How about the following planks for a political party platform this November:
1. Health care is a fundamental human right to which every American is entitled.
2. The lack of safe affordable housing is a national crisis and such housing should be available to all on a non-discriminatory basis.
3. The minimum wage should be increased to a living wage (that is, more than doubled), women and minorities are entitled to equal pay for equal work, and workers have an inalienable right to organize and collectively bargain without reprisal.
4. Government should restrict concentration of control in the broadcast, cable and satellite media.
5. The priorities of agriculture policy are food security for all and fair wages and decent housing and working conditions for farm workers.
6. Documented and undocumented immigrants should have access to basic public benefits, such as health care and food stamps.
7. All persons have an inalienable right to a quality education.
8. Discrimination based on sex, race, ethnicity, religion and age constitutes a grave injustice and affirmative action is an appropriate remedy to overcome its continuing effects.
9. The death penalty should be abolished.
10. Environmental protection of land, water and air is a moral obligation.
11. The nation should ratify the treaty to ban anti-personnel land mines and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and curb its scandalous role in the global arms trade.
12. Debt relief should be granted to poor nations.
13. The United States should provide consistent diplomatic and financial support to the United Nations.
14. U.S. foreign and trade policies should be informed by concerted efforts to protect workers, religious liberties and basic human rights.
These planks resonate with the cadence of a liberal Democratic Party, reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. They fit neatly into tenets of Ralph Nader’s Green Party. They are, in fact, almost verbatim excerpts from Faithful Citizenship, a pamphlet issued by the administrative board of the U.S. Catholic bishops and sent to 20,000 parishes to encourage priests, liturgists and parish councils to undertake activities to bring Catholic assets in the public square. [The full text is at: www.nccbuscc.org/faithfulcitizenship/citizenship.htm.]
The Catholic bishops began issuing statements about civic responsibilities of Catholics in late 1975, and since then have done so every four years as a prelude to the national election. But this year’s statement is twice the length of the original one and covers many more issues in greater detail. Stressing that politics is about more than our own pocketbooks or economic interests, the bishops this year raise pointed questions that Americans should ask candidates (and themselves) during the 2000 campaign (for example: What are the responsibilities and limits of free markets in overcoming poverty and injustice?). They explicitly endorse no candidate or party, but rather relate themes of Catholic teaching to public policy issues and remind Catholics that they are called to active and informed citizenship.
The tone and specificity of the positions set forth in this year’s statement will confound the secular liberal media, which routinely equate Catholic doctrine with the positions of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition and the religious right. The bishops will also raise the hackles of those who see little room for any religionespecially the Catholic Churchin matters of public policy. For Catholics who take seriously the call to active and informed citizenship, bringing their commitment to human life and dignity and concern for the poor and vulnerable to public life, this document raises the question, For whom should I vote?
The Abortion Litmus Test
With the platform set out above, how can the national media color the Catholic bishops as conservative right wingers? Because the media tends to rely on only one can of paintthe bishops’ staunchly pro-life positionto distinguish right wing conservatives from liberals and moderates.
The abortion issue has also become a litmus test for both political parties at the national level. While the media spotlight George Bush’s difficulty selecting a pro-choice running mate because of the influence of the Christian right among Republicans, the national Democratic Party and Al Gore establish an even more unforgiving pro-choice litmus test. At the Democratic Convention in 1992, President Bill Clinton and Gore refused to allow the pro-life governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Caseya liberal even by L.B.J.’s measureto speak to the delegates. The Democratic Party excludes from consideration for its national ticket any practicing Catholic (or any other individual, such as former president Jimmy Carter, who opposes use of public funds for abortion) who takes seriously an obligation to support the rights of the unborn to the same protection of life as is provided for those who are born. Al Gore nixed Evan Bayh as a running mate because the otherwise pro-choice Indiana senator voted to ban partial-birth abortion.
In fact, the bishops’ pro-life position is only one stroke on a larger canvas. As their 1998 statement, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, put it, We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem. Thus, Faithful Citizenship makes clear their opposition to the death penalty, assisted suicide, euthanasia and the crushing assaults on life that result in death by starvation and preventable disease for millions of individuals, especially children, around the world. Unfortunately, by placing so much emphasis themselves on the abortion issue, many American bishops have made it their own litmus test and diverted attention from the larger moral context in which they address so many other public policy issues. (By forming The Interfaith Alliance with Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders, the bishops may make clearer the broad range of issues with moral ramifications that are of concern to them and may thus distance themselves from the Christian right.)
Separation of Church and State
In a nation that values the separation of church and statea constitutional treasure most Catholics cherishmany will ask with genuine concern: What business is it of the Catholic hierarchy to issue detailed commentary on so many controversial political and public policy issues? Such questioning will be sharpened for those who examine the packet accompanying Faithful Citizenship, which resembles the sort of campaign manual a high-priced political consultant might assemble, had the bishops hired one to prepare their materials.
There is a planning guide with ideas for pastors, parish council and staff. There are suggestions for liturgists and prayer leaders, including prefaces and general intercessions (for example: For those who serve in elected office, that they may lead with courage and wisdom, reflecting the church’s teaching that the moral test of our society is how the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable are faring, we pray to the Lord...) and music selections (e.g., Free at Last). The kit also contains topics for homilists, quotes to insert in the weekly parish bulletin, ideas for schools and religious education programs, suggestions for family discussion (e.g., a night on social justice issues), tips for conducting non-partisan voter registration drives and candidate forumsand much more.
The material meticulously avoids endorsing any candidate or party, but the breathtaking scope and detail of the suggestions to get Catholics engaged in the moral issues of this campaign are likely to curl the hair of those who hold that any such church activity undermines the First Amendment’s disestablishment clause. Yet to whatever dizzying heights the Supreme Court erects the wall to separate church and state, in this American millennium religion (with the moral values it propounds) and politics at every level are certain to be joined at the hip. The bishops’ statement is a response to the increased involvement of government in matters of morality, the advances in scientific discovery that have left ethicists and lawyers gasping for breath as they try to catch up, and the unique position of the United States as the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world.
The explosion in scientific knowledge and the deep involvement of government in igniting and regulating that explosion cry out for a moral debate. As our scientists wrestle with the will of God, and government becomes the final arbiter of the difference between natural death, suicide and murder and of when life begins and ends, it would be irresponsible for Catholics not to become deeply engaged in the public arena. On the issues of assisted suicide and euthanasia, for example, there is likely to be a decisive difference of opinion between those who believe that one’s life is God’s to give and take and others who believe that my life is my own, in the my body, myself tradition of the Me generation.
Amid our own unprecedented wealth, as the bishops note, a quarter of our pre-school children live in abject poverty. Independently and in collaboration with other industrial and financial powers, one of the ways we increase our wealth is to impose on third world nations levels of debt so burdensome that they cannot feed, provide health care for or educate their own people. We have the capacity to feed the hungry, yet private profit has more influence on our agriculture policy than public responsibility. Our nation has a nuclear arsenal sufficient to flatten the earth, and American arms merchants hawk weapons used in brutal and genocidal conflicts across the globe. Should Catholics leave their moral values on the street when they enter the voting booth to elect those who seek political power to influence such matters? The First Amendment was not designed to tongue-tie American bishops on the moral dimensions of issues such as these.
Catholics by the thousands volunteer to work (many full-time, like the 475 young adults in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps) with the neediest among us. Most parishes have social justice and social concerns committees. They all see firsthand how government programs serve or fail to serve the most vulnerable individuals and what changes may make them more effective. The values and views of these individuals can add a moral dimension to our political debates, as those of Helen Prejean, C.S.J., the author of Dead Man Walking, have helped prick the American conscience about the death penalty.
A Bit of History
In many respects, the relationship between religion and politics has long been intimate. Pope John Paul II made this point in his message to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last February: The American separation of church and state institutions was accompanied from the beginning of your republic by the conviction that strong religious faith and the public expression of religiously informed judgment contribute significantly to the moral health of the body politic.
For most of our history, being Protestant was as much a qualification for the presidency as being 35 years old and born in the United States. It took almost 200 years before John F. Kennedy was able to tear down the No Catholics Need Apply sign above the Oval Office. This year Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is the first Jew on the national ticket of either major party.
Candidates for the nation’s highest office and many of the lower ones have long sought the Catholic vote and the Jewish vote. In search of Catholic votes, George Bush wrote Cardinal John O’Connor, and Al Gore gave Robert Casey’s two sons a few minutes to pay tribute to their father at the Democratic National Convention. Energized by the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, many African-American churches could easily be mistaken during political campaigns for organizations to get out the vote for Democratic candidates. At a celebration of the consecration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in the 1880’s, Honest John Kelly, a founding trustee and patron of the cathedral and the first Irish boss of Tammany Hall, gave one of the toasts. When he proclaimed, God bless the two greatest organizations in the world, the Catholic Church and Tammany Hall, someone shouted, What’s the second one?
Those days are long gone. Today pundits and politicos are confounded as they try to analyze the Catholic vote. Voters among America’s 62 million baptized Catholics can be found not only in both major political parties, but also supporting Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and even Libertarian and far-left and right-fringe candidates. They cross all economic levels and include a burgeoning number of immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
How is the Catholic who supports the positions in Faithful Citizenship to vote?
The Republican platform certainly holds to the bishops’ stand on abortion, but most of the other positions in Faithful Citizenship are well outside the perimeter of the Bush-Cheney big tent of compassionate conservatism. The middle-hugging Democratic Party of Clinton, Gore and Lieberman falls short on many of those positions, and Gore proudly supports even partial-birth abortion. Neither party measures up on the death penalty. Unlike the bishops, both parties pander to our own pocketbooks and selfish economic interests rather than appeal to our sense of justice.
So what’s a Catholic to do?
Make up his or her own mind for whom to vote and, most important, be both informed and engaged. For information without engagement is the stuff of impotence in American politics, and engagement without information is the stuff of demagoguery.