‘It's not just politics. It's about their faith and it's about others’
Despite all the headlines lately, concern over the contraceptive mandate and the related issue of religious freedom is not the only thing on the minds of the U.S. bishops.
This being an election year, the bishops' Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development has undertaken an intensive effort to bring the quadrennial document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" to as many Catholics as possible.
The bishops want people in the pews to better understand their political responsibility not just at the polls come November but also as they consider any number of social issues locally or nationally on any given day.
The department's staff has established a website -- www.faithfulcitizenship.org -- with numerous resources, prayer guides, teaching tools and school activities in English and Spanish.
The document was discussed during the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in the nation's capital Feb. 12-15 as much if not more than the religious liberty implications of the controversial rules governing the implementation of health care reform. The gathering's theme --- "Faithful Citizenship: Protecting Human Life and Dignity, Promoting the Common Good" --- reflected the focus of daily programs.
"Faithful Citizenship" traditionally has been released a year before a presidential election as a teaching document on the role of faith and conscience in political life. This time around the bishops reissued their 2007 document but added a new introductory note explaining that the document reflects their teaching and their guidance for Catholics as they exercise their rights and duties under American democracy.
Many social ministers were eager to engage Catholics in their parishes back home with the document. They carried with them new ideas and helpful tips from strategy sessions on the gathering's final day. Above all, they said they wanted to make the document better known in their diocese.
Opening the gathering, John Carr, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, told the 450 attendees the document is rooted in the church's social and moral teaching and is meant to help Catholics discern their response to important political issues.
"What 'Faithful Citizenship' does is give us different questions to ask," he said in his 45-minute address. “It's not are you better off than you were four years ago? (It's) are we better off? Are the unborn protected? Are the poor left to die? Is religious freedom protected? It's questions of life and death and war and peace. It's not just the economy, stupid, even in this moment of economic distress. It's about who moves ahead and who gets left behind.
"What 'Faithful Citizenship' does is ask us to look at politics from the bottom up. How do policies, how do these leaders, how do these choices affect the people with no voice: unborn children, immigrants who have no hope, the poorest people on earth who have no place at the Senate Finance Committee and those who are left behind in this economy?"
How do policies, how do these leaders, how do these choices affect the people with no voice: unborn children, immigrants who have no hope, the poorest people on earth who have no place at the Senate Finance Committee and those who are left behind in this economy?
Carr challenged Catholic Republican and Democrat leaders to embrace the full realm of Catholic teaching on the issues confronting the country if they truly identified with the church.
He also cautioned the delegates to be aware of attempts by individuals across the political spectrum to use the document to support their own views or to disavow it altogether for giving Catholics too much leeway in forming their conscience.
Carr's comments resonated throughout the gathering as delegates began considering how to carry the document to the pews. Several delegates told CNS they felt it was vitally important for Catholics to present a unified voice and to debate issues peacefully.
"I'd like to see it go where there's less antagonism, where people can find the common good," said Jack Knapp, a leader of the JustFaith program at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Coal Valley, Ill. "To me a vehicle like this so people can recognize the common good is a good thing."
In California, dioceses already have begun raising awareness about the November election by joining a statewide campaign to place initiatives on the ballot that would end the death penalty and require parental or guardian notification when a minor seeks an abortion.
Linda Batton, director of social ministries in the Diocese of San Jose, said parishes were set to conclude signature drives on both measures in parishes the weekend of Feb. 18-19. The effort also offered diocesan social action offices the opportunity to begin planning how to bring "Faithful Citizenship" to parishioners, she said.
"We have to see ourselves as bridge builders," Batton told Catholic News Service. "I think our role in the works we do in ministry is to be carriers of hope in the middle of a devastating situation with the economy, people losing their homes, people being so overburdened with their own problems that it's hard for them to see beyond their needs."
For Debi Haug, director of community life and outreach at St. Joseph Parish in South Bend, Ind., Carr's message hit home. The key, she said, is getting the message of "Faithful Citizenship" into people's hands.
"What John Carr said, it's not just to be a faithful citizen at election time. We're supposed to be a faithful citizen throughout our life," she said.
"By really understanding that they are supposed to be a faithful citizen, that it's not just politics. It's about their faith and it's about others and it's about the poor and it's about having a voice for the other," she said.
The document already is forming the basis of a stronger advocacy push by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, said Sheila K. Gilbert, the organization's national president.
"We have an absolute commitment to ending poverty," she said. The organization is looking to tap the stories of the poor people that local parish councils serve to help mainstream Catholics understand "there are policies, there are procedures, and there are laws that are really holding people in poverty," she explained.