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

April 17, AD2013 13 Comments

\"Francis

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.

Filed in: Politics • Tags:

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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  • Matt

    Good article. Completely agree with the idea.

    One thing that holds this back is the 501(c)3 laws that prohibit religious organization (Churches, Mosques, Synagouges, etc) from promoting or organizing politically or face losing their tax free status. The 501(c)3 status of Churches seems to me a violation of the 1st amendment which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”, seems to me to be a violation of the second part of that clause “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Its pretty obvious that it violates this since the law itself you can find at irs.gov states:

    All IRC section 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches
    and religious organizations, must abide by certain rules:
    ■ their net earnings may not inure to any private
    shareholder or individual,
    ■ they must not provide a substantial benefit to private
    interests,
    ■ they must not devote a substantial part of their
    activities to attempting to influence legislation,
    ■ they must not participate in, or intervene in, any
    political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to)
    any candidate for public office, and
    ■ the organization’s purposes and activities may not
    be illegal or violate fundamental public policy.

    Most Bishops and parish Priests are very hesitant to take a political stand on certain issues or stear parishioners to certain political causes due to this ridiculus law. If you remember during the 2012 election and the HHS manadate issues, there were many calling for the Church to lose its status over the Bishops rally to oppose the HHS mandate and gay marriage legislation in certain states. If we want to be stroger political movement we face losing our tax exempt status, but maybe that is what we need for us to ‘unleash the tiger’ as you say.

    • ? bill lee

      How come Black Protestant churches have no “problem” with political stands? Would Christ call in the tax lawyers befotr he spoke?

    • Micha Elyi

      Every Sunday another opportunity is missed by bishops and their priests in virtually every diocese and parish to preach the pro-life doctrines of Christ’s Church. And another opportunity to preach the commandments, including the ones that forbid murder, sexual covetousness and coveting thy neighbor’s goods are likewise missed.

      Bishops, do you clearly, publicly and repeatedly preach that Catholics who support the proudly pro-death political candidates and party are in danger of mortal sin? Why not?

      Silence implies consent to Caesar’s seizure of the things of God.

  • Francis

    Matt,

    I know there are some landmines out there- but if say we organize townhall meetings, candidate forums, meet and greets, have clubs promoting young politicians and knowledge of the full social doctrine and so forth- as long as you include all candidates on the ballot, or openly publicize an event so the public and all potential candidates are welcome- as well in the forums you must make sure the questions pertain to relevant political issues and not become a theology examination. There are ways to follow the law and be involved- look at how the civil rights movement took wing, and look at how the Jewish community has organized so well especially on the issue of government support for the state of Israel. Point is that if the authorities come after us- we can rally the troops and expose the many double-standards where you have the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson working a very overt political agenda with no call for the ecclesial communities he frequents being held to the fire by our political authorities.

  • Matt

    Again I agree fully. We should be doing these thing regardless of the political/government fallout. We as the Church are, as you well know, called to evangilze and we must live up to that call regardless of any persecution. Unfortunatley, as the Catholic Church we are much more of a lighting rod. We will and are being targeted much more than a Jesse Jackson type or the Jewish community is for the very thing we are, Christ’s Church.

    However, as you would agree also, we shouldn’t shy away from this persecution and it would perhaps expose the double-standards as you say. Our suffering is what conquers evil in the end, our suffering is our strength and our weapon. And perhaps we acheive the same goal thru suffering and persecution rather than political organization.

    In regards to promoting political candidates and town halls with political topics on parish grounds, all it would take for this to get out of hand from a IRS violation stand point is for one of the two politicals sides to not show up or refuse to show up to the debate or meet and greet and then it would give our persecutors the reason/violation of the law they would need to promote and revoke the Church’s tax exempt status.

    Again, maybe thats what is needed though to unchain us from these silly and ridiculus restricitions. Unfortunely, as you well know also many of our dioscese do not have the funds or income to stay afloat with their current finances, much less with having to pay an income tax on top of their other current expenses. We are already closing parishes across the northeast and midwest dioceses.

    I think organizing politically is necessary, but wont be as effective until we properly catechise Catholics in this country. I will admit I was terribly catechised as a child and young adult and it wasn’t until later in life that I took it upon myself to read the Catechism, Church Fathers, and Papal Encyclicals.

    We could organize but unfortunetly my experience is that most Catholics in our country are so poorly catechised that what may emerge from the political organizing would not be authentically Cathlolic and true to the Magisterium of the Church. We had something like 60% of all Catholics and even 40% of weekly mass attending Catholics vote for a candidate in the last election that is an unapologetic supporter, promoter and funder of unborn child murder and homosexual marriage and who is actively promoting and signing into law an HHS manadate that threatens to close our Catholic hospitals and schools and other charities if we stick to our regilious beliefs and loyal to the Magisterium regarding contrecption, sterilization, and abortion inducing drugs (Humane Vitae). If our Catholic charities refuse to comply, they will be fined $100 per employee per day. Thats an enormous amount if you are a school or hospital with 100-500 employees.

    I’m all for organizing and getting the Catholic viewpoint out there, we need it more than ever now. I just think we need to do a better job catechising too, because what good does it do to organized 75 million American Catholics if most of them vote for policies and legislation that creates and funds evil and persecutes the Church.

  • Francis

    Matt- if you read my previous piece on the problems of promoting an authentic Catholic identity and enthusiastic faith in Catholic schools- you will note that I agree with you. It’s a both/and deal- we need leaders fast who can represent the truth and we need to bring more people around to knowing and living the truth- we can’t ignore either in our democratic-consumer culture. Cultivating leaders and giving them democratic helps can assist the shaping of our culture by their example, their access to making and changing laws, the bully pulpit and so forth- leaders are essential- sometimes things move from top-down, sometimes from down-up- sometimes a bit of each- we need some real deep and quick changes in the direction of our state and culture, I’m open to more suggestions.

  • Micha Elyi

    One of the two incumbent parties is committed to a pro-abortion, anti-life political program that aims to render the poor unto Caesar. (I’ll let you guess which one it is.) The other incumbent party, the Republicans, is far from perfect but it does not work to deliberately silence pro-life voices in its internal party wrangling. And that party does not automatically equate government programs with love of the poor.

    If you were a Democrat party candidate for anything since 1992, Francis, you should have known better.

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  • http://the-american-catholic.com/ Donald R. McClarey

    “The intermarriage of the pro-life movement with the Republican party has not been especially kind to the unborn children.”

    Actually much pro-life legislation has been passed in the states since the Republicans took over a majority of state legislatures in 2010, an advantage they kept in 2012. Additionally, the Democrat party is only slightly more hospitable to pro-lifers than the Nazi party in Germany was to Jews. The idea of some third party that can combine the welfare state economics beloved of the loopier elements within the Church with a firm pro-life stance is an illusion.

  • Francis

    Donald- my primary point in the post is not to make a case against the Republican party per se..if I were to run for public office again I would sign on as a Republican- for now I am an NPA. I agree that at the state level there have been some real scores for the cause of the unborn thanks to Republican leadership. In this post I was thinking mainly at the national level it is evident that the Dem submission to pro-abortion lobbies is greater than the teaming of the national Republican leadership with pro-life organizations. When you look at the Supreme Court justice appointments and you look at the presidential debates- the Republican appointments are all over the map on Life priorities, the Dem appointees are united in death for the unborn. In the national debates and interviews there is hardly any bully pulpit useage that has been characteristic of Republican presidential leaders- the Dems come across as more caring and compassionate in defending abortion rights- that isn’t easy to do given the facts.

    But my goal here is not to just go over the same old ground of how much better the Republican party is- especially if we go into the prudential issue of economics- welfare state/safety nets/social security/family subsidies/financial instrument regulation/fair trade and so forth- let’s not play at being the Magisterium on this for the moment. My post is really about organizing and being effective, grounded in the Focus on the Family issues, Life and Trad Marriage promotion, and how to get real serious candidates who know the Catholic social doctrine and have high regard for the advice and counsel of official Catholic hierarchical sources. I want to focus more on the solutions to our problem of a disorganized church than I want to run over partisan analysis.

  • JD

    Nonprofit organizations are allowed to host political meet and greets, however, they are not allowed by law to promote one candidate. So an event that allows candidates to introduce themselves and where they stand on Catholic social issues is not an issue.

    The major issue that Catholics or Catholic-in-name are not Christians, but rather individuals who show up week after week for a time of reflection and go on ability their business. Therefore, they don’t understand the ability to defend the lifeless or defend the weak.

    There are a lot of young men and women who could be groomed, by strong one-on-one mentoring of senior leadership. Those core leaders, strong in their faith, can provide the wisdom and connections necessary to develop the next generation.