When we think about politics and the parish, we generally think about policy advocacy - for example, the pre-election-year statements of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, like Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility(October 2003), or letter-writing campaigns conducted by parish social justice committees. Or, at more surreal moments in my own diocese, a young priest leaving a note on the windshield of an elderly parishioner asking whether it is appropriate for a daily communicant to display on her car a bumper sticker for a Democratic candidate. From this perspective, political engagement in the parish must be approached with nuance and caution. Churches must avoid direct partisan advocacy in elections and must be careful to respect the rights, wisdom and prudence of their diverse members to make political decisions.
Such caution, however, can quickly slide into the social convention of polite society that considers direct and specific talk about politics and religion to be impolite and polarizing. Certainly there is much to be said for the church’s mission to unite and to welcome all members of a politically diverse society. Such unity is, however, always in danger of being achieved at the cost of ignoring the difficult demands of the Gospel.
Catholicism hopes for more, and the parish is a potentially vital political space where much more can happen. Here the gathered church proclaims and celebrates the kingdom of God and feels the tension between God’s kingdom and the present world. The tension is not simply between the Christian community and the outside world; it appears within the parish itself when prejudice, privilege and policy divide the body of Christ into haves and have- nots. In many parishes, these dividing forces become personal, as members from a range of backgrounds are gathered together and get to know one another.
The response of my own parish, Our Lady, Queen of Peace in Arlington, Va., to last year’s round of tax cuts illustrates these other dimensions of the political potential of a local parish. In August, more than 80 families gathered together to reallocate all or a portion of their Child Tax Credit checks - the early refunds that many families received from the federal government last August. They contributed more than $15,000 to charities (more than twice the average Sunday collection for the parish) as part of a campaign protesting a tax cut package that they considered to be profoundly biased in favor of the wealthy. This bias was most apparent in Congress’s refusal to increase the refundability of the credit, which would help families who earn too little to use it to reduce their taxes. Such an increase is scheduled to take place in 2005. The refund checks were the result of Congress accelerating the middle-class portions of other changes originally scheduled for 2005. Accelerating the changes that would help the working poor would have added only $3.5 billion to a gargantuan $550 billion tax cut package. Some parishioners signed over their entire refund; others chose the symbolic amount of one-fourth of their refundthe amount by which their checks would have been reduced if the refund were extended to the 12 million children of the working poor who had been left out. The bulk of the reallocation was given to Catholic Charities; some members signed over their checks to parish families who had not received any refund.
While this was a laudable action by families at a parish known for its social activism, the motivation and setting of the action make it particularly worth examining. Certainly the action was motivated by the Gospel and Catholic social teaching. The view of the human person implicit in the tax cuts is profoundly at odds with the Catholic emphasis on responsibility for the common good and the preferential option for the poor. The philosophy underlying the tax cuts is that in a world of scarce resources, each family is on its own. The order of charity, which Aquinas presented as a gradation of responsibility, is reduced to a fortress around the vulnerable nuclear family in its single-family home. Outside this protective wall, responsibility ends. It’s your money, seems to be the message. These ethical and theological problems can seem rather abstract when one is handed a check for $800. What’s the harm? The deficit is out of sight anyhow, and middle-class entitlements are being bankrupted. Why not plunk the money into the kids’ college savings fund?
Here the parish setting made a difference. Like many parishes, Queen of Peace is economically diverse. Such parishes are among the few social institutions where the upper middle class, the working poor and recent immigrants share equal rights and responsibilities. The injustice of the tax cuts was manifest in this community as many of the families who needed help the most received nothing, while the relatively secure received a windfall. The theologian Robert Cabié notes in his 1986 book The Eucharist that the early church had to do a certain violence to the Roman social order in order to constitute a eucharistic community. The tax rebates challenged our parish’s attempts to be a eucharistic community. They threatened to give the lie to laudable multicultural liturgies and other attempts to unite the various groups that constitute the parish. Within the context of the parish, in the face of parishioners left out, abstract policies became concrete, and many responded by saying no to a political order that shortchanged their poorer brothers and sisters.
At a time when politics are becoming increasingly a consumerist affair, when voters are separated into niche markets and targeted with narrowly crafted policy appeals, the parish can be a place in which politics can be re-grounded. Beyond providing preaching and information to parishioners about their responsibilities, it provides a nonpartisan space for evaluating policies, for facing their real benefits and costs in the face of those they help and harm. In the parish, people are spurred to political action, not only by religious and ethical doctrines, but also because they belong to a particular community and become more aware of their obligations to their brothers and sisters in Christ. The parish setting also provides an opportunity for people to join together as a community of belief in a united response. One of the most emotional responses the campaign received was from a woman who was overjoyed at the opportunity to connect her religious convictions with political action in her religious community.
In the consumer-oriented political order of the present day, we are trained to think of politics in terms of individual choice. But only when people join together does political change occur. The parish may be a good place to start.