Monday, October 30, 2006

Making Political Decisions, or, "Making Political Speeches"?

With the election coming up, I felt it incumbent on me as a pastor to offer some guidance to my parishioners on how the teaching of the Church should guide our political thinking and decsion-making. The USCCB statement "Faithful Citizenship" while having some good points, is hoplessly general and bears all the hallmarks of a document written by a committee, which seems to have taken as it's motto "Whatever We Do, We Can't Say Anything That Might Upset Someone".

Now, I recognized that doing so in my parish would be a delicate matter: My predecessor (I've only been here a little more than a year) eschewed engagement in current issues and controversies to the extent that he would not even allow a pro-life organization to operate openly in the parish, fearing that to do so would be "too divisive." (I have remedied that situation since coming here.) So I knew I'd have to approach this subject diplomatically.

I decided to offer Bishop Thomas Olmsted's excellent booklet Catholics In the Public Square to my parishioners as guidance in how to think about political issues as a Catholic. Bishop Olmsted's booklet does a very good job of presenting Church teaching, and the hierarchy of issues that confront us, faithfully yet in a non-partisan way.

I introduced it by making the following remarks at the end of Sunday Masses:

Making Political Decisions

As I have said before, we are all called to be missionaries in the world, commissioned to sanctify the world around us. That means we need to bring our faith in Christ to bear on every aspect of our lives: our relationships, our moral decisions, our business dealings, and, yes, even our political lives. We have an election coming up in a couple of weeks, so it is important to remember that part of our call to sanctify the world, and make Christ the Lord of all, is to make our political order reflect and uphold the teaching and values of the gospel. And so the Church gives us principles and guidance to follow as we debate and discern our political decisions.

Now sometimes people will say, "Why can't the Church just stay out of politics?" Well, there's a sense in which that kind of thinking is right: For example, clergy and religious brothers and sisters are not supposed to be involved in political activism or hold political office. And, certainly, the church doesn't and won't tell you "vote for this or that candidate", or, "vote for this or that party."

But there's a sense in which the wish "Why doesn't the Church stay out of politics?", is wrong: As I have said before, to be a disciple is to give ourselves to Christ completely. There's no holding back part of our lives if you want to be a disciple. So a Catholic politician or citizen can't say "My life as a Catholic is over here, and my politics is over there." That's like saying "I'll be a disciple in this, this, and this, but sorry Jesus, I'm not going to be a disciple in that." That would be morally dishonest. That's false discipleship.

So the Church, while not telling us who to vote for, does give us principles on which we are called to base our politics. These are principles like "Every human being is created in God's image and likeness and has intrinsic dignity and value." And these principles have an impact on how we may rightly make political decisions. Sometimes the impact isn't immediately clear on some issue, and the Church doesn't hold out a definitive teaching. In these areas Catholics may legitimately disagree: For example, right now a debate is going on about immigration reform. Catholics can, and do, take a range of positions on this issue and still be faithful. But there are some other issues which are clear, and on which the Church has given a definitive binding teaching. For example, the Church teaches us that abortion is always wrong, and there are never any circumstances which justify the intentional killing of an unborn child. On this issue, it is not possible to take a position or support a politician that opposes this teaching, and still be a faithful Catholic.

So we need to think about, weigh, and pray over these and other principles and issues in order to participate in our political life as faithful Catholics. In order to help you do that, Bishop Thomas Olmsted, the bishop of Phoenix, Arizona, has written a booklet called "Catholics In The Public Square" which outlines the principles we should use in deciding which candidates and legislation to support. It's not about telling you "vote for candidate A or B", it's about helping us to think about politics as faithful Catholics and good citizens. Copies of this booklet will distributed by the ushers after Mass, free of charge. I encourage you to take a copy of it, to read it and pray over your voting decisions, so that we can be true disciples in every aspect of our lives, and so build up the Kingdom.

I'd like to report that all of my parishioners received these remarks in the spirit of pastoral guidance with which they were intended. And I imagine that they were taken that way by most of my parishioners. But some people didn't take it that way, and complained. One man took me to task for "making political speeches". I'll have to post one or two of those conversations later...