‘FAITHFUL CITIZENS’: HOW PARISHES CAN MOVE
A CATHOLIC AGENDA IN AN ELECTION YEAR
“I don’t see why we have to be so political,” said a member of the Social Justice commission in a large suburban parish last spring. The people around the table looked at each other and started talking. They continued the discussion when they met again after the summer break.
Had they been too political? During the first part of 2003, members of the Commission had:
• sponsored a Prayer Vigil for Peace;
• attended an ecumenical “Day on the Hill” to discuss upcoming bills with state legislators;
• encouraged parishioners to write letters on controversial issues,
• provided contact information for key lawmakers.
• staffed a table where parishioners could pick up Position Papers by the state’s Catholic Bishops.
Strangely enough, it was this last activity that was the most difficult. The issues were controversial, and feelings ran high among some.
* One accused a member of the Social Justice Commission of pursuing a “liberal agenda” that had no place in a church.
* Others said they would read the position papers, but were squeamish about contacting their legislators or taking any further action. The most frequent comment was, “I’m not the kind of person who marches or lobbies.”
* The vast majority of parishioners simply walked by the table.
All these groups – the hostile, the timid, the passionate, and the apathetic – may have been on the minds of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when they issued a clear and forceful statement on political activism last November.
The message of “Faithful Citizens: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility” is unambiguous: “We need more, not less engagement in political life. We urge Catholics to become more involved—by running for office; by working within political parties; by contributing money or time to campaigns; and by joining diocesan legislative networks, community organizations, and other efforts to apply Catholic principles in the public square."
Why? "As Catholics,” the Bishops say, “we need to share our values, raise our voices, and use our votes to shape a society that protects human life, pursues social justice, and practices solidarity. These efforts can strengthen our nation and renew our Church.” The Bishops call on “parishes, dioceses, schools, colleges and other Catholic institutions to encourage active participation through non-partisan voter registration and education efforts, as well as through ongoing legislative networks and advocacy programs.”
Dioceses around the country have followed up with programs to make “Faithful Citizenship” take root at the parish and organizational level.
One of the most comprehensive summaries of what parishes can do to build political awareness is the Florida Catholic Conference’s “Political Activity Guidelines for Pastors and Parishes,” originally published in July, 2002. The Guidelines are so excellent that when they were reprinted in “Catholic Online” (www.catholic.org) last November, a postscript suggested both passionate activism and a touch of humor: “Please email a copy of these guidelines to your family, friends, and neighbors in the United States. Also to every parish in all other countries on earth. Remember, it is ‘your Catholic voice.’ Cultivate your faith – activate your voice.”
The Vatican has spoken too. A “Doctrinal Note on the Participation of Catholics in Political Life”(published in November, 2002) was written because “the life of a democracy could not be productive without the active, responsible and generous involvement of everyone.”
Political activism is a hot topic these days. All over the country in this election year, parishioners are facing the question of what it means to be a “faithful citizen,” and their parishes are looking at strategies to help them.
POLITICAL ACTIVITIES FOR PARISHES
Savvy parishes and organizations agree on a number of appropriate and effective strategies that will build grassroots Catholic political activity in this election year:
1) Voter Registration Drives
Any parish leaders who think their educated, politically aware community doesn’t need a Voter Registration Drive may want to think again. Each year, parishes register new parishioners – mostly people who have moved into the area. How many of these have registered to vote? In some states, registration is allowed on election day; in others there is a fairly lengthy waiting period between registration and eligibility to vote. The state’s Secretary of State can help a parish staff or commission find out when and how to mount a Voter Registration Drive.
2) Candidate Forums
While the parish cannot endorse or oppose a particular candidate, it CAN host a Candidates’ Forum led by a neutral moderator. The League of Women Voters and similar organizations are already lining up Candidates’ Forums for this fall. Many churches have the kinds of meeting rooms that would be appropriate for a Candidates’ Forum, and many parishioners will attend something at “home” so they can make informed decisions come Election Day.
3) Issues Education
City Councils, State Legislatures, and the U.S. Congress are wrestling with many issues that have direct connections to Catholic teachings and values. It is appropriate for state or regional Bishops’ Conferences, diocesan offices, and knowledgeable Catholic organizations or individuals to issue statements on bills pending before state legislatures and Congress, and on directions taken by state and national administrations.
Last spring, Catholic organizations in many states lobbied for positions that were contrary to popular trends. In Minnesota, for instance, during a legislative session that passed “Conceal and Carry,” “No New Taxes,” and cuts to health and welfare programs across the board, the Bishops called for gun control and adequate funding of education, welfare, health care, and affordable housing, and they spoke out for life at every stage from conception to natural death.
Did this fly in the face of the prevailing political winds? Yes. Was it appropriate for the Bishops to issue these statements? Yes. They presented every policy statement in the light of Catholic Social Justice teaching and Biblical values. They said, “As Catholics we believe…”
Is it then up to the individual Catholic to make up his or her mind on an issue? Yes. Faithful Citizenship declares, “Our responsibility is to measure all candidates, policies, parties, and platforms by how they protect or undermine the life, dignity, and rights of the human person-whether they protect the poor and vulnerable and advance the common good.”
4) “Contact” Information
Parishes are encouraged to share information on “How To Contact Your …(Mayor, Senator, Representative, Councilmember, etc),” and to include names, addresses, and phone numbers for elected officials at every level of government.
5) “Contact” Guidelines
The sheet with “Contact Information” or another handout can remind parishioners how to contact their elected officials in the most effective manner.
6) Candidate Searches
At every level of our government, parties are seeking candidates for office. “Faithful Citizenship” and the Vatican declaration encourage Catholics to enter the public arena themselves and to encourage others to do so.
7) Education on The Church’s Social Justice Teachings
One irate Minnesota parishioner finally got to the crux of his anger. He understood that the Bishops’ Position Papers were in line with Catholic Social Justice teachings. But he discredited the Social Justice teachings as a liberal agenda.
His attiitude reflected a failing by the parish’s Social Justice Commission. Instead of saying those seven basic teachings (see sidebar) were “endorsed by every Pope and taught by U.S. Bishops for the past 100-plus years,” the parish should have stressed the connection of the Principles with the words of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, and to Catholic tradition since Apostolic times. The Social Justice teachings of the Church are constitutive to its mission and its teaching authority. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mince words: "To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren" (no. 1397). It is up to the parishioner to act based on individual conscience, but it is up to the parish to let parishioners know what the Social Justice Principles are, and where they get their authority.
But Catholic parishes should not do everything in politics.
1) Parishes Cannot Endorse Candidates or Parties
The old days of passing out “Sample Ballots” with certain candidates’ names checked or highlighted are gone. The Florida guidelines say that not only parishes, but also pastors and other Church leaders must refrain from endorsing or evaluating candidates, or advocating for a political party. Voter Questionnaires, Candidates’ Forums, and pre-election “get out the vote” drives must be non-partisan. Reflecting the sense of “Faithful Citizens,” the Florida guidelines say: “No diocesan or parish communications may directly or indirectly suggest that a particular candidate or party be supported or opposed.”
The reason is clear. In the past, Catholic leaders may have focused on one issue, the protection of the unborn – or, more precisely, Catholic laypersons may have thought the Church concentrated on that one issue. Today, the Church has spoken out on a number of critical issues, especially the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, peace, human rights, and respect for life from conception to natural death. In a particular election, one candidate or party may support one part of the Catholic agenda, while another is a strong proponent of another portion. It is the responsibility of the diocese and parish to enunciate Catholic values clearly. It is the responsibility of the individual voter to draw conclusions about a specific candidate or party.
2) Parishes Cannot Support Issues that Oppose Catholic Teaching
Even if 98 per cent of parishioners support both pro-life legislation AND the death penalty, the parish must present the Church’s unequivocal position: to respect life from conception to natural death. Even if the prevailing political climate calls for a reduction of social services, the Church must reiterate its option for the poor, based on Jesus’ announcement of his mission “to bring good news to the poor/ to proclaim liberty to captives…” (Luke 4:18-21) and his criteria for the Last Judgment: “I was hungry, and you gave me food…” (Mt 25:31-46)
The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World begins with these overwhelming words, “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts.”
An indissoluble link exists between the kingdom that is to come and the kingdom that Christians must be building now. Today, Catholics are marching, lobbying, phoning, running for office, working for candidates, and speaking out on issues. In this crucial election year, parishes must encourage more of this “faithful citizenship” – political activity that will further Catholic values and Gospel imperatives at every level of government.
That suburban Social Justice Commission, after months of discussion, finally realized that working for the poor and vulnerable in the political arena is a vital part of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is not only the Social Justice Commission that should be political. It is every Catholic Christian in this country.
SIDEBAR: WHERE TO FIND OUT MORE
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (www.usccb.org) issues statements that reflect Catholic social teaching as they relates to contemporary political issues. “Faithful Citizenship” is available on that site.
In 42 states or regions of the United States, “Catholic Conferences” are the public policy arms of the area’s Bishops, who speak with a unified voice on public matters that have faith implications. The New York State Catholic Conference, the oldest in the nation, says in its Mission Statement, “The Conference seeks to fulfill … the call of Pope John Paul II … for Catholics to become personally involved in and committed to transforming the public policy process to better serve the needy and vulnerable.”
In most dioceses, the Bishops communicate public policy statements to the media, diocesan offices, schools, and parishes, which pick up the beat on the local and state levels.
One of the most comprehensive single documents relating to Catholic Christian’s responsibilities and rights in the political arena came from the Florida Catholic Conference, which issued its “Political Activity Guidelines for Pastors and Parishes” in July, 2002. Its guidelines were created with the assistance of attorneys for the diocese and the U.S. Catholic Conference, and are available on the internet at www.flacathconf.org The document was issued by “Catholic Online” in November, 2003; it can be accessed there at www.catholic.org
SIDEBAR: HOW TO CONTACT A LAWMAKER
Politicians may ignore emails.
Phone calls should be short, polite, and speak to a single issue; they may be tabulated simply “yea” or “nay” without comment by office staff.
Form cards or letters that are prepared by organizations and stamped and mailed by individuals will probably be trashed.
Letters should be concise, polite, and speak to a single issue.
Some say that even letters that an individual citizen writes on a computer may be suspect in a legislator’s office, since those letters may be part of a computer-generated campaign.
According to a former lobbyist for a midwestern Catholic Conference, the most effective way to communicate with an elected official is to hand-write a letter. The recipient will recognize that this issue is extremely important to the writer.
SIDEBAR: THE SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF CATHOLIC SOCIAL JUSTICE
(from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website, www.usccb.org)
Life and Dignity of the Human Person
The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. Our belief in the sanctity of human life and the inherent dignity of the human person is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching. In our society, human life is under direct attack from abortion and assisted suicide. The value of human life is being threatened by increasing use of the death penalty. We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.
Call to Family, Community, and Participation
The person is not only sacred but also social. How we organize our society in economics and politics, in law and policy directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. The family is the central social institution that must be supported and strengthened, not undermined. We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.
Rights and Responsibilities
The Catholic tradition teaches that human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met. Therefore, every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities to one another, to our families, and to the larger society.
Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.
The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God's creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize and join unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.
We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, wherever they live. We are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. Learning to practice the virtue of solidarity means learning that "loving our neighbor" has global dimensions in an interdependent world.
Care for God's Creation
We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation. Care for the earth is not just an Earth Day slogan, it is a requirement of our faith. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God's creation. This environmental challenge has fundamental moral and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored.