Elections are a time for debate and decisions about the leaders, policies, and values that will guide our nation. Since the last presidential election and our last reflection on faithful citizenship, our nation has been attacked by terrorists and has gone to war twice. We have moved from how to share budget surpluses to how to allocate the burdens of deficits. As we approach the elections of 2004, we face difficult challenges for our nation and world.

Our nation has been wounded. September 11 and what followed have taught us that no amount of military strength, economic power, or technological advances can truly guarantee security, prosperity, or progress. The most important challenges we face are not simply political economic, or technological, but ethical, moral, and spiritual. We face fundamental questions of life and death, war and peace, who moves ahead and who is left behind.

Our Church is also working to heal wounds. Our community of faith and especially we, as bishops, are working to face our responsibility and take all necessary steps to overcome the hurt, damage, and loss of trust resulting from the evil of clerical sexual abuse. While working to protect children and rebuild trust, we must not abandon the Church’s important role in public life and the duty to encourage Catholics to act on our faith in political life.

These times and this election will test us as American Catholics. A renewed commitment to faithful citizenship can help heal the wounds of our nation, world, and Church. What we have endured has changed many things, but it has not changed the fundamental mission and message of Catholics in public life. In times of terror and war, of global insecurity and economic uncertainty, of disrespect for human life and human dignity, we need to return to basic moral principles. Politics cannot be merely about ideological conflict, the search for partisan advantage, or political contributions. It should be about fundamental moral choices. How do we protect human life and dignity? How do we fairly share the blessings and burdens of the challenges we face? What kind of nation do we want to be? What kind of world do we want to shape?

Politics in this election year and beyond should be about an old idea with new power—the common good. The central question should not be, ” Are you better off than you were four years ago?” It should be, “How can ’we’—all of us, especially the weak and vulnerable— be better off in the years ahead? How can we protect and promote human life and dignity? How can we pursue greater justice and peace?

In the face of all these challenges, we offer once again a simple image— a table. Who has a place at the table of life? Where is the place at the table for a million of our nation’s children who are destroyed every year before they are born? How can we secure a place at the table for the hungry and those who lack health care in our own land and around the world? Where is the place at the table for those in our world who lack the freedom to practice their faith or standup for what they believe? How do we ensure that families in our inner cities and rural communities, in barrios in Latin America and villages in Africa and Asia have a place at the table— enough to eat, decent work and wages, education for their children, adequate health care and housing, and most of all, hope for the future?