If we’re going to raise our kids to be responsible Catholic citizens, we need to know what we’re aiming for—and most importantly, how to model citizenship for them. Here are eight things your kids should know, and four things to practice.
by Jerry Windley-Daoust
The Church teaches that Christians have a moral duty to be responsible citizens, actively working toward the common good in our society. The attitudes and habits of responsible citizenship are formed long before kids are old enough to vote, however: As early as age five or six, children begin picking up on the political talk of their parents, older siblings, and peers—especially during a hotly contested election season.
If we’re going to raise our kids to be responsible Catholic citizens, we need to know what we’re aiming for—and most importantly, the kind of citizenship we ought to be modeling for them. Let’s tackle the “what we’re aiming for” piece first, with a quick overview of Catholic teaching on citizenship and voting, broken down into . Then I’ll propose four additional ways that parents can model faithful citizenship by modeling civil dialogue, focusing on the big picture, talking about down-ballot races, and going beyond the voting booth.
A Crash Course in Citizenship and Voting, the Catholic Way
The U.S. Catholic bishops have done a great job over the years of summing up Church teaching on citizenship and political responsibility in their document, The Challenge of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. If you want to vote with a conscience formed by the Church’s teaching, you ought to take time to read the whole document before election day. Precocious older children and teens might benefit from reading the summary bulletin inserts, also freely available from the U.S. Catholic bishops. And if you really want to geek out, you can head over to the Vatican website to read The Participation of Catholics in Political Life and The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
Without trying to replace those documents, here are some of the highlights. Think of these as your checklist of attitudes and habits to teach your kids:
1. Teach your kids that their faith should direct their politics
Some people say that it’s wrong to mix one’s personal faith with one’s political activities. Their argument is that doing so “imposes” one’s personal religious beliefs on others. But the Church argues otherwise: “The Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith, a part of the mission given to us by Jesus Christ. As people of both faith and reason, Catholics are called to bring truth to political life and to practice Christ’s commandment to ‘love one another’ (Jn 13:34)” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship).
It’s impossible to be a follower of Jesus without loving one’s neighbor, and loving one’s neighbor goes beyond direct personal action, as the Gospels and two thousand years of Church teaching attest.
2. Teach kids to value what is true and good over party or ideology
“As Catholics, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to any political party or interest group,” the bishops say.
It’s natural to want to “fit in” with a particular group—we’re hard-wired to be part of a tribe! But our first attachment should always be to God and God’s will, which is for truth, goodness, and beauty to prevail. As St. Ignatius teaches, even an inordinate attachment to a good cause can become warped if we aren’t focused on God’s will. Since no political party perfectly reflects the Gospel, teach your kids to expect to be at odds with their preferred party at least some of the time.
3. Teach your kids that their politics should be guided by the Church’s social teaching
While the Church’s social teaching doesn’t carry the same weight as, say, its teaching on the Eucharist, Catholics are called to know it and give it serious consideration, because it is the role of the Church to guide all the faithful in matters of doctrine and morals—and politics always has a moral dimension. Besides, the Church’s social teaching has emerged over decades and centuries of prayer, study, and experience, guided by the Holy Spirit.
The Church’s social teaching is summarized in The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The following principles are key elements of Catholic social teaching, and older kids and teens should learn what they are:
- The dignity of the human person. “Human life is sacred because every person is created in the image and likeness of God,” say the U.S. bishops. Respecting human dignity means more than just not harming others; it also means treating others as “another self,” ensuring that each person has what is necessary for his or her full development.
- “The principle of subsidiarity reminds us that larger institutions in society should not overwhelm or interfere with smaller or local institutions; yet larger institutions have essential responsibilities when the more local institutions cannot adequately protect human dignity, meet human needs, and advance the common good,” say the bishops.
- The common good. The common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily” (Compendium #164). Catholics are morally obligated to work for the common good and to support leaders who do so.
- Solidarity. Solidarity is a firm commitment to the good of all and each individual, and a readiness to serve, rather than exploit, each person. It can be described to younger kids as “friendship with all.”
Besides these four basic principles, Catholic social teaching also affirms basic human rights; the rights of workers and the dignity of work; our duty to care for God’s creation; and making the care of the poor and vulnerable a top priority.
4. Teach your kids how to form their consciences
Our conscience enables us to use the power of reason to choose what is right and just. But our conscience is hampered by sin—our own tendency to see things the way we’d like them to be rather than the way they are, and the tendency of others to lead us according to their own interests rather than the truth. The conscience can also make wrong judgments due to a simple lack of correct knowledge. To counter this, we need to “form” our conscience by prayerfully seeking the truth in the company of others. Learning the Church’s teaching on moral and social matters—in a comprehensive way, rather than selectively—is an essential part of forming one’s conscience.
Teaching kids to form their conscience is one of the most valuable habits parents can instill in their children. Kids who actively seek to form their conscience avoid the pitfalls of letting their consciences be passively formed by the opinions of peers, the media, and mainstream culture.
5. Teach your kids to practice the virtues of prudence, courage, and humility
Prudence is the virtue that enables us “to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1806). Prudence does not mean avoiding all risk; in fact, the bishops say that it must be accompanied by the virtue of courage, which empowers us to act for the good in spite of the risks. The virtue of humility, meanwhile, protects us from the delusion that we alone can judge what is good and evil, and helps us prayerfully seek the truth in the company of others.
6. Teach your kids to avoid evil and do good
Catholics cannot support intrinsically evil acts—that is, acts that are always, no matter what, contrary to love of God and neighbor. The U.S. Catholic bishops list as examples of intrinsically evil acts the taking of innocent human life, as in abortion; and violations of human dignity, as in human cloning, racism, genocide, acts of terror, exploiting workers as tools of production, treating the poor as disposable, or redefining marriage to deny its essential meaning. This is a short list; see the full document for a more complete list.
But avoiding evil isn’t enough; the Gospel calls us, as citizens, to act for the good. “The basic right to life implies and is linked to other human rights such as a right to the goods that every person needs to live and thrive,” the U.S. bishops say.
7. Teach your kids how to vote when faced with imperfect choices
“Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote,” the bishops say. “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act . . . if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship #34).
However, Catholics may vote for a candidate who promotes an intrinsically evil act under certain circumstances: “Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil” (Faithful Citizenship #35). Furthermore, the bishops offer this guidance when all the options are bad:
When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods. (Faithful Citizenship #36)
8. Teach your kids about the character of good leaders
While a candidate’s position on important issues is paramount, other considerations come into play, too, such as “a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue” (Faithful Citizenship #37).
Practicing Faithful Citizenship: Four Things to Do
Even more important than talking to your kids about faithful citizenship is modeling it for them, first and foremost by participating in civic and political activities. Here are some ways to do that.
1. Model civil dialogue, the art of speaking the truth in love
“Increasingly, there is a tendency to disparage the name and reputation, the character and life, of a person because he or she holds a different position,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl writes in his essay, “Civil Discourse: Speaking the Truth in Love.” “We who follow Christ must not only speak the truth but must do so in love (Eph 4:15). It is not enough that we know or believe something to be true. We must express that truth in charity with respect for others so that the bonds between us can be strengthened in building up the body of Christ.”
Cardinal Wuerl suggests seven rules for civil dialogue; you can find them at the end of this article.
2. Focus on the big picture
Candidates for elected office are fond of raising the stakes: “Never has there been a more important moment in the history of our country!” It works to their benefit to raise anxieties about the consequences of the election going the wrong way.
Elections matter, and leadership matters, as history teaches us. At the same time, as St. Augustine taught, we are citizens of heaven first and foremost. Temporal politics are passing, but heaven is forever. As parents, we can model this attitude for kids by not becoming overly anxious over political matters; more importantly, we can model love for our opponents, and avoid the kind of hatred that poisons our souls.
3. Talk about down-ballot races
In a big election year, there’s a tendency to focus on top-of-the-ballot races, egged on by the national media. But if kids are going to grow up into responsible citizens, they need to know about other political offices, too. In many ways, down-ballot races—for Congress, for the local city council or school board—will affect their lives more than the presidential race. Moreover, individual citizens have more leverage over policies at the local level.
A great pre-election activity for older kids and teens is to download a sample ballot, then check out all of the races—including the more obscure ones.
4. Go beyond the voting booth
In most instances, kids can go to the polling place with you on election day, which is a great way to get them started on a lifelong habit of voting.
But as the Church teaches, citizenship goes beyond the voting booth, and there are lots of other ways for Catholics to exercise their civic responsibility, including participating in rallies and lobby days, writing to elected officials, and attending meetings of local government bodies. Even if you don’t have time to be politically active, you might take a family field trip to the next school board or city council meeting, or even have kids sit in on court proceedings in your local district court.
Finally, when it’s not possible to be directly involved, it’s always possible to pray. Make it a point to pray with your kids on and after election day for the welfare of our country and local communities. The USCCB Faithful Citizenship page contains links to prayer suggestions, including a novena for faithful citizenship.
Cardinal Wuerl’s Ground Rules for Civil Dialogue
These are excerpted from his essay, “Civil Discourse: Speaking the Truth in Love.”
Post these rules in your home (maybe by the dinner table). They’re great for families to practice with one another!
- Make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak.
- Share your personal experience, not someone else’s.
- Listen carefully and respectfully. Speak carefully and respectfully. Do not play the role of know-it-all, convincer or corrector. Remember that a dialogue is not a debate.
- Don’t interrupt unless for clarification or time keeping.
- Accept that no group or viewpoint has a complete monopoly on the truth.
- “Be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than condemn it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2478, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola).
- Be cautious about assigning motives to another person.