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The Impotence of the Orthodox Catholic Political Movement: A New Strategy of Engagement

April 17, AD2013 13 Comments


One of my most effective lines as a teacher is to ask my students, \”What is the opposite of organized religion?\” The answer, of course, is disorganized religion. I then ask my students, \”If you have a task or a club, what is the first order of business?\” They usually struggle a bit but someone comes up with “choose leaders”. Spot on. So, class, what is wrong with our orthodox Catholic picture of building a true civilization of love in the socio-political sector? I will argue that it is a failure of leadership resulting from an inadequate effort to properly organized ourselves along the principled line that grace builds upon nature. We are not doing our natural best at doing the thing we humans have the intellects and will to do- organize, strategize, build, create, fight, lead and so forth.

If one reads the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the ChurchChapter 2, \”The Church’s Mission And Social Doctrine,\” and you happen to be something of a political animal, you should experience something akin to a bodybuilder feeling the pump of a good workout. We are called to engage, not disengage, even as we are in the world but not of the world. The Church is an “expert in humanity.” (#61)

“Society- and with it, politics, the economy, labor, law, culture- is not simply a secular and worldly reality, and therefore outside or foreign to the message and economy of salvation…Evangelizing the social order, then, means infusing into the human heart the power of meaning and freedom found in the Gospel, in order to promote a society befitting mankind because it befits Christ: it means building a city of man that is more human because it is in greater conformity with the Kingdom of God…With her social doctrine not only does the Church not stray from her mission but she is rigorously faithful to it.” (#62,#63,#64)

There are plenty of Catholics in the ranks of political leadership at every level of our American society, the blessing of the upper mobility of Catholic immigrants from earlier generations. The problem is that with few exceptions these Catholics seem to be more inspired by Margaret Sanger or Ayn Rand than the papal social encyclicals. They trot out the popes when they fit into their party ideology, but then duck and cover when it becomes inconvenient to be reminded that the Church social doctrine is an elusive, but real and inspired thing- hardly conducive to the cheap packaging of mere human ideologies of the left or right, liberal or conservative movements of political activism motivated by the range of human emotions and prejudices of the moment.

I have had the enlightening experience of running for state political office as a Democrat, pro-life, pro-Catholic Bishops’ Conference candidate. I remember how surprised I was talking to a state pro-life organizational leader, a fellow Catholic, and getting grilled on my take on the immigration issue. It seemed that my positions on the life issues, which were head and shoulders above my Republican opponent, just weren’t that compelling to a pro-life organizational leader. Is it any wonder the Democratic Party has been bleeding pro-life candidates?

The intermarriage of the pro-life movement with the Republican party has not been especially kind to the unborn children. We have witnessed too many lukewarm Republican pro-life Presidents, Congressional leaders, and select candidates, who have not prioritized the right to life. The proof is in the pudding. If these leaders really believed that abortion kills innocent American children, excuse me, but 3,000 such innocent Americans are killed every day. Do you get that impression listening to Republican leaders in national debates? National speeches? National interviews with the mainstream media? I don’t.

The priority in American politics revolves around the famous line It’s the economy, stupid. The questions of economy and foreign policy are questions dealing with what we might call prudential issues. The problem is that Catholic politicians and commentators seem to take their own prudential view on such issues and treat them as infallible teachings, ignoring or belittling the Church’s own contributions to the discussion of such things. The result of this shopping cart approach to Catholic social teachings is that the mighty Catholic social doctrine is de-fanged and tamed to fit into an ideologue’s home. As unnatural as witnessing an adult tiger walking around in suburbia on his leash- good kitty indeed! Let’s set that tiger free in his natural habitat shall we?

The lovely Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church recognizes that “the primary responsibility for the pastoral commitment to evangelize social realities falls to the Bishop, assisted by priests, religious men and women, and the laity. With special reference to local realities, the Bishop is responsible for promoting the teaching and diffusion of the Church’s social doctrine, which he should do through appropriate institutions.” (#539) Now we all know the past generation of American bishops were mostly asleep at the wheel, administratively. We have the priest sex scandals, the poor formation of priests and religious (think dissenting Jesuits and Nuns), failure to take point in the fight against the sexual revolution (contraception, divorce, homosexuality), add to the list the decline of serious Catholic identity in the Catholic schools, and the rise of the proud pro-choice Catholic politicians – ugh.

With a new generation of more solid Catholic bishops, I have this humble advice to impart. First, we are a hierarchical Church, we need our bishops to issue some marching orders or everyone is going to just keep marching to the beat of his own drum – left, right, left, right. We need all of our Catholic Bishops’ Conferences to prioritize their efforts appropriately. We need to be steady as a pounding rain on the Life, Marriage, Education fronts to — Focus on the Family — where have I heard that phrase? We need to remember that the Abolitionist and Civil Rights Movements had a front row seat in many churches. It is not a sin, and it is not against the law to organize along the lines of our freedom of speech and our freedom to assemble.

Catholic parishes and schools can legally and easily do the following:

  1. Identify budding political talent and actively groom young Catholic leaders by forming social encyclical and social teaching clubs so they are getting a Catholic worldview and not just more MSNBC v. Fox smoke and mirrors.
  2. I have organized a couple of Congressional Candidate Forums in Catholic schools in which I have taught. They are simple to conduct but typically ignored (I received mostly discouragement within the church and school community). This is ridiculous, candidates are often desperate to get in front of actual audiences and voters, they should have positive encouragement to be aware and concerned about orthodox Catholic perspectives on the major issues. You can put the candidates on the record and on the spot, as long as everything is set up fair and square.
  3. Every parish can provide a vitally important service to their area politicians by holding “Meet and Greet” times for candidates to meet parish members and get the opportunity to speak and get petition ballots signed so the candidate can get on the ballot without having to pay a lot of money. Believe me, in my state this would have been a huge help- but no parish would do it. As long as you don’t exclude any candidate you are being fair and legal, and candidates remember those who gave them an opportunity.
  4. Parishes can easily organize townhall meetings around particular issues, inviting area political leaders and local Catholics to be part of discussion and education on the issue from our Catholic worldview.
  5. Encouraging private Catholic PACS set up to serve common good over purely selfish interests is also important in these days of mega-expensive campaigns.
  6. Finally, I remember telling my state Catholic bishops conference reps that if I was elected they would be in my kitchen cabinet helping educate me to the particulars of how to apply our social doctrine principles to concrete legislation. How many Catholic politicians are so inclined? If the Bishops conference has their priorities right this should be a no-brainer to promote among real Catholic politicians.

These are just a few key strategic ideas to jump start a truly orthodox Catholic political renaissance. Of course, it is more fun and less work to just complain loudly via social media and the blog wars. So, I don’t know, are our bishops ready to really lead? Are Catholic priests ready to go beyond their comfort zone and be part of a new abolitionist plus movement? Are Catholic lay political animals ready to reconsider their loyalty to political parties and pet ideologies? I pray so.

© 2013. Francis. All Rights Reserved.

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About the Author:

I am an adult convert to Catholicism. I take on the name of Francis to honor Pope Francis I, and to acknowledge my place of theological studies. St. Francis is a Saint who inspires so many of us, and in all of my travels, Assisi is one place I felt such incredible peace. I am now a Catholic school educator with a wonderful wife, and adorable children. I am keenly interested in promoting the Social Doctrine of the Church, having some experience on the campaign trail, and some leadership background with a pro-life organization. As an educator who is trying to assist in the reform of Catholic education, I find it necessary to conceal my name so that I can be as honest as possible without jeopardizing my professional career. I am focused on issues relating to family, to education/evangelization, and to political activity with the goal of promoting the universal common good.

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