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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2008

Political Responsibility Shapes the Culture

by Mary Jo Anderson

The American culture continues to run amok. Abortion, pornography, same-sex unions, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and cloning are causes that enjoy a powerful lobby in Washington. Starlets and sports heroes make impassioned pleas for anti-life causes under the guise of compassion and tolerance. Professors and pundits justify these same positions with visions of social harmony once said policies are adopted. Each election cycle features promises for a renewed America. And, each election cycle we hear yet again of the “Catholic vote”.

Some invoke this term as though it might be an antidote for the cultural morass. Others see it as a threat to a “separation of church and state”. Most understand this term to mean that as a large block, approximately 25% of registered voters, Catholics could determine the next president and the character of the Senate and House of Representatives. It follows that the so-called Catholic vote would also influence the appointment of new Supreme Court Justices, albeit indirectly. It’s an enormous reality: Catholics have the power to change the shape and direction of the nation and its culture.

Why, then, are we a nation that has institutionalized abortion and is now poised to re-define marriage in order to accommodate same-sex pairs? Here most mentally reply, “because Catholics are not a unified voting block”, or “because too many Catholics disagree with crucial Church teachings”. True, and these points will be examined below.

But the larger point may simply be that, of those faithful Catholics who do support Church teachings, most decline to serve in the Culture War. Somehow, many practicing Catholics do not understand that it is their obligation to engage the culture. This obligation is outlined in Christifideles laici, The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World (1988). The wording is muscular: “A new state of affairs today both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful. If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present time renders it even more so. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle”. (CL 3)

A recent statement by the American bishops stresses this same imperative, “The Church’s obligation to participate in the moral shaping of society is a requirement of our faith.” (Forming Consciences for Political Responsibility, November 2007)

It is not permissible to remain idle

It is not permissible for anyone — laity or clergy — to remain idle. The times are urgent. Christifideles laici singles out social and political life. If this phrase, “it is not permissible for anyone to remain idle”, were preached from pulpits, Catholics would have to ask themselves, “Do I lack commitment to Christ’s Kingdom? What am I doing to convert the culture, right now, today?”

Those questions can be turned around, too. “How has the nation suffered because of my personal lack of commitment, because I have not raised my own voice, done my part?” It is uncomfortable to take inventory of one’s actual commitment to “work in the Lord’s vineyard”. From Christifideles laici: “The gospel parable sets before our eyes the Lord’s vast vineyard and the multitude of persons, both women and men, who are called and sent forth by Him to labor in it. The vineyard is the whole world (cf. Mt 13:38), which is to be transformed according to the plan of God in view of the final coming of the Kingdom of God.” (CL 1) God has placed in our hands a tremendous mission, to “‘seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God.’” (CL 9)

Pope John Paul II often spoke of that mission. He exhorted the young at the World Youth Day gatherings to prepare themselves to engage the culture and redeem the errors of the recent past by their own efforts to convert the culture. Most engagingly, the young people were advised to share their joy in being Christians. A call to conversion always includes a joy-filled vision of a better path to human fulfillment. This vision begins in our own lives since the laity, in their “kingly dignity” (CL 14) are to contribute to the Kingdom, that is, to have an effect on the world in the arena where their particular vocation lies — the world of art, commerce, education, industry, law, medicine and politics.

Some earnest Catholics examine their efforts and honestly regret that they have taken no active part in shaping their communities. But they also point out that they do not understand precisely what their own contribution to conversion of the culture might be. Yet, if each person is called, then each has a role to play. Many Catholics expect that only grand gestures or influential persons will have any impact. The better image is of a cultural mosaic where each small piece contributes its own beautiful significance. Here are some examples from the lives of “average” Catholics who did what they could where they stood on a given day.

A local franchise of a nationwide delivery company dispatched a driver to pick up and transport “bio-hazard” wastes from a clinic. The driver arrives to find that the “clinic” is an abortion facility and the “wastes” are the remains of aborted infants. The driver calls the company dispatcher to explain that it is a matter of personal conscience, and that he cannot assist in the commission of what he believes to be the violation of human life.

A housewife and mother wheels her grocery cart to the checkout counter where her eight-year-old son gapes at the lurid images on tabloids positioned along the checkout lane. She takes the time to speak to the manager of the store. This mother agrees that the store has a right to sell magazines and newspapers of whatever sort. But, she suggests, wholesome magazines could be displayed along the lane where captive customers must pass and the less family oriented materials could be placed on higher shelves on the magazine aisle, “Aren’t most of your customers families?” The manager nods, noting that he had not even thought about the situation before she brought it to his attention. A few weeks after the changes were made, this wise lady sent the manager a thank-you note. She understood how often a good change goes unappreciated. This mother shared her experience with women in her parish, who then used a similar approach with other grocery and convenience stores.

An auto mechanic was alarmed to learn from neighbors that the books to be used in his son’s first grade class included a story about a child having no father, but “two mothers”. The mechanic frequently serviced the cars of a member of the local school board. This father overcame his hesitation about “disturbing” school board personnel and gave his customer a call. The school board member had not even seen or heard of the text in question. The policy was for texts to be reviewed by a teacher’s committee. The school board member brought the book and the policy before the rest of the board. The book was discarded and a board member was placed on the teacher’s review committee for new texts.

In the accounts above the culture-shaping action began with a simple refusal to go along with what one knows to be a moral evil. These actions required no sweeping public effort, no organized protest (though there is surely room for that!), and no special expertise. In each case the Catholic member of the community expressed a gentle resistance to policies or events that damage the good of the whole community. And, most crucially, each of these examples raised the awareness of other citizens about matters of “community standards”.

When baptized people of God stop and recall that, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27; cf. Eph 4:22-24; Col 3:9-10) they also know that they represent Christ to their communities. If we have “put on Christ” can we stand silently aside and permit anti-life factions to enslave our communities in a dominion of lies?

Communities reflect those who participate

How often Catholics assume that once a pernicious policy is adopted that somewhere some expert or authority has decreed it to be necessary. There is an expectation that unless some official, some ordinance or even a law, mandates the questionable policy, that such policies would not be imposed on the community at large.

The reality is that many such policies are trial balloons — if no one objects, then the communal acquiescence is taken as permission to push even further. Even where resistance does touch on laws — abortion is legal — to make known your unwillingness to participate in an injustice is to alert companies and officials that this unjust law offends you at the core. Laws are changed when significant numbers of people refuse to cooperate with the law.

This is the precise situation we have immediately before us regarding the legalization of same-sex unions. No Catholic is permitted to vote for an unjust law: “Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.” (Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons 5, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2003)

Are we expected by faith to resort to civil disobedience? Where there is no other option, and where cooperation with the law is to cooperate with a grave evil, yes, we are. For example, here is the Church’s directive on the matter of resisting same-sex unions even where they have already been legalized:

In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection. (“Considerations...”, emphasis added)

Where Catholics meekly accept the injustices of a toxic culture, they can expect to be persecuted by that culture. Already there are cases in Canada of ministers who were fined for their public opposition to same-sex unions.

A community reflects the people who participate in that community. Look around your own city and note which groups are the activists. Who seeks seats on community boards? Who attends city council meetings making their demands? Note how influential a small number of vocal people can be. The erroneous idea is that a community mirrors the virtues and values of those who live there. Not so. It mirrors those who participate. One of the marvels of our democratic system is that citizens are free to participate in the process of building the culture around them. Americans are blessed to enjoy such freedom as outlined in Christifideles laici, “ … the right to participation in public and political life; the right to freedom of conscience and the practice of religion.” Catholics who seek out opportunities to serve their communities contribute their vision of the proper order for a just society. Their vision is based on scripture and the teachings of the Church.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver has just published a new book, Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life. In it, the archbishop speaks plainly:

The Church claims no right to dominate the secular realm. But she has every right — in fact an obligation — to engage secular authority and to challenge those wielding it to live the demands of justice. In this sense, the Catholic Church cannot stay, has never stayed, and never will stay “out of politics.” Politics involves the exercise of power. The use of power has moral content and human consequences. And the well-being and destiny of the human person is very much the concern, and the special competence, of the Christian community. (pp. 217-218, emphasis added)

We must constantly remind ourselves that the Church includes both the laity and the ordained. Many Catholics assume that the bishops will confront the hard issues that face the nation, and speak for all of us. Too often lay people want to appropriate the functions of the clergy, not realizing that their own lay vocation is in some sense more urgent. After all, laity can go where few bishops can. The doctor confronts the hospital board over abusive living wills. The teacher challenges disordered books. The businessman rejects insurance policies that cover abortions for employees. The museum patron asks the director to refuse blasphemous “art”. Bishops and priests equip the laity, but it is the laity who face battles each day in the very spot where God has placed them in His vineyard.

Where community standards begin to reflect truly just and human values, more Christians answer a call to public office. These fledgling candidates come from among us. They perceive that there is a base of support among the citizens whose views they can honestly represent. (Hilaire Belloc, when he first stood for Parliament in 1905, was advised never to mention his Catholic religion. But Belloc, at his first meeting, held up his Rosary and announced his Catholic faith. He was elected.)

No more “politics as usual”

Once the lay vocation is properly understood in terms of its effect on the culture, the American political landscape will respond. But this is the case only where Catholics reject a politics-as-usual mentality. This election cycle is crucial. Each office, including local races, is important. Local political positions are the stepping-stones for the senatorial and gubernatorial races four and eight years from today. Committed Catholics must support pro-life, pro-family candidates at the local and state level so that the pool of good candidates for national races is increased.

The key issues of life and human dignity, of marriage and family will take one fork — or another — on the road to our shared American future. No committed Catholic can remain idle. All Catholic voters have both the privilege and the obligation to participate beyond pulling a lever for the best candidates. Well before election day we have a role to play. Often, that role is to inform and evangelize other Catholics on the defining issues of this election.

The Catholic voter is too important to be ignored by any candidate for national office. For this reason every candidate will seek to demonstrate his or her worthiness on some Catholic issue or another. It is confusing, since each candidate insists his position on issues fulfills some Catholic imperative. It is little wonder that many Catholics have been persuaded that they may support any candidate without injury to their Catholic faithfulness.

To add to the confusion, prominent Catholic politicians who support abortion, cloning and same-sex unions claim to be faithful, some seen receiving Communion despite their clear support for anti-life legislation. This leads some well-meaning Catholic voters to assume that politics and faith should not mix. How do we explain this confusion caused by public Catholics?

For clarity we again have recourse to Christifideles laici: “…they forget God or simply retain Him without meaning in their lives, or outrightly reject Him and begin to adore various ‘idols’ of the contemporary world.” (CL 4) This is clearly the case with many putative Catholic politicians and public figures. They place more importance on the idols of contemporary politics, yet retain the outward form of faith. The document continues, “The present-day phenomenon of secularism is truly serious not simply as regards the individual, but in some ways as regards whole communities … the phenomenon of de-Christianization which strikes long-standing Christian people and which continually calls for a re-evangelization”.

In short, our task is this re-evangelization of our own people.

Still there will be some who cannot accept what they deem an intrusion of religious belief into politics. But if we remove “religious” and insert “Marxist” belief, is that acceptable? Is fervent Marxism any less compelling for its adherents than Christianity is for its followers? What about avowed secularists or atheists? If these beliefs are permitted in the public square but religious belief is not, can this be truly democratic? Is it truly tolerant?

When the arguments against religion in the public square are turned around, confusion among Catholics often clears, though habits of attitude or partisan loyalties may remain entrenched. Why is this?

Archbishop Chaput observed in his book an “… erosion of Catholic identity; and at the wholesale assimilation — absorption might be a better word — of Catholics by American culture”. (p. 184) Simply stated, some Catholics choose to subordinate their Catholic identity to their American identity. This too is idolatry. When this idolatry is openly named, some will be stunned and rethink their choice. The valuable service that re-evangelization offers is to call Catholics back to their primary identity as, first and foremost, a Child of God. (“He who is not with me is against me”). Good Catholics make very good citizens.

Fuel for the Journey

A family attends a movie theater. One of the children wants to see a movie that is not appropriate for family viewing. The parents attempt to quietly persuade the child, but without success. The willful child yells “it’s my turn to choose!” and threatens to cause a scene. The father reminds the youngster that as a community, their family must choose what is best for the whole group. A public tantrum begins, so the parents concede to preserve the appearance of a harmonious family. The movie is not only without merit, but is also harmful, yet for the sake of peace in the family the parents capitulate. This is the same format for much of the modern engagement of people of faith with contemporary politics. A small vociferous group threatens public harmony with demands for the “right” to do evil. Too many Catholic Americans retreat from confrontation with the excuse, “Well, perhaps it is their turn, what harm will it do?”

This is a false argument. But for some it is too socially uncomfortable to point out the damage caused by policies and legislation that harm the common good. The harm is to both the community and to the baptized person who abdicates his “kingly dignity” and prophetic mission as taught in Christifideles laici, “the lay faithful are given the ability and responsibility to accept the gospel in faith and to proclaim it in word and deed, without hesitating to courageously identify and denounce evil”. (CL 14)

At the top of the list of evils we must denounce are the life issues: abortion and legalized same-sex unions, as well as the fast-advancing movement for euthanasia (“terminal sedation”). Why are these the defining issues in a discussion of the common good? Why not a “living wage” or the environment or war? Some are convinced that no one issue can trump another: “Okay, natural marriage is most important to you, but a living wage is most important to me and each of us can vote for the candidate that best addresses the issues we care about most”.

How well this stance illustrates what Pope Benedict XVI named the “dictatorship of relativism”. We Catholics must discuss political issues among ourselves. Look for encounters at work, in the neighborhood, after Mass — perhaps organize a parish discussion. The hope is to tap into the well-intentioned, if poorly informed, faith of fellow Catholics. We ought to seek opportunities to call attention to the temptation to relativism, that is, to jumble all issues together as if none was more urgent than another.

All issues touching political responsibility are not equal. There is a principle for discerning how to evaluate which public concerns have grave weight and must guide our choices as voters — in short, there is a “hierarchy of values”. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York noted that Catholics have the duty to discern “between moral evil”, and “matters of prudential judgment”. A moral evil is something that is always objectively evil, such as abortion, euthanasia, homosexual acts and human cloning. There are never extenuating circumstances that justify these acts.

Other matters of serious concern such as health care, war, and fair wages are matters of “prudential judgment”. These objectives are open to various methods to achieve their fruition. Americans agree that health care is urgent yet still differ on the means to accomplish the goal of affordable care. We agree that peace and security is the right objective, but people of good will may legitimately differ on when military force can be employed. However, the same cannot be said of abortion or human cloning or homosexual acts. There are no methods or means that can make these acts legitimate.

There are some Catholics who propose a different approach to discerning right or wrong in the political arena. Here the supreme goal is personal autonomy, personal choice. Hence the phrase, “I would never have an abortion but I respect the right of others to self-determination and the right to choose.” They imagine this is a noble higher ground, similar to “I don’t agree with what you say, but I defend your right to free speech.” The difficulty here is that it is an attempt to elevate the right to express an opinion to the right to act on the opinion. This can never be sanctioned.

We are free to express our ideas but there are limits on how we may act, regardless of our opinion about the act. Far from a noble respect for others, this “personal choice” approach to morality is, in truth, dehumanizing precisely because some absolute evil against humanity must be accepted in order to preserve the lesser good of a “right to choose”.

Christifideles laici addresses this point, “It has been said that ours is the time of ‘humanism’: paradoxically, some of its atheistic and secularistic forms arrive at a point where the human person is diminished and annihilated; other forms of humanism, instead, exalt the individual in such a manner that these forms become a veritable and real idolatry”. (CL 5)

Catholic Americans are on a shared missionary journey. We are here, at this moment in time, to spread “[the] Kingdom in history”. (CL 14) It startles one to think that that our very history may be different because we accepted our mission as priestly people to redeem our segment of history. The road to our common American future is brighter if we take to heart the exhortation in Christifideles laici, “It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.”

What is the fuel, the energy for the lay mission to shape the culture? Holiness. “According to the biblical image of the vineyard, the lay faithful, together with all the other members of the Church, are branches engrafted to Christ the true vine, and from Him derive their life and fruitfulness”. (CL 9) This life we live, as branches of a holy vine, is to be a “sign and instrument of holiness.... Men and women saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult circumstances in the Church’s history”. (CL 16)

Mary Jo Anderson, a member of the Voices editorial board, writes on the United Nations and family issues for WorldNet Daily and other publications. Her commentaries have appeared on radio and television, including Vatican Radio. She has addressed members of the Czech Parliament on women and family issues in emerging democracies. Mary Jo is co-author with Dr. Robin Bernhoft of Male and Female He Created Them: Some Questions and Answers on Marriage and Same-sex Unions, published by Catholic Answers, San Diego. Visit her blog, Properly scared, at:

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