Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops' call to political responsibility, is a high-profile document. One reason is that it deals with issues that have major ramifications for the lives and well being of people everywhere. Another is that it provides a guide for the intersection of the values of faith and the world of politics, certainly a tall and delicate order. But another reason it draws so much attention is probably the fact that it covers an area--politics--that everyone likes to fight about.
People like having their arguments validated. And what greater validation is there than to be able to say that the bishops--and by extension, God--agree with this political view or that? This gives rise to regarding Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship not as a guiding tool for understanding Church teaching and forming one's conscience by it but like a Catholic Rubik's Cube with a secret code to crack, a code that provides the definitive Catholic ideological view. And from such a vantage point, of course, a person is then free to attack every other ideological view and the people holding them.
And therein lies a problem. Catholics have a duty to be advocates for issues affecting the common good, both at the ballot box and year round. But they also have a duty to carry out this advocacy in a way that's worthy of their faith. This means not giving into the cultural mentality that it's okay to engage in the scorched earth, zero sum game that American politics have become. In Catholic teaching, ends do not justify means.
In a video on civility in public discourse (part of a series of videos promoting Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship), Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington lists "falsehoods, lies, distortions, half-truths" among the sort of things Catholics should not be saying/spreading. He instead challenges Catholics to "speak the truth with love."
In the worlds of cable news, the blogosphere and comment boxes, both parts of this can be a challenge. Even when one manages to find the truth, there's the added challenge of not using it as a license to be a jerk.
Pope John XXIII famously reiterated a guiding principle that has been attributed to St. Augustine and others: "In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity." While the first two items fuel endless debate as to what's essential and what's doubtful, "in all things, charity" trumps the rest. The Christian can never stop loving, even when engaging in intense debate over life-and-death issues. The person who does so risks becoming, in the words of St. Paul, a banging gong or clashing cymbal, something that gets attention by being loud and obnoxious, but ultimately lacks meaning or the ability to connect to people.
When Pope John Paul II canonized Edith Stein in 1998, he recalled that she went so far as to insist, "Do not accept anything as truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth."
As Catholics engage the world of politics in 2012, they should view the truths of the Church from the perspective of love: Catholics care about immigration reform because they love immigrants. Catholics care about threats to human life because they love the unborn, the sick and the elderly. Catholics care about marriage because they love the family. Catholics care about religious freedom and domestic poverty because they love the poor and vulnerable and want to serve them freely. Finally, Catholics care about world peace because they love every person on the planet as part of one big, interconnected family.
The sheer importance of the Church's belief in the dignity of each person is what compels Catholics to take their faith into the public square. It follows then that this belief, essentially "Love thy neighbor," should also be translated into how Catholics treat the people they encounter in the public square, even fellow Catholics, no matter how heated the discussion or sharp the disagreement.
It's a challenge to live up to the standard first mentioned in the Gospels: that the rest of the world would recognize the followers of Jesus by their love.