By David C. Aguillard, CCDBR Executive Director
April 27, 2012
 
Thirty-three percent vs -0.44 percent.  These numbers have nothing to do with the CATS election last week.  These numbers have everything to do with the CATS election.  They are the rate of growth of the Catholic Church in Africa (where it is growing faster than any place else) and decline for the Church in the U.S.  
 
When I visited Africa with Catholic Relief Services last year (Africa Pics & Travel Blog), I was envious.  I saw a Church deeply intertwined in transforming its communities.  It works across political boundaries with people of all faiths -- Muslims, other Christians, and traditional religions.    It teaches farming techniques, builds schools … and more.  The Church in Africa is challenging political, social and economic institutions to change.  It is helping to secure the rights of women and greater participation of all in economic and political processes.
 
These activities of the Church are not without controversy in Africa.  
 
Over the past several weeks here in Baton Rouge, we too have experienced controversy that followed Catholic Charities’ support for the CATS tax and the active participation in the election by several Catholic parishes who joined TogetherBR, which is partially funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.  (At the direction of the U.S. Bishops, CCHD has funded community organizing and was recognized by Pope John Paul II for embodying our Gospel Mission)
 
Responses have fallen into three categories:  Some welcome and support the positions taken by Catholic Charities and TogetherBR.  Some have opposed the positions but are glad to hear a Catholic voice in civic matters.  Others are deeply skeptical and have raised valid questions.  They are understandably concerned that our agency’s advocacy for transit and Catholic parishes’ membership in TogetherBR may be divisive.
 
Catholic Charities has taken these concerns seriously and spent weeks looking into the question of whether TogetherBR undermines Catholic teaching.  We found nothing that demonstrates TogetherBR’s activities violate Catholic teaching or CCHD guidelines as established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  If we do, we will take appropriate action as we always have when finding local CCHD-funded agencies noncompliant.
 
Although new in Baton Rouge, organizations such as TogetherBR have Catholic roots and origins and enjoyed longstanding positive relationships with other Catholics both here in Louisiana and around our country.   They have a strong foundation in the principles of American democracy, and working with Catholics, these organizations have made significant improvements in the lives of the poor and their communities as a whole:
 
 
While Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge is not a member of TogetherBR, we respect the decisions of both those who choose to join and those who choose other expressions of their faith.  Both are valid.   Catholic Charities came to its position in favor of the CATS tax independently of TogetherBR.
 
Catholics engaging in civic matters is consistent with centuries of Catholic tradition and teaching.  As Pope Benedict XVI has written, our faith should do more than shape our personal relationships, it should propel us into a distinctly Catholic participation in the social, economic and political activities of our communities.  “We must not remain on the sidelines,” he wrote in his first encyclical.  
 
Each of us experiences God’s grace in a unique manner.  Each of us chooses an individual response.  For some that may mean becoming a Eucharistic minister.  Others may volunteer at a homeless shelter.  Some may choose community activism and seek to change unjust laws that allow killing our unborn children and inequalities that restrict opportunity for other vulnerable populations.   Some may devote themselves to pray for social change.  All are legitimate Catholic responses.
 
For some, bringing a Catholic voice into the public sector may seem to violate our American understanding of separation of church and state.  That however, is a different matter in that it prohibits the state from endorsing or otherwise establishing a specific religious doctrine.  Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. and archbishop of Philadelphia, writes that separation of church and state does not mean we dismiss our faith when making political decisions.  Our nation’s traditions, in fact, are founded on the opposite.  
 
For Catholics especially, writes Chaput, “politics – the pursuit of justice and the common good – is part of the history of salvation.”  Starting with Israel, God instructed nations to embody His love.  Archbishop Chaput cautions us not to give in to interests seeking to silence our Catholic voice; that doing such harms both our community and our Church.  Catholics becoming civically active can be controversial anywhere, but perhaps more so in our culture which is increasingly at odds with Catholic values of life, justice and our preferential option for the poor.
 
Can Catholic engagement in Baton Rouge civic matters be divisive?  Only if we let it.  We should all prayerfully respect that within the Catholic Church there is room for organizations such as TogetherBR and not create false divisions (see page 2).   St. Paul told the Ephesians that Christ’s grace calls us to different ministries.  As St. Teresa of Avila discovered, the Lord leads us down different roads, but within each of us He dwells deeply -- and uniquely – in a personal “Castle.”  There are enough problems confronting our community in which we as Catholics – either through prayer, the sacraments, serving others individually or organizing – can find common ground to strive for our common good. 
 
The Catholic Church in Africa may have something to teach us.   It indicates a vibrant, engaged and multifaceted Church is energetic and growing, changing its community … and the Church itself.
 
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
St. Teresa of Avila
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