Friday, May 25, 2012

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Keeping Love in the Debate

Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops' call to political responsibility, is a high-profile document. One reason is that it deals with issues that have major ramifications for the lives and well being of people everywhere. Another is that it provides a guide for the intersection of the values of faith and the world of politics, certainly a tall and delicate order. But another reason it draws so much attention is probably the fact that it covers an area--politics--that everyone likes to fight about.

People like having their arguments validated. And what greater validation is there than to be able to say that the bishops--and by extension, God--agree with this political view or that? This gives rise to regarding Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship not as a guiding tool for understanding Church teaching and forming one's conscience by it but like a Catholic Rubik's Cube with a secret code to crack, a code that provides the definitive Catholic ideological view. And from such a vantage point, of course, a person is then free to attack every other ideological view and the people holding them.

And therein lies a problem. Catholics have a duty to be advocates for issues affecting the common good, both at the ballot box and year round. But they also have a duty to carry out this advocacy in a way that's worthy of their faith. This means not giving into the cultural mentality that it's okay to engage in the scorched earth, zero sum game that American politics have become. In Catholic teaching, ends do not justify means.

In a video on civility in public discourse (part of a series of videos promoting Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship), Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington lists "falsehoods, lies, distortions, half-truths" among the sort of things Catholics should not be saying/spreading. He instead challenges Catholics to "speak the truth with love."

In the worlds of cable news, the blogosphere and comment boxes, both parts of this can be a challenge. Even when one manages to find the truth, there's the added challenge of not using it as a license to be a jerk.

Pope John XXIII famously reiterated a guiding principle that has been attributed to St. Augustine and others: "In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity." While the first two items fuel endless debate as to what's essential and what's doubtful, "in all things, charity" trumps the rest. The Christian can never stop loving, even when engaging in intense debate over life-and-death issues. The person who does so risks becoming, in the words of St. Paul, a banging gong or clashing cymbal, something that gets attention by being loud and obnoxious, but ultimately lacks meaning or the ability to connect to people.

When Pope John Paul II canonized Edith Stein in 1998, he recalled that she went so far as to insist, "Do not accept anything as truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth."

As Catholics engage the world of politics in 2012, they should view the truths of the Church from the perspective of love: Catholics care about immigration reform because they love immigrants. Catholics care about threats to human life because they love the unborn, the sick and the elderly. Catholics care about marriage because they love the family. Catholics care about religious freedom and domestic poverty because they love the poor and vulnerable and want to serve them freely. Finally, Catholics care about world peace because they love every person on the planet as part of one big, interconnected family.

The sheer importance of the Church's belief in the dignity of each person is what compels Catholics to take their faith into the public square. It follows then that this belief, essentially "Love thy neighbor," should also be translated into how Catholics treat the people they encounter in the public square, even fellow Catholics, no matter how heated the discussion or sharp the disagreement.

It's a challenge to live up to the standard first mentioned in the Gospels: that the rest of the world would recognize the followers of Jesus by their love.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Temptations and Voting

Nowhere do the issues of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops' call to political responsibility, get more delicate than when the document tackles questions of voting.

In the document, the bishops describe at length a Catholic moral framework that encompasses their priority issues for 2012 -- abortion and threats to human life and dignity, religious freedom concerns, efforts to redefine marriage, immigration reform, international peace, and domestic poverty, unemployment and the economic crisis. They describe the nature of these issues and why each is a concern for the Church, essentially why Catholics should care about them.

But then comes the inevitable question: how should Catholics put the pieces together when they go to vote? On this question, it's best to let the document speak for itself: "The consistent ethic of life provides a moral framework for principled Catholic engagement in political life and, rightly understood, neither treats all issues as morally equivalent nor reduces Catholic teaching to one or two issues."

This prompts the question, "Wait, so Catholics aren't supposed to be single-issue voters?"

The bishops answer this squarely, asserting, "As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate's position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter's support." But then it gets even more interesting: "Yet a candidate's position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support."

Per the possibility of bringing a candidate back from a disqualified state, the bishops say, "There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate's unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons." They state that this is not a flippant matter: "Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preference or to ignore a fundamental moral evil."

Of course a voting Catholic's responsibilities don't end at avoiding evil; they must also do good. As the bishops note, "a voter should not use a candidate's opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues of human life and dignity."

So a candidate who passes the test on big issues doesn't get a free pass on every other moral question. The bishops list "unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those who are suffering from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy" as "serious moral issues that challenge our conscience and require us to act."

The delicate balance of all of these issues is best summarized as what could be called the "Two Temptations" of Faithful Citizenship:

1. To say that all issues are morally equivalent with no ethical distinctions. This simply isn't so, say the bishops. For instance, "The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed."

2. To say that only certain issues matter or, as the bishops phrase it, "the misuse of these necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity."

Suddenly the challenge of the Catholic voter becomes comparable to navigating a speeding car down a slippery road at night without falling into the ditches on both sides of the road, or like the children's board game "Operation," where players use tweezers to remove ailments from a patient without touching the metal sides, setting off a buzzer. This may sound like a daunting task, but it's a responsibility the bishops have entrusted to every U.S. Catholic. Voting may be only one way Catholics can answer the call to live out their faith in the public square, but accepting its challenge is a powerful way to show that they care.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Immigration Reform and a Reasonable Church

It's popular in some circles today to portray the Catholic Church as the opposite of reasonable.

One example: When the Church insists that its charities, hospitals and universities be allowed to carry out their mission without being forced by the government to violate Catholic teaching, it's depicted as attacking women's health care, despite the Church being a strong supporter of health care for all people. Another example: Recent years have seen the rise of more strident, outspoken atheists who, with evangelical fervor and more than a touch of hubris, declare that only their like-minded brethren are freethinkers and that people of any faith are superstitious children at best and hate-filled bigots at worst. Their favorite buzzword: reason.

Of course Pope Benedict XVI and others have long maintained that no conflict or competition exists between faith and reason, that the two in fact work together harmoniously as people engage the world around them. A great example of this is the position the U.S. bishops take on immigration reform, one of six priority issues raised in their reissued document on political responsibility, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.

When the bishops speak out on immigration, it's not the shrill rhetoric of partisan politics or ideology. It's not even a dense and lofty theological pronouncement. Instead, it's the calm, educated advice of people who understand an issue, care about it and want to see it resolved for the benefit of everyone involved. It's the pairing of values rooted in faith with arguments rooted in logic and common sense. It's humanitarian, and it's reasonable on numerous levels.

For instance...

When a country is saddled with immigration policies that have resulted in 12 million people living under the radar, it's reasonable to say, "Everyone recognizes the system is broken; let's move forward and replace this broken system with something that works so that everyone can benefit." Hence the bishops' calls for comprehensive immigration reform. Conversely, the approach of digging in further with the same enforcement-only approach that has been used for the last two decades is an example of repeating the same practice and expecting different results. It's also reasonable to recognize that one simply cannot deport 12 million people, with the costs, economic disruptions and logistical difficulties making it beyond impractical.

It's reasonable to question practices like raiding workplaces, separating families and holding people in prolonged detention as a proportionate response to non-violent offenders whose only offenses were motivated by need and, to be blunt about it, family values. It's reasonable to recognize that a tension can exist between two important values--in this case, the right of a country to secure and guard its borders and the right of people to emigrate to seek a livelihood for themselves and their families--and realize that a creative accommodation can alleviate that tension, whether that means increasing the number of visas given annually to meet demand or removing roadblocks to naturalization for young people who had no choice in coming.

It's reasonable to want to understand and address the underlying causes that drive illegal immigration. When people risk their lives and leave their families to come to a foreign land, the humane and logical response is to find out what forces compelled them to do such a risky, oftentimes desperate thing. The answer is usually some combination of systemic poverty, economic instability and political or religious persecution, issues the United States can work to alleviate in collaboration with its neighbors.

This is a humanitarian challenge for the United States, but it's also an opportunity and even a gift. It's reasonable to look to the historical context, to the tremendous energy and productivity infused in American culture by every subsequent wave of immigrants (most of which occurred under very different immigration laws, rendering moot the popular "well my ancestors came here legally" argument).

And so it's reasonable not only to know one's history, but to know oneself, especially as a politically-engaged Catholic. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently noted, "We are a church of immigrants, so we're particularly sensitive to the rights of immigrants." This should compel Catholics to approach the challenges of immigration reform not punitively, but as people of compassion, faith and reason.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Catholics Care. Catholics Vote: Untangling the International Knot

Sometimes it's just best to go to an expert.

Whether it's a burst water pipe, an unresponsive computer, or the challenges of international peace and stability, some problems just require special expertise. For instance, that third example, as the U.S. bishops describe it, involves "war, terror and violence, which raise serious moral questions on the use of force and its human and moral costs in a dangerous world, particularly the absence of justice, security and peace in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East."

The bishops list these concerns as one of six issue areas in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship that Catholics should be concerned about as they prepare for political engagement. The problem with this particular area is that it's so messy and tangled with politics, history, culture and the ever-changing realities on the 6 o'clock news that, for many Catholics, the issue is first to understand the issues before they can care about them. Fortunately for the Church, it has experts who can help all Catholics engage.

Stephen Colecchi, director of International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has traveled extensively, written articles and parish resources and was recognized by Pope John Paul II for his work. Colecchi recognizes that the international concerns of the bishops are broad, but their practical focus is to take a very Catholic approach of helping "the least of these," and advocating for life-serving, poverty-focused international assistance.

"Pope Benedict said in his 2009 World Day of Peace Message that to fight poverty is to build peace," says Colecchi. "Effective international assistance not only saves and supports the lives of millions of vulnerable people around the world, it also expresses our values as a nation and is a requirement of being a global leader."

Colecchi notes that such international assistance benefits Americans too.

"It improves global security and stability and contributes to our own security," he says. "Contrary to popular misconceptions, poverty-focused international assistance accounts for less than 1 percent of the federal budget, and careless cuts will cost lives and not make a significant impact on the important goal of reducing deficits. In many poor countries, the Catholic Church and faith-based organizations partner with the U.S. government to deliver assistance. The Church is trusted by local people and has an extensive presence in many developing countries."

Colecchi also sees war as closely related to issues of poverty and international aid.

"War and violence take innocent lives and increase poverty," he explains. "In a sense, war is human development in reverse. It destroys lives and livelihoods and often drives people from their homes and into deeper poverty. For example, millions of persons are displaced by conflicts in Sudan, Iraq and Colombia. As Catholics, we are called to be peacemakers. We can and should urge our government to work for peace and to assist displaced persons and refugees."

In terms of the Middle East specifically, Colecchi says the Catholic Church, under the Vatican's leadership, has worked for decades toward peace in the Holy Land and that the bishops have urged strong U.S. leadership for a two-state solution with a secure and recognized Israel living in peace alongside a viable and independent Palestinian state. This, of course, comes with some requirements.

"Peaceful societies are built on respect for human rights and religious freedom," says Colecchi, "but in many countries religious minorities are discriminated against and even persecuted."

As Catholics try to incorporate all of these issues into their political engagement, Colecchi says there are a few key questions that can shed some light. "For example, does a candidate see poverty-focused international assistance as an investment in saving lives and making our world and nation safer? Does the candidate value working for peace and only using force as a last resort in keeping with just war teaching?  Will he or she promote religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy? Does the candidate value partnerships with faith-based organizations, and will he or she support conscience clauses and other provisions that allow such partnerships?" In short, "Will the candidate support policies and programs that protect human life and dignity?"

With these guidelines, all Catholics can be empowered to take action on international issues, at election time and all year round.