Bishops and priests have the right to free speech. Even in a political context, as citizens, they can publicly explain and advocate their political positions as they will. Their reasons may be inspired, or ridiculous. They may be rational, or arbitrary. They can say: Vote for Rita because she is pretty. Don’t vote for Jaypee because he is fat. They can say: Vote for Mario because he is Muslim. Don’t vote for Edgar, because he is a man.
When the reason for urging a person to vote for Rita is unfounded or inaccurate or uninformed, because a bishop or priest has said it, doesn’t make it right. If a bishop has said, “Don’t vote for Martin because he is dumb,” when Mario in fact is intelligent, because the bishop said he is dumb doesn’t make him dumb. In the assessments of persons, even bishops are subject to error. If the bishop says, “Don’t vote for Sandra because she helped the squatters on Church property,” he may be missing how Sandra helped the orphans and the widows, the poor and the oppressed, and so truly advanced the common good in a difficult world. But if the Bishop insists that the squatter issue is the most essential issue, informed citizens may respectfully disagree. Informed citizens may see more than an uninformed bishop can.
Normally bishops and priests don’t participate in a partisan political process in this manner. They are leaders of the community of the disciples of Jesus Christ. The disciples of Jesus join different political parties. Supporting members of one party against members of another may give the impression that their support is based on the Gospel entrusted to them and infallible, when it is really based on personal political conviction, opinion, discretion, and judgment, which is quite fallible. No matter how strong a bishop’s will is that a particular candidate be elected, his will is not necessarily the will of God, even if he has covered his cathedral with manifestations of his will. His opinion is not the omniscience of God. His conviction is not necessarily the power of God.
Normally, bishops and priests try to help the disciples of Jesus make their choices according to conscience. They help to choose, not choose. They inform, they urge, they motivate, they articulate and explain criteria truthfully. But they do not disrespect the consciences of candidates who may have chosen to run because of the urgings of the Church to participate as lay Christians in the political arena. They do not disrespect the dignity of the voting citizen and make the conscience choice for them. Referencing conscience, they do not reduce the human citizen to a voting robot. While this may be done in other religious communities, it is repugnant in the communion of the disciples of Jesus Christ.
The joy and hope, the authority and power of the Catholic Church is not established or repudiated in particular secular election contests, and for bishops to act now as if it were pushes the Church down a perilously slippery slope. Why? Because the authority and power of the Church based on the Gospel is not to be confused with the argument and polemics of partisan politics based on opinion. It is too easy to think that should the Bishop say, “Don’t vote for Rita because she limps” that this is a Gospel imperative and not mere opinion. The Catholic Church would not be alive because Team Patay lost, nor would it be dead if Team Patay won. The Catholic Church is diminished if it its bishops reduce it to a political party. The over-identification of the Church with particular political parties is historically inimical to the mission of the Church.
The poster says, “Conscience Vote.” The open reference to conscience even by a bishop in urging votes for some and not for others raises some truly serious questions.
Are the bishops really willing to judge that the legislators who voted in conscience for the RH bill in fact acted against their conscience when judgments relative to the common good in a plural society are necessarily tentative and contestable? Crafting and enacting laws in a difficult world is a secular matter, that is left to the political and moral judgment of the legislator in conscience before God. When a Christian lay legislator who is entrusted by the Church with care for secular affairs says, “I have considered the concerns of the Church, I have considered Humanae Vitae and its reception within the Church since 1968, I have brought the matter to prayer, I have considered the concerns of other groups in society whose views differ from the Church, I have considered the state of reproductive health care and the plight of women in situations of distress, and so I make my decision and cast my vote in conscience which as far as I can judge advances the common good,” is the bishop really making the judgment that this legislator is lying, or is ignorant of Catholic moral norms, or disobeys his or her conscience?
In Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et Spes” (GS), the Council says:
“Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion. They should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good” .
In our context, to the problem of lack of care for reproductive health in the Philippines, there were different “specific solutions,” about which there was disagreement. GS warns against one or the other side being confused with the Gospel message, and proscribes appropriation of Church authority when all that is involved is opinion. Instead, there should be an effort towards ongoing enlightened discussion towards the common good. Even as issues remain contentious, mutual charity is to be preserved.
Crafting laws in a secular world is the burden of our lay sisters and brothers. GS may again be enlightening here.
“Secular duties and activities belong properly although not exclusively to laymen. Therefore acting as citizens in the world, whether individually or socially, they will keep the laws proper to each discipline, and labor to equip themselves with a genuine expertise in their various fields. They will gladly work with men seeking the same goals. Acknowledging the demands of faith and endowed with its force, they will unhesitatingly devise new enterprises, where they are appropriate, and put them into action. Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role” .
Laypersons crafting laws necessarily work within the secular constraints of lawmaking, where they must be informed through disciplines with their own laws. They must consider all groups in society, not just the Catholic Church: “Every social group must take into account the needs and legitimate aspirations of other groups, and even of the general welfare of the entire human family” (GS, 26). Through a well-formed conscience, it is theirs to work for a society that knows the goodness and wisdom of a loving God – even in its laws. In their legislation, in the end, it is their conscience that comes into play, not the conscience of the bishop and priests. In conscience, lay legislators make decisions about what is required for the common good. When it comes to conscience:
“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (GS, 16)
“God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts, for that reason He forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone”[GS, 28].