Let's Get Political

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Article Politics
How parishes can successfully navigate this election year and promote faithful citizenship.

The year 2008 was a tough one for preachers. In March a video of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright suggesting that African Americans should sing “God Damn America” rather than “God Bless America” forced Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama to disown his pastor’s remarks. Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain was caught in a similar situation after accepting the endorsement of the Rev. John Hagee, who was later revealed to have suggested that Adolf Hitler had been fulfilling biblical prophecy by hastening the return of Jews to Palestine.

While it’s tempting to think that bringing religion and politics together is only a problem when the views expressed are extreme, that’s not always the case. Just ask Deacon Bob Finan, a soft-spoken man who works at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Denver. Earlier this year, Finan preached a homily in which he addressed the difficult subject of immigration. Finan knew the issue was controversial and his intent was to present the church’s teaching rather than to take a position on specific legislation. Nevertheless, his remarks still created controversy.

“I received an angry letter from a man who told me it was ‘unfair and cowardly’ to raise this issue in a context where he was unable to respond,” says Finan. “He had a very emotional reaction.”

Finan’s decision to preach on immigration didn’t come from out of the blue. His parish has had a longtime commitment to social concerns, from regularly making dozens of sandwiches for a local soup kitchen to providing support for women in crisis pregnancies. What’s been harder, says Finan, is getting parishioners to see the connection between their faith and issues of public policy.

“Our right-to-life committee, for example, always has people interested in donating diapers and formula to women in crisis pregnancies. It’s been harder to get people to take a trip down to the state capitol to talk to legislators about abortion.”

Across the country parishes such as Denver’s St. Vincent de Paul have been broaching controversial topics in an effort to convince Catholics that their faith has something to say about public policy issues, not just about personal choices and charity.

Finan’s parish created a Faithful Citizenship committee, named after the document put out every four years by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The committee identified four issues—immigration, marriage and family, the environment, and abortion—about which they wanted to educate parishioners on the teaching of the church. Using material from the USCCB and the Colorado Catholic Conference, they prepared bulletin inserts on these issues which ran from July through October. The aim was to help parishioners form their consciences as they considered who to vote for in the November elections.

Finan is excited but also a little nervous about this new initiative. “The political arena is very emotional, and we need to be careful,” he says. Finan is inspired by the example of his archbishop, Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., who has spoken forcefully about the need for Catholics to bring their faith into the world, including the political realm.
“It’s great to see people who may have been sitting quietly in the pews get interested in this work and be willing to volunteer their time,” says Finan.

Educating for faithful citizenship

The decision of St. Vincent de Paul to create a Faithful Citizenship committee would no doubt please Joan Rosenhauer. As the associate director of the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development, Rosenhauer is responsible for spreading the word about the bishops’ signature teaching document on the relationship between Catholic faith and political life: Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.

The document, issued in November 2007, is not a traditional voter guide, with detailed information about the position of candidates on various issues. “The bishops want to be clear that this is about forming consciences,” says Rosenhauer. “They are not telling people how to vote.” Rather than focusing on candidates, Faithful Citizenship discusses the principles of Catholic social teaching, noting that “the church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith.”

The bishops have issued a version of Faithful Citizenship in every presidential election year since 1976. While the USCCB has always tried to encourage Catholics to read and reflect on its contents, there seems to be more interest in this election year.

“In 2004 we sold about 90,000 copies in the first four months after the document was issued,” says Rosenhauer. “This year, we sold 750,000 in the first four months, and that number has continued to climb. I think people are more conscious of the relationship between faith and politics, and they want to hear what the bishops have to say.”

Church and state debate

While resources such as Faithful Citizenship are certainly helpful, parishes still face a number of challenges when they try to encourage Catholics to take their faith into the public square. Perhaps the most basic is a widespread belief that faith should not be mixed with politics.

Father Gerry Creedon, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Alexandria, Virginia, has faced this issue in a number of parishes where he has worked. “Several years ago I was at another parish when the community services board decided to establish a group home for the developmentally disabled in a house across the street from the rectory. I was supportive because it seemed like the right thing to do, but many people in the parish were opposed. I had one parishioner tell me that I ought to take off my collar if I wanted to get involved in ‘politics.’ ”

Creedon concedes, however, that there can be legitimate concerns when a pastor seeks to encourage his parishioners to be more politically involved. “When we deal with polarizing issues, we can’t make it about whether you agree with the pastor or not. People don’t want to feel like they are being pushed toward a left-wing or right-wing agenda. If parishioners start to feel that way, then they’ll resist and frankly they should.”

When it comes to engaging in public issues, St. Charles is hardly a one-man show. The parish has had a strong tradition of involvement in public issues going back many years. Its 2,000 registered families are involved in more than 70 groups engaged in both charitable work and social action, including a Latinos Unidos group that has engaged the parish’s growing Latino community on issues such as immigration reform.

St. Charles also makes use of the latest technology to keep parishioners informed, including a website that allows parishioners to receive updates on national, state, and local issues.

St. Charles’ engagement in public issues has often made it a magnet for young people seeking to put their faith into action. Marisa Vertrees began attending St. Charles while she was a graduate student at American University and quickly became involved in the social justice committee. After her graduation in 2005, she was invited to apply for the staff position of social justice coordinator. A career as a lay ecclesial minister “was never really on my radar screen,” says Vertrees, “but it turned out to be my calling.”

Having a parish staff person specifically dedicated to social justice work is important to Creedon. “So many parishes try to have the same person do both charitable and social justice work,” he says. “In my view, that’s not realistic, and it’s a recipe for burnout. A person who spends all day just trying to meet the immediate needs of the poor often doesn’t have the energy to be asking more fundamental questions about why there are so many poor.”

Jon Berry is another 20-something attracted by St. Charles’ efforts to bring faith into the public realm. “Any spirituality worth its salt should take you outside yourself,” he says. “It should lead you to consider the plight of others who are suffering or being trampled upon.”

Berry co-chairs the St. Charles’ Respect Life committee, a position that has led him to wonder whether the parish pays enough attention to pro-life concerns. “We seem to have a tougher time getting people involved, particularly if it involves advocacy on legislation,” says Berry. “People see our work as more controversial than economic justice issues, but that shouldn’t be true in a Catholic parish.”

Hot topics

Berry’s concern highlights one of the major challenges facing parishes committed to social action: managing disagreements among parishioners about which issues should receive the highest priority.

In election years, for example, the parish staff receives numerous requests to distribute voter guides that highlight particular issues. In order to avoid an appearance of bias, Vertrees says, “We only distribute material from the U.S. bishops and the Virginia Catholic Conference.” While the parish’s public forums on issues such as the war in Iraq and immigration have led to vigorous debates, the tone of the discussion has generally remained civil.

In truth, the major challenge faced by parishes like St. Charles is not so much managing disagreements but reaching out beyond the usual core of committed activists. “You tend to see the same faces,” says Vertrees, who notes that the ranks of parish volunteers are populated by 20-somethings, empty-nesters, and retirees. Reaching out to families with children will be one of the social justice committee’s major priorities over the next year.

Despite these challenges St. Charles has found that its commitment to faithful citizenship has strengthened the parish in a number of ways. During recent preparations for its 100th anniversary, the parish surveyed members about their reasons for belonging to the parish. “The No. 1 reason was the sense of community they felt here, but the second reason was the parish’s commitment to peace and justice issues,” says Creedon. “This is part of who we are.”

More than marching

One way of helping parishioners see the link between the gospel and political engagement is to make connections between the ways our Catholic faith affects our lives as individuals, families, and communities, suggests Father Fred Thalen, pastor of Cristo Rey Parish in Lansing, Michigan. “You need to lay the groundwork. You can’t just drop a big issue in everyone’s lap and expect a positive response.”

Thalen is hardly a political quietist. He is a regional coordinator for the Catholic peace organization Pax Christi USA. While his largely Latino parish is generally more sympathetic to the church’s position on immigration, that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to discuss other aspects of Catholic social teaching. Thalen recalls getting negative feedback from a former Marine in his congregation after voicing criticism of the Iraq War.

Nevertheless, Thalen says he generally receives a positive response for his efforts to present the church’s teaching on public issues. “One of the things I try to do is begin with the scriptures and relate it to our personal lives before moving outward into the political realm,” says Thalen. “When we read a passage like ‘blessed are the peacemakers,’ we can first ask how the principle of nonviolence speaks to us as individuals and then how it applies to our family relationships.” Once we’ve done that, says Thalen, we’re in a better position to appreciate how it might apply to relations between communities and nations.

Thalen believes strongly that for Christians, political engagement must flow from a life of prayer. “It’s not just about going out and marching,” he says. In addition to doing advocacy for peace, Cristo Rey Parish also provides opportunities for community members to come together to pray for peace. Every year, for example, the parish holds a prayer service for peace on January 1, which has been celebrated by a number of international organizations—including the Holy See—as the World Day of Peace.

Building this spiritual foundation makes it easier for parishioners to understand the links between their faith and political engagement, says Thalen. “I know a woman who used to be one of the people who said the parish shouldn’t get involved in politics. Over the years, though, she has changed her views and now is one of the leaders of our work around justice for immigrants.”

Ultimately, suggests Thalen, the reason that Christians are interested in political questions is because their commitment to Jesus Christ shapes every aspect of their lives. “If we really believe that, then we have a responsibility to get involved. We have both a right and an obligation to take our values into the public square, just as Jesus challenged the religious and political leaders of his own day.”

This article appeared in the October 2008  issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 73, No. 10, pages 18-22).

Image: Darren Thompson