Should Catholics Participate in the Political Order?

by Rev. Peter Sammon

             In the Catholic tradition, citizenship is a virtue, participation in the political process is an obligation. We are not a sect fleeing the world but a community of faith called to renew the earth." This statement from a Call to Political Responsibility, challenges a ‘heaven is all that matters’ theology that encourages Christians to passivity. We are called to be the Body of Christ active in the world, building God’s kingdom of justice and peace on this earth.

Two factors in particular motivate us to active citizenship. First of all, we have a set of gospel values entrusted to us by Jesus to help us build his Kingdom here on earth; a world where justice. truth and love prevail. These values are given to us not for ourselves but for all of God’s family.

Secondly, contrary to a popular myth our votes do count. Not to vote is to surrender our influence over the world around us. The 104th Congress has brought about immense changes in social policy. Many people are genuinely concerned about the negative import of this legislation on the poor and on immigrants. It was those elected to the House in the 1994 election that made this possible. The outcome of an election often depends on a small majority of voters. For example, the popular image of the November 1994 election was that of a landslide for Republicans. Actually if only 18,000 voters in the entire U.S. had supported Democrats instead of Republicans the House would have remained Democratic.

Another example was in the San Francisco November 1994 election. Two Supervisorial candidates campaigned to get the top vote, which would make one of them the chairperson of the Board of Supervisors, a powerful and influential position in the city. The 2 candidates each gathered over 106,000 votes. The leading candidate won by only 374 votes. A change of only one vote in each of the 550 precincts in San Francisco would have elected a different chairperson.

Popular Misconception--The Catholic political horizon is clouded by a number of misconceptions and half-truths. Some of these are: The Church should not be involved in politics. My vote doesn’t matter. Are we imitating the religious right and their attempt to dominate the political scene? Is political activity a violation of the separation of church and state? The Bishops in their document provide clear answers to these objections.

Our Values - A Gift to Society--By our participation in the political order we bring to society the gift of our values. These values are not merely part of our religious tradition. They are profound truths. People cannot dismiss them as narrow sectarian beliefs. They highlight the core of values of a democratic society. The dignity of the individual, the right to organize and the common good should be among the building blocks of our political order. The fact that these values are rooted in our Christian tradition, in Scripture and in our Catholic social teaching, does not lessen but rather increases their value for society.

Our Goal--We seek to be "a community of conscience" in a society testing public life on the central values of our tradition. This does not include a campaign to tell people how to vote. Rather we invite people to use their God-given gifts to make conscientious judgments in the political order.

The process of forming a Christian conscience is all-important. God gives us an intellect to make judgments, religious human values through which we can judge the world and the ability to act. The three steps in this process are the ones outlined by St. Thomas as part of the virtue of good judgment, namely prudence. They are:

(1) To Observe: To become intelligently informed on political issues (a difficult task in these times when millions of dollars are spent in the media to mislead us).

(2) To Judge: To put on the eye-glasses that we call Biblical values and to view the world through this perspective. What does God want? What would Jesus do? What serves the common good? These are some of the prudent questions we pose.

(3) To Act: To vote and to influence the political process in the ways available to us. We can arrive at a truly conscientious judgment by following this process. In this way we become a "community of conscience" able to influence the larger society by this value-based approach.

Neither Partisan nor Sectarian--The challenge for the church is to be privileged without being ideological, to be political without being partisan, to be civil without being soft, to be involved without being used. Our call to political responsibility is neither a partisan nor a sectarian appeal, according to our Bishops.

Issues not Candidates: The Church is not allowed by law to take political positions. We often hear this claim from uninformed individuals, some members of the church.

Fact: The government places no legal block in the way of Churches endorsing issues. Moreover, in the Catholic tradition such participation in the political process is an obligation.

What Do We Contribute?  As a Catholic community enriched by a century-long tradition of Catholic social teaching we bring two valuable assets to the political order. The first is a consistent set of principles. Our religious teaching provides a moral framework that can guide policy choices. We bring our values into public conversation about the common good in order to counteract the influence of the pollsters or the hired political consultant with a bag of media tricks. Our principles are found in Catholic social teaching. "We stand with the unborn and the undocumented when many politicians seem to be abandoning them. We defend children in the womb and on welfare."

Secondly. the Church brings to the dialogue broad experience in serving those in need. We educate the young, care for the sick, shelter the homeless and reach out to the needy, the refugee and the elderly. Caring has been our business. We bring to the public debate our valuable everyday experience.

Pope John Paul’s Challenge--The Pope’s visit to the U.S. in 1995 was a call to us to genuine political responsibility and to give public witness to our care for our neighbor. Upon his arrival he said, "It is vital for the human family that ... Americans keep compassion, generosity and concern for others at the very heart of its efforts." Later he asked, "Are present day Americans becoming less sensitive, less caring toward the poor, the weak, the stranger, the needy?" Our answer must be no!

These were the sentiments reflected by the Bishops and Catholic groups who lobbied against much of the welfare and anti-immigrant legislation before the 104th Congress.

A Call To Action--The Bishops have issued a clear call to specific actions. "We encourage parishes, dioceses, schools and other Catholic institutions to encourage active participation by voters’ registration and voter education efforts that are genuinely non-partisan." A number of parishes in San Francisco and San Mateo counties who are members of the Bay Area Organizing Committee have responded to this call to active citizenship by setting up parishes precinct visiting projects. The goal was to encourage occasional voters to turn out for the November election. Teams visited both parishioners and neighbors in the parish boundaries to distribute non-partisan educational materials, e.g., League of Women Voters information on state and local propositions and to encourage people to turn out on election day. This project provided the opportunity for parishioners to develop new relationships with other members of the parish community, especially more recent members. In this way it also became another means of evangelization for each parish.

Our Task--For us as Catholics citizenship is a virtue, participation in the political process is an obligation. To those who would deny us the right to bring our deepest religious values into the political debate, we quote the words of Pope John Paul II at Baltimore in Fall 1995, "Can the biblical wisdom that played such a formative part in the very founding of your country be excluded from that debate? Would not doing so mean that tens of millions of Americans could not offer their deepest convictions to the formation of public policy?"

Fr. Peter Sammon is the Pastor of St. Teresa Parish, San Francisco. All quotations are from Political Responsibility,, September 1995, a statement adopted by the Administrative Board of the U.S.Catholic Conference, applying the principles of Catholic social teaching to the election process. Biblical foundation and suggested reading, Exodus 22:20-26, Wisdom 1:1-16, & Wisdom 2.

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