As John Allen reports, while speaking to the media aboard the papal plane at the start of his visit to Mexico, Pope Benedict XVI had some strong words for certain Catholics:
"Personally, in the individual square, they're Catholics, believers," the pope said. "But in public life they follow other paths that don't correspond to the great values of the Gospel which are necessary for the foundation of a just society. It's essential to educate people in order to overcome this schizophrenia, educating not only about individual morality but also public morality."
Allen points out that U.S. Catholics are probably used to this kind of rhetoric, mostly aimed at Catholic politicians who don't uphold the Church's teaching on abortion in public policy. He then notes that Pope Benedict was actually fielding a question about social justice and the gap between rich and poor and, in effect, had taken a principle associated with the Pro-Life movement and applied it consistently across a broader spectrum of issues.
The U.S. bishops do essentially the same thing in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, stating that every Catholic has a duty to bring the truth of the dignity of every human person into the public square and to guide their civic actions by assimilating what the Church teaches.
When it comes to what those teachings are, the bishops offer a complete, interconnected moral framework with the right to life and the dignity of the human person at its center. When the bishops apply this principle to the political issues of the day, they, like Pope Benedict, cast a broad net:
Human dignity opposes direct attacks on human life, whether that's the unborn baby or a civilian in a combat zone.
It opposes unjust discrimination, whether it's denying jobs, housing and other opportunities based on skin color or deciding that, due to age or illness, someone should be deliberately killed.
Human dignity says that people aren't to be used as a means to an end, whether that's cloning or destroying human embryos in the name of science, going to war without sufficient cause and subsequently torturing people in the name of national security, or deliberately snuffing out a life in the name of justice.
Finally, a belief in human dignity means no one can remain oblivious to widespread human suffering, whether it's genocide abroad or poverty at home. All of these are covered when the bishops call on Catholics to speak out consistently for human life and dignity.
Doing so, of course, isn't without its share of complications and grief, especially when it collides head-on with the traditional ideological divides of U.S. politics.
Addressing a Washington gathering in 2008, Archbishop Charles Chaput, then archbishop of Denver, mused that it seemed, "The people who attack me when I speak out against abortion are the same ones who praise me when I speak out in defense of immigrants." And vice versa. The archbishop wasn't demonizing immigrant supporters as pro-abortion or suggesting that pro-lifers are anti-immigrant, but rather illustrating the widespread need for greater consistency on human life and dignity issues.
John Carr, USCCB's executive director of Justice, Peace and Human Development, has noted that any Catholic who tries to live out Catholic teaching consistently in the public square is bound to feel "politically homeless" pretty quickly. The difficulty Catholics have dealing with this quandary is reflected in the fragmented, disparate political allegiances they settle for, often giving voice to a few concerns of the Church, but diluting or dulling its moral voice on others.
While it might be tempting to throw in the towel on this mess, that approach is too simplistic and turns its back on the duty of every Catholic to get involved. Just because Catholics are often as divided as the rest of the country doesn't mean they can't be a force for good. Just as Catholics are called to form their individual consciences, they can also serve as a voice of conscience to the entire political process. The key is not to speak from mere partisan or ideological agendas, but from the conviction that sees, in the words of the bishops, "all human beings as children of God."