed this out very well: the Church does not fit easily into one political party,” he said.

From the document’s section on prudence he cited the bishops’ quotation from Pope John Paul II: “Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems, but we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity are defended.”

“What I believe that the bishops are really trying here to address is not just that Catholics can have a variety of different solutions to a particular policy issue, but it’s also very critical to understand that we cannot simply ignore any issues,” Kelly commented. “Too often, I think, the Church’s teaching is used as almost a cop-out, as a way to ignore issues that are pressing and highlighted in this document, in a way to ignore the poor and vulnerable, to ignore the destruction of God’s creation, and to allow the rush to an unjust war.”

He said upon reading the recent study, American Catholics Today, by William V. D’Antonio and three other sociologists, he was struck by “one statistic ... that two out of three Catholic Republicans surveyed found that their Catholic faith did not call them or require them to donate their time or their money to the poor.” He said those who reject “government solutions” to meeting the needs of the poor can’t back off from the alternative of “personal responsibility.”

“‘Neither’ is not one of our options. We have to engage in this issue, he said. “And I think the inclusion of prudence in this document really calls us to engage in these difficult issues.”

Reese opened the question-answer session of the forum by challenging Melady on the moral imperative cited by the bishops “to respond to needs of our neighbors, basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education and meaningful work,” in light of the Republican Party’s reputation for consistently choosing tax cuts over such social programs.

A lively forum with a high level of audience participation was also held on March 4, 2008 at St. Ignatius Loyola Church in New York City, moderated by Thomas J. Reese, S.J. Father Reese and Ambassador Melady were joined by Joseph A. Califano, Jr., who is Chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, and has held many posts in the U.S. Government, including U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare

“Well, the tax cuts are to insure that we have greater opportunities,” Melady said. “And there is a difference in approach, but I think the goal for Republicans – I’m speaking for my fellow Catholic Republicans – is that we can improve the economy, cut down the gap between the wealthy and those at the other end of the totem pole, but we have another way of doing it. In regard to employment opportunities, in regard to health care – I don’t think there’s a disagreement. I think certainly that most [Republican] Catholics I talk with feel we should have a system” to handle social and economic issues.

To Kelly, Reese highlighted the bishops’ condemnation of abortion, human cloning and human embryo research as “intrinsically evil” acts that must always be opposed. He asked Kelly to explain the Democratic pro-choice platform, which he described as the party’s “elephant in the living room” for Catholics who concur with the church’s teaching on those issues.

Kelly agreed that “that’s definitely the elephant in the room.... It’s the conversation I have every time I have any kind of outreach meeting. It’s: ‘What are you doing on abortion?’ ... This past year I spent a lot of time organizing around immigration policy, and I’d go into a Catholic immigration leader’s office and the first question they’d want to ask me is on abortion.”

“I think the party overall is against the criminalization of abortion” but has sponsored initiatives “targeting the reduction of abortions,” he said. “I think that’s the reality of where we may be in our pluralistic society now: What does prudence teach us is the best way to prevent abortions? ... Increasing the minimum wage would definitely prevent more abortions than passing a ban on late term abortions.”

Kelly also cited surveys indicating about 18 percent of the U.S. public favors keeping abortion legal in all cases and 18 percent favor criminalizing it for any reason. “Everyone else falls in the middle,” he said, and he suggested that those in the middle group could work together to minimize abortion if they took control of the debate.

To an audience question arguing that the survey numbers shouldn’t matter for those convinced that the bishops are right that all abortion is intrinsically evil, Kelly responded that this was his point about the bishops supporting “using prudence to find solutions.”

“In a political reality, in a democratic (society), that’s where we’re at,” he said. “I think the question really is how we bring about results. ... I don’t think we have the political plurality to criminalize abortions. ... If you overturn Roe v. Wade, it just goes back to the states. And (in) the states where the majority of abortions happen, if you look at it, it’s not going to be overturned.”

Melady said that when he was president of Fairfield University in Connecticut, he worked with people of different beliefs to offer alternatives to abortion for students who became pregnant. “I will always hold to what the Church has taught, that it is intrinsically evil. But I will work with people who ... can bring down the numbers. ... Let’s continue to work for a reduction and hold to our respective positions,” he said.
“The short term is to pass a law,” he added. “The longer term may be to engage in education and do all the other things that create an atmosphere which will allow us to talk about ending abortions. Passing a law itself will not do it.”

To a question about Iraq, both panelists questioned the move to war but said the United States now has an obligation to find a way of extracting itself responsibly from the conflict.

“Personally I follow the war quite closely,” Melady said. “I felt that Saddam Hussein was a clear and present danger. I didn’t feel it had to be war. But we’ve gone to war. And now how do we resolve it in terms of our national interest and our worldwide standing?”

Kelly, a former board member of Pax Christi USA, the U.S. branch of an international Catholic peace organization, said, “I agree with the ambassador that it was a mistake (to go to war in Iraq) and it’s very complex to come up with a solution. ... I agree with the bishops about engagement of the international community and I think, frankly, fresh blood in the White House would help bring some of the international community back to the table.”