Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks during a news conference on November 15, 2023 (OSV News photo/Bob Roller).

In November, the nation’s Catholic bishops issued, as they do every four years, their pre-election year document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” It was essentially the same text they have issued in 2007, 2011, 2015, and 2019. Not that it was without merit. But think: for a decade there has been a new pope with new encyclicals and new moral entreaties about climate change, poverty, migration, and synodality. In that period we have also had a Great Recession and a great pandemic, a new geopolitics (China, Brexit, Iran, Abraham Accords), new wars (Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia, the Sudans, Ukraine, the Middle East), new social trends (social media, #MeToo, populism, gender theory), new scientific developments (global warming, gene editing, space probes, Higgs boson, AI), and, naturally, new deadly weaponry. Does any of this matter? Apparently not. The Church thinks in centuries.   

More immediately, news reports focused on whether the bishops would again declare abortion the “preeminent priority” for Catholics. They did. Unfortunately, their declaration was unaccompanied by any real reflection on all that has happened since the Supreme Court overturned Roe—like an unbroken series of pro-choice victories at the ballot box, an actual rise in the number of abortions, and a significant strengthening of pro-choice opinion. Nor was there any real reflection on what making opposition to abortion “preeminent” might actually require in 2024.

But the real crux of the latest version of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” is not the presence of the word “preeminent.” It’s the absence of the word “democracy.”

If a text dating from previous election cycles used the word only once in passing, that was because our political world was drastically different then. Candidates for office might fling hyperbolic charges and indulge in denunciatory rhetoric, but no one doubted that the outcome would be resolved by the voters in a free and fair election. No one was pretending that the presidential vote was massively fraudulent. No one could even imagine a prolonged and concerted attempt—defying multiple court decisions and the conclusions of local and national officials—to overturn the results, right up to and including a violent assault on the Capitol. Not since the nineteenth century, after all, had anyone directly challenged Constitutional norms for the peaceful transition of power.

Democracy, Francis said, “demands hard work and patience. It is complex, whereas authoritarianism is peremptory and populism’s easy answers appear attractive.”

Have the bishops not noticed? Words like “authoritarianism,” “autocrat,” “deep state,” and “insurrection” are now the stuff of daily news stories. The current leader in polls for next November’s election is promising “retribution” against those who kept him from staying in office three years ago. He daily denigrates, often in personal terms, the courts and officials that have indicted him for illegal acts. If reelected, he reportedly plans to replace tens of thousands of federal civil-service employees with loyal followers, to authorize massive round-ups of illegal immigrants and send those who cannot be immediately deported to detention camps, and to refashion the Department of Justice to investigate and indict political adversaries. Well-funded supporters are drawing up detailed blueprints for achieving these goals. Meanwhile, the same candidate praises strongmen elsewhere in the world and nurtures a psychology of grievance that has raised a rash of violent threats against critics, legal officials, and election workers.    

Have the bishops shrugged all this off as routine campaign rhetoric? Do they brush aside a track record, now verified by former aides, of his disdain for legal norms? Do some bishops even sympathize with his outlook? Have any contemplated the strain of the coming election on our social fabric, on our faith in law and democracy, and even on many people’s ties to the nation’s Christian churches, including the one the bishops lead? Have they contemplated the possible ramifications of another presidential election decided by a minority of voters amid volleys of accusations of fraud and “rigging,” let alone election of someone convicted in a criminal trial? 

I have too much respect for most bishops to imagine that they are unaware of these perils. Why, then, do they act as if all this is just beyond their job description? Is it not really relevant to “faithful citizenship”? Is it not something they can fruitfully discuss among themselves in order to offer prudent moral guidance? 

In an introductory note attached to their re-issued text, the bishops do lament that “[p]olitical rhetoric is increasingly angry, seeking to motivate primarily through division and hatred.… Demonizing the other can win votes.” Do the bishops imagine that these true but familiar points adequately address the question of the survival of democracy? 

More likely the bishops fear that going beyond this exercise in avoidance to take on what many Americans consider the number one issue in 2024 would be considered partisan politics. The risk of appearing partisan has not kept them from declaring abortion “preeminent,” of course. Would it be any more partisan to frame—and highlight—concern about the threat to democracy in similarly emphatic terms? In fact, polls indicate that fear for the future of democracy looms large across the political spectrum, even if those on the Right, in this writer’s opinion, are being misled about the real source of the danger.   

Speaking in Athens in 2021, Pope Francis expressed alarm that “we are witnessing a retreat from democracy” (his emphasis). Democracy, Francis said, “demands hard work and patience. It is complex, whereas authoritarianism is peremptory and populism’s easy answers appear attractive.” Democracy, the pope hoped, would “be the response to authoritarianism.” 

The glaring omission of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” is not irreparable. It would take only one prominent bishop—or, better, a handful of them—to speak out over the next several months. They need not disown “Forming Consciences”; they need not quibble about “preeminent.” They need simply insist that the very notion of citizenship in the United States presupposes respect for the lawful and democratic processes of voting and elections. Anything undermining that respect is a preeminent threat to the country.

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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Published in the January 2024 issue: View Contents
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