No. 1 -- Catholics and Culture

By David C. Aguillard, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge

Christ did not say, “Follow me, and win the Presidency!  Believe in me and control Congress!”In politics everyone wants God on their side. It’s an understandable urge as ancient as the Divine Right of Kings.   In lieu of a divinity amidst our political leaders, we Catholics substitute Catholic Social Teaching. And that’s where the difficulty begins.

Just as Jesus encountered hostility when bringing His word into the cities of Israel, Catholic Social Teaching seems to be greeted likewise, even among and between Catholics.   With the recent emphasis by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asking Catholics to analyze public issues through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching, this body of Catholic thought has become a weapon of politics.  

Even we Catholics, at times, use it to beat up each other.  Those we disagree with need evangelization, catechesis or – as I sometimes find myself thinking -- a deeper knowledge of Catholic Social Teaching.  Rather than seek common ground, it’s easier to say views different from our own are less than our own and judge their faithfulness accordingly.

To take this route is to fall prey to the influences of our political and social culture rather than our Gospel calling and Catholic Social Teaching which instructs us to seek solidarity and cooperation and thus discover that which unites us rather than divides us.   

But other forces push in a different direction.  Chris Hughes -- co-founder of Facebook who recently acquired the New Republic to give it a makeover for the iPad age -- commented, our “social environments…reward more extreme opinions.”  Outlandish comments “move;” they are e-mailed, posted on FB pages, re-tweeted.  Web hits go up, and revenue follows.  Marketplace pitches displace principled reasoning.

Could the Obama campaign have raised over $1 billion with a message: “Mr. Romney is a good man, a moderate Republican of solid Christian virtue whose track record in public office and support of gun control and universal health care are actually similar to my own views.  Both of us are capable leaders with a few minor differences.”  

No.  In our political culture, one side says the other side is engaged in a war on women while that side yells back, Socialist!  That’s the purpose of political speech, to divide constituencies and build coalitions.  Unfortunately, fear is chosen as the method, because, well … in politics it works.  Party strength correlates to the intensity with which its members perceive irreconcilable differences with others.

Bringing our faith into the political realm does not mean we copy the methods of that world, that we let it corrupt us.  Rather we should infuse it with our principles of compassion, charity, love, and respect for each other’s informed faithful choices.  Catholic Social teachings are complex, at times seemingly contradictory, but not mutually exclusive.  For example, Catholic Social Teaching calls for both a higher minimum wage and defends the benefits of free enterprise.  These positions, however, cross lines in the partisan battlefield.

Discussing the complexity of the moral issues involved in these political matters, however, takes more than a Sham-WOW-like discussion.  Politics and morality make a volatile conversational mix.  Layering religion and Catholic Social Teaching onto these can bring that volatility to its ignition point.  But only if we choose.

Although founded on various levels of church authority, at its core Catholic Social Teaching is an inspired, consistent body of thought that Catholics should celebrate and share.  Nothing else like it exists.

Regardless of one’s political positions, we Catholics should be clear about our principles and accepting of how we live -- and vote -- our genuinely Catholic differences because salvation does not come from the state.  Christ did not say, “Follow me, and win the Presidency!  Believe in me and control Congress!”   

I am quite sure that some will disagree with an inclusive approach.  They will say it is too timid; that success is indeed measured in votes and dollars and drawing sharp boundaries between faithful Catholics. But that choice (and it is a choice) exacerbates the judgmental intolerance of our times.  The purpose of Catholic Social Teaching is not to pre-determine a partisan outcome, but to inform a reasoned discussion.  It calls us to actively participate in salvation history by working to create a more just and peaceful world in which we share the richness of God’s creation and our individual giftedness.

And so, the purpose of Lions and Lambs will be to explore local, national and Catholic issues for the purpose of highlighting those aspects of our Catholic tradition that we share … hopefully to stand in contrast to the culture of our time which profits when we fear an enemy around every corner.

2/25/13

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